The Curse of Blind Optimism

by Glen

optimismRecently our city’s mayor, in giving his annual address, made an interesting request of a large part of London’s population: “Keep your negativity on the sideline … give good news a chance.” This is becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish in a community with frustratingly high unemployment and a deeply divided political council.

Alas, such advice is increasingly received as the plaintive gesture of an ineffective political order. It is all the more remarkable considering the city’s desire to hear from average citizens about the kind of city they want. In a community struggling to find a future one can hardly expect input to be merely roses – especially with a kind of political leadership experiencing difficulty working through its own divisions.

We are slowly coming to the end of the entitled political order – one which historically asked citizens to have confidence in their elites which would result in benefits for all. Given democracy’s recent record, it is growing harder to suspend our disbelief much longer.

Even at the World Economic Forum in Davos,, Switzerland, significant space has had to be created for the concept of civil society and its importance to future of democracy, human rights and prosperity.  Nicholas Davies, Head of Constituents and Strategic Initiatives for the Forum, observed:

The experiences of the last two years have demonstrated that inequality and social and political inclusion are once again powerful drivers of protest, while the mobile revolution has transformed the way citizens interact with business, government and international organizations. Some governments have responded with new mechanism for engaging civil society actors, while others have put in place new restrictions intended to stifle them.

One of those “new restrictions” might very well be the desire to either be positive or stay on the sidelines. And it’s not just political leaders that play this game; increasingly, civil society leaders attempt to promote enthusiasm even as they know well enough that government policies undermine much of what they seek, This “finger in the dike” approach can hardly bring us to a new future for our communities.

A new report was unveiled at Davos titled The Future Role of Civil Society that calls on citizens and groups to be enablers but also to become “constructive challengers” of the prevailing system, “to create social resilience while driving agendas forward, engaging with business and government in ways that enable it to effectively inspire and support innovative change at multiple levels.”

At the foundation of all this desire for change that we hear consistently around the world is the admission that the narrative is not actually being written by citizens and their communities but by massive power structures that tell us to be happy with what we have. We are subtly led to act as though happiness is based upon what we purchase. We are reminded that our communities must now get by with less because of the limitation of resources. Perhaps worst of all, it is expected that we will accept the prevailing wisdom that professional marketeers and financial analysts know the way ahead – as citizens, we just aren’t smart enough.

Really? We have citizens that bring up their children in respect everyday, despite the obstacles. We have small businesses that successfully cast off the failing corporate ethos of the day to benefit their communities, hire workers, and, yes, make a profit in the process. We have an untold number of citizens who volunteer at libraries, social agencies, schools, intersections, and hospitals who never expect a cent. Our communities possess citizens that expend their adult lives caring for the desperate overseas and at home. There are people who life-long learn, who take on new languages, who raise their game in the senior years to enhance their respective communities. Don’t let the experts tell us that they hold exclusive knowledge in how to perform politics, run an economy, or deal with limitations. All of these things mentioned above average citizens undertake each and every day in an on-the-ground fashion that the self-proclaimed experts can never visualize or purchase.

But where is the acknowledgement of this citizen power, this social capital residing in our communities? It runs silent through our neighborhoods and remains hidden behind official agendas. You can’t buy it or elect it – it just is and forms the nexus of all that is yet to come in community development. But at present it strains to escape the bonds of exile. It cringes when informed it should play the game or remain silent on the sidelines.

A new life is emerging in our communities, our countries. It strikes the note of common cause, common policy, a common calling. It is slowly gaining traction in places like Davos or Newark, New Jersey, but has yet to break through the bubble created by experts and professionals.

The new reality is neither blind nor naive. It is wise in the ways of living even if it doesn’t comprehend everything about the Consumer Price Index or political marketing. It is tired of being told to stay positive when our biggest challenges remain unaddressed and grows increasingly resentful of being patronized by elitists. We require neither politicians telling us to behave or civil society leaders asking that we be optimistic. We need to challenge the systems as they are and stop hiding behind positive euphemisms. Enough with the platitudes already.