The world is mostly divided into two main psychological types: optimists and pessimists.
The optimists are led by Pollyanna Whittier (from the Pollyanna books), inventor of the ‘Glad Game’ – which consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation.
One Christmas, when all she wanted was a doll from the missionary barrel, she found only a pair of crutches: so her father just smiled and told her to be glad that she ‘didn’t need to use them.’ When given a bare, unfurnished room she took satisfaction from the view from the window. When forced to eat bread and milk instead of dinner she rejoiced in the fact that she really did enjoy bread and milk.
It’s the same sort of sunny disposition you’ll find in The Railway Children and Little Women where, irrespective of what life throws at them, the kids bounce around with the manic enthusiasm of a Tigger. And let’s not forget Mr Micawber: ‘Welcome poverty. Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest and beggary. Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end.’
The patron saint of the Pollyanna army is, of course, mop-haired, freckled-faced orphan Annie:
When I’m stuck in a day
I just stick out my chin
The sun’ll come out
So ya gotta hang on
Come what may
I love ya Tomorrow!
Yep, pessimists are the sort of people who live by the fortune cookie mantra that if life gives you lemons then make lemonade: seemingly unaware that a diet of lemonade will result in type 2 diabetes and the loss of most of your toes!
Ranged against the Pollyanna army of shiny-faced optimists are the grim-faced battalions led by Scrooge, Eeyore, Victor Meldrew and the town-crier of Pompeii.
Yet, as Helen Keller noted, ‘no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.’ Although, countering that, Mike Kelly argues that ‘a pessimist is an optimist in possession of all the facts.’ It’s not that pessimists want things to go wrong; they just acknowledge that, more often than not, things do go wrong. It doesn’t make them better or worse people than the optimists.
Somewhere in between the two sits a category known as realists. William Ward was broadly right when he said that ‘the pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.’
Personally, I define myself as a ‘happy pessimist.’ I expect things to go wrong: indeed, I factor it into most of what I write and think. Consequently, I am rarely disappointed: and rarely surprised. I don’t bang my head against a wall when a talks process breaks down or the latest initiative collapses. And that’s because that’s precisely what I expect to happen.
If, on the other hand, my expectations are confounded and everyone and everything comes up smelling of roses then I’m delighted. I’m delighted to be able to raise my hands and say, usually with a broad grin on my face (although nowhere as broad and inane as Annie’s grin) that ‘I got that wrong, didn’t I?’
It strikes me that the real battle in Northern Ireland is not between unionists and republicans at all. It’s actually between the Pollyannas (found in political parties, voters and non-voters) and the Eeyores (also found in the same places).
It’s a battle between the competing war cries of ‘it’s better than it used to be and getting better’ and ‘face the truth, this place is never going to change.’
It’s a battle between the half-full glass and the half empty one (not forgetting those who don’t even see the glass); a battle between ‘compromise’ and ‘surrender’; a battle between definitions and competing narratives; a battle between those who want to go ‘one more step for peace’ and those who want to take a step back towards their comfort zone; a battle between ‘shared space’ and ‘our space’; a battle between ‘reconciliation’ and ‘ourselves alone’; a battle between the old mantras and the prose required for a post-conflict society.
At the heart of all of these battles is the battle between the optimist and pessimist: and it looks like the pessimist is winning hands down.
The pessimist dominates the debate at every level because the pessimist has so much evidence on his side. So much bad news and lack of progress he can point towards.
Meanwhile, to paraphrase Ian MacPherson, the optimist tends to ‘drop his voice to a peace and reconciliation whisper.’
It’s hard not to, I suppose, when increasing numbers of people are choosing to avoid the ballot box, while those that still vote are voting for the same old parties of polarization and cemented thinking.
The centre ground in Northern Ireland is dominated by two parties which encourage carve-up and sectarian self-interest.
If there is to be change in Northern Ireland then the optimists need to up their game.
They can’t continue to hide in fancy-pants groups and cross-community organisations filled with like-minded people.
They can’t continue to trot out the tired old response that ‘oh, there’s lots going on in the background that most people don’t know about.’ Most people don’t know about it because most people aren’t involved.
They can’t continue to have turquoise tea and scones on the moral high-ground while the rest of the world continues to promote its own us-and-them political/electoral/social/educational franchises.
Put bluntly, those who really do believe that it’s better than it used to be (and I don’t include those politicians who use the mantra as an escape clause when anyone ever criticizes them) need to bring the battle to the media, civic society, non-voters and to the very heart of what passes for government here.
They need to get together if they want to build a Northern Ireland liberated from the dead weight of its past. The more they huddle at the fringes, the more they ignore the ballot box, the more they opt out of political involvement – then the more likely it is that the pessimists will be proved right.
Optimism has to mean the hell of a lot more than hoping for the best: otherwise you end up in a world where you wait for a thousand monkeys with a thousand computers to somehow produce a manuscript to rival Shakespeare or the King James Bible.
A mute, motionless optimist is the revolutionary equivalent of a eunuch.
Some observers (and yes, Professor John Brewer, I’m looking at you) complain about the relentless negativity of ‘conflict journalism’ here.
Why are they surprised by the existence of that sort of journalism and punditry? Conflict, crisis, riot, protest, bickering, veto, lobbed bricks and roared insults are what I see and hear on a daily basis.
Give me 20,000 people in front of Belfast City Hall demanding ‘something new, something better’ and I’ll write about it.
Give me school after school converting to genuine integrated status and I’ll write about it.
Give me the emergence of new parties and lobby groups and I’ll write about it.
But don’t blame me for writing about what I see.
Don’t blame me for continuing polarization and division.
Don’t blame me for the fact that the self-serving, self-interested Sinn Fein and DUP now dominate the political/electoral landscape.
Don’t blame me because people don’t vote.
Don’t blame me when poll after poll confirms that increasing numbers of people have no confidence in the Assembly or Executive.
Don’t blame me that so many people really do believe that ‘this place will never change.’
The copper-bottomed, unambiguous, unembarrassed optimists in Northern Ireland have to fight this fight for themselves.
They need to do more than dream the impossible dream.
They really do need to ‘run where the brave dare not go.’
So, where are they are? Where are the Pollyannas and Annies and Don Quixotes? Where are the mad as hell people who ‘aren’t going to take this anymore’?
Where is Northern Ireland’s silent majority? Where are all those ordinary, everyday people who supposedly long for a new era Northern Ireland?
Come on now: come out, come out, wherever you are.
As ever, I don’t really expect Pollyanna’s rhetoric to be matched with the on-the-street, properly orchestrated revolution required to bring the change the optimists desire. But, if a few hundred pessimistic protestors from one side or another can create so much disruption, then just image the game-changing, society-changing, political-changing effect of tens of thousands of Pollyannas on the march and at the ballot boxes.
If that’s what you want – get on with it. And, believe me, I’ll be one of the first people to write about it.
(You can follow Alex. Kane on Twitter by clicking here)