Pessimist, Optimist, or Just Mist? - George Herriman, Michael Tisserand, Joe Abittan

Pessimist, Optimist, or Just Mist?

In his biography of George Herriman, author Michael Tisserand included numerous comics from Herriman to demonstrate his artistic skill, wit, and general approach to comics. One of the book’s chapters started with the written words from one of Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics from April 23, 1921, and stood out to me:
 
 
Ignatz: Now, “Krazy,” do you look upon the future as a pessimist, or an optimist?
Krazy: I look upon it just as mist–”
 
 
I really enjoyed this line of dialogue when I first read it in Tisserand’s book, and still get a chuckle as I read it now. It is a witty pun, an accurate reflection of our predicament with looking toward the future, and feels entirely fresh 100 years after it was written.
 
 
I feel like I notice false dichotomies everywhere. It is easy to see the world in black or white and tempting to live in a world defined with dichotomies. They make our lives easier by slotting things into neat categories and helping us reduce the amount of thinking we have to do. Unfortunately, living a life that accepts false dichotomies is dangerous and deluded.
 
 
The false dichotomy that the comic pulls apart is the false dichotomy of pessimism versus optimism. If pressed, probably all of us could say we were more of an optimist or pessimist, but it is probably not very accurate to really define ourselves as one way or the other. At any given time we may be more or less optimistic or pessimistic on any number of factors and our views for any of them could change at any moment. We may also be deeply pessimistic about one important area, but very optimistic in another area with no clear reconciliation between those two optimistic and pessimistic feelings. For example, you could be very optimistic about the direction of the economy, but pessimistic about the long-term sustainability of current economic practices given climate change. It is hard to pin yourself as either pessimistic or optimistic overall regarding the economy in this situation.
 
 
Some of us may try to avoid this false dichotomy with a trite response that we are neither an optimist or pessimist, but a realist (or nihilist or other -ist). This dodge acknowledges that the distinction between optimist and pessimist isn’t necessarily real, but fails to provide a legitimate alternative. Is there any exclusionary factor between a realist and an optimist or pessimist? A nihilist might be optimistic that society is going to collapse, even if they feel pessimistic about what will happen to them. My suspicion is that people who call themselves realists simply want to avoid looking like they are optimistic or pessimistic without merit, and as if they base their optimism or pessimism off data and not vague feelings.
 
 
I think that Krazy in the comic is addressing the dichotomy in the most reasonable way possible, by acknowledging the difficulties of predicting the future and accepting that he is overwhelmed with the mist. His answer rejects the false dichotomy of optimism and pessimism and embraces the conflicting factors that might make us happy or sad, financially well off or ruined, or lead to any number of potential outcomes. Rather than trying to hold positive or negative views regarding our futures, the best thing to do is admit that we don’t really know what will happen, but to try to place ourselves in a position where we can have the best outcomes no matter what takes place, even if all we see is mist.
Social learning and risk aversion

Social Learning and Risk Aversion

In his book Risk Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer looks at risk aversion in the context of social learning and presents interesting ideas and results from studies of risk aversion and fear. He writes, “In risk research people are sometimes divided into two kinds of personalities: risk seeking and risk averse. But it is misleading to generalize a person as one or the other. … Social learning is the reason why people aren’t generally risk seeking or risk averse. They tend to fear whatever their peers fear, resulting in a patchwork of risks taken and avoided.”

 

I agree with Gigerenzer and I find it is normally helpful to look beyond standard dichotomies. We often categorize things into binaries as the example of risk averse or risk seeking demonstrates. The reality, I believe, is that far more things are situational and exist within spectrums. In general for most of our behaviors that we may want to categorize with a dichotomy, I would argue that we are often much more self-interested than we would like to admit and often driven by our present context to a greater extent than we normally realize. People are not good or evil, honest or dishonest, or even hardworking or lazy. People adjust to the needs of the moment, fitting what they believe is in their best interest at a given time with influence from a great deal of social determinants. Social learning and risk aversion helps us see that dichotomies often don’t stand up, and it reveals something interesting about who we are as individuals within a larger society.

 

People have a patchwork of things they fear and a patchwork of risks they are willing to accept. On the whole, we generally won’t accept a bet unless the payoff is twice the potential gamble (there is an expected value calculation we can do that I don’t want to dive into). However, we are not always rational and calculating in the risks and gambles we take. We are much more likely to die in a car crash than an airplane crash, yet few of have any hesitation when buckling our seat for the drive to work but likely feel some nervousness during takeoff on a short flight. We are not risk seeking if we are more willing to drive than fly (in fact it isn’t really appropriate to categorize this activity as either risk seeking or risk avoiding), we are simply responding to learned fears that have developed in our culture.

 

What this shows us is that we are creatures that respond to our environment, especially our social environments. We often think of ourselves as unique individuals, but the reality is that we are dependent on society and define ourselves based on the societies and groups we belong to. We learn from those around us, try to do what we understand to be in our best interest, and navigate a complicated course between societal expectations and our self-interest. Just as we can’t classify ourselves into imagined dichotomies, we cannot do so with others. Social learning and risk aversion give us a window into the complexity that we smooth over when we try to categorize ourselves or others into simple dichotomies.