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Photo: Natasha Badhwar
Photo: Natasha Badhwar

Opinion | The world is not as depressing as doomsayers believe

Stories of gloom are easier and more rewarding to tell, but the truth is that the world isn’t such a pathetic place

Diwali used to be a day when Indians bombed India, tearing ear drums, stunning the old whose limbs vibrated in the explosions, terrifying animals, and filling the air with lethal fumes. But across the nation, Diwali is becoming quieter and more joyful. Who would have thought that a set of regulations would subdue a Hindu subculture even as nationalists were ascending? If Indians can silence Diwali, they can do anything.

But this story is never told with any enthusiasm. Its joy appears farfetched. It is a doomed story that cannot travel far. What is an easier story to tell, and more rewarding for its narrators, is that India is in a crisis, and that its doom is coming soon. Across the world, stories of gloom are more influential than happy stories.

As a result, many people are disenchanted with the modern world. They think it has gone insane. Intellectuals are signing petitions lamenting some evil every month. Celebrities, whom the world has rewarded in fantastic ways, too, believe the world is in a crisis.

Even jerks are upset with the world (they too have feelings, it seems). The kind of people who had never read the front page of a newspaper until very recently are now articulate political analysts on a par with ageing men on morning walks. People who you thought were amiable, and normal (because they had two children, which makes many people appear so) have turned out to be raging lunatics on Twitter. Conscientious girls upon discovering politics are shocked that their sweet papas are right-wingers. And, so many people now know so much that there is a spike in the use of rebukes like, “correlation is not causation" and the “Dunning–Kruger effect".

All American superhero movies have become a comment on “our dark times". Liberal newspapers in the US are filled with the prognosis that America is coming to an end. A few days ago, Bruce Springsteen tweeted: “We’re living in a frightening time... Unfortunately we have somebody who I feel doesn’t have a grasp of the deep meaning of what it means to be an American." He is among the many superstars who have a sense of doom.

But the fact is the world is not such a pathetic place. Poverty is receding, children are healthier. People still want to be good, and they are in the pursuit of happiness, which they find. The arcs of human lives still tend towards love and fairness, and the world still turns on our most important idea—that the fortunate should take care of the less fortunate.

That the world has changed drastically, and that its sanity has altered, is a myth created by a small set of people.

At the heart of this perception is a corrupt property of storytelling: Happiness is uniform and banal, while every misery is unique, hence, interesting and transmittable. This quality has always influenced storytelling. It is one reason why most stories have a happy ending: Once a story attains happiness, there is nothing interesting for a writer to say.

Also, certain professions have for long had an outsized role in telling the stories of our times. And they are by nature negative. Journalism, for instance, is enslaved by news, and in a happy world, what is tragic or gloomy is often news.

Other forms of storytelling, such as literature and activism, are refuges for the melancholic and the clinically depressed, who thrive on negativity. Literature at least permits some exuberant talent that can create islands of joy and humour. But activism, which is a parasitic story that takes over literary and journalistic narratives of a society, is entirely a network of breast-beaters who tell powerful, gloomy half-truths of their times.

It is true that today scientists, doctors, engineers and billionaires are gaining voice, and they are able to tell their stories by bypassing what the humanities and activism control. But the transmission of their stories, too, is influenced by the force of negativity. Some of them do use another powerful transmitter of stories—hope. Hope has qualities of a certain mystical happiness, but then doesn’t gloom often masquerade as hope? Hope is gloom dressed up to see the doctor.

Optimism is an entirely different quality, which is often confused with hope. Optimism radiates from happiness, which the disenchanted storytellers of our age try to kill through their celebration of gloom.

The bleak see a bleak world, and political gloom radiates from them. It hits an outer ring of receivers who are susceptible to melancholy, who then transmit it to greater circles of people who start to believe that the world is in a crisis.

It is true that in some areas, the world has truly turned more bitter.

The divide in society is for real. But, as this column argued earlier, “polarization" is a sign that one class of people does not have a monopoly anymore over mainstream ideas. So, what bothers most suave storytellers is in reality a good omen.

B.R. Ambedkar once framed the moral legitimacy of polarization when he told “low castes": “It is your claim to equality which hurts them…If you continue to accept your lowly status ungrudgingly…they will allow you to live in peace."

In the coming years, the radiation of gloom will only intensify as the world entertains itself through fables of rage and gloom. But people will always be innately happy. In this world, it is hard to escape happiness.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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