The folly of optimism

Gintas writes:
Subject: How to Survive Really Tough Times: Don’t be an Optimist

This is about James Stockdale, tortured in prison in Vietnam (I’ve added the bold):

Together with other captives such as George Thomas Coker and Jeremiah Denton, Stockdale was part of a group of about a dozen prisoners known as the “Alcatraz Gang”, separated from other captives and placed in solitary confinement for their leadership in resisting their captors.

In a business book by James C. Collins called Good to Great, Collins writes about a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out, Stockdale replied:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale then added:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the Stockdale Paradox.

I say your site exemplifies this paradox.

LA replies:

Stockdale’s lesson is profound. Conservative “optimists” who deny the gravity of a problem are not prepared to deal with it, so when the problem turns out to be worse than they imagined, they end up surrendering to the very problem they had minimized or dismissed. We see this syndrome manifesting itself over and over in relation to such issues as immigration, Islamization, and feminism. The sanguine ones fold. The “pessimists” (the incorrect term that the “optimists” use to marginalize people who see reality) remain firm.

- end of initial entry -

Gintas writes:

I’ve seen someone (I cannot recall who) say that liberals are disappointed optimists. It fits with the article about how viewers of Avatar became deeply depressed afterward. It was a fresh reminder of what they hope for, and thus renewed their disappointment.

Gintas continues:

I just remembered who said it, but it’ll sound like my soapbox again: James Burnham, in Suicide of the West, referred to Liberals as being the optimists. Their way of dealing with the decline of the West was to change setbacks and defeats to advances and victories. Thus they could maintain their optimism in the face of decline.

Nik S. writes:

Regarding Prisoners of War, I could not help but noticing certain (coincidental) verbal parallels between the Stockholm Syndrome (wherein a prisoner begins having feelings for his enslavers) and the Stockdale Paradox, wherein “the problem turns out to be worse than they imagined, [and] they end up surrendering to the very problem they had minimized or dismissed.”

LA replies:

Yes, except that the Stockdale Paradox actually refers to the “pessimists,” not the “optimists.” The Stockdale-type “pessimists” see things as very bad, while also having unwavering faith in a final good outcome, and this gives them the strength to hold on no matter how bad things get.

January 19

Jeremy G. writes:

I guess that’s me, I’m a Stockdale-type pessimist. I know we’re at the beginning of a long and hard war and I’m ready to go through it; I’m preparing my children so that they can go through it.

LA replies:

Unlike Irving Kristol, who in 1993 wrote in the WSJ about fighting in a culture war that might go on for centuries, yet within a couple of years he and his fellow neocons were already surrendering in the culture war and washing their hands of it.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 18, 2010 06:56 PM | Send

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