Sometimes our staff meetings get a little off topic. Last week, a conversation about our core principles and our recently damaged tent led to us enumerating a fifth core value at Highland Planning: “If it’s broke, throw it away.”
That’s perfectly good advice when it comes to cheap, unrecyclable material goods. But many people today take that approach to the institutions that are fundamental to our society and our democracy. The approach some people take might be described as “if it’s broke, burn it to the ground.”
The cognitive culprit behind society-wide pessimism is Negativity Bias: the tendency of humans to give more weight to negative rather than positive or neutral stimuli. Pinker also cites the gravitas that we accord to prophets and purveyors of gloom, jockeying among societal elites and the nagging sense that optimists are just trying to sell you something, as reasons for the undeserved advantage negativity has in our intellectual life.
One of the most important causes is of course that no solution is perfect: in a world of limited resources and fallible humans, there are almost always trade-offs to be made. Pinker writes “[w]henever someone offers a solution to a problem, critics will be quick to point out that it is not a panacea, a silver bullet, a magic bullet, or a one-size-fits-all solution; it’s just a Band-Aid or a quick technological fix that fails to get at the root causes and will blow back with side effects and unintended consequences.”
When every proposed solution is instantaneously swamped by this kind of knee-jerk criticism, people will inevitably come to the conclusion that we have to stick with the unhappy status quo or start from scratch. Pinker notes that the influence of the Start-From-Scratch Camp has been growing both on the Right and the Left in recent decades, potentially putting the basic building block institutions of our democracy at risk from demagogues or unhinged populism.
Two things that I really enjoy about our work at Highland Planning: helping to solve problems that public institutions face and re-instilling trust in those institutions. The default for many people is to regard public institutions with distrust and any solution they offer as window-dressing at best. Through listening and giving people the opportunity to learn and provide input, we can shift to a place where people have an open mind and a willingness to understand the trade-offs involved in any decision.
Skepticism and a refusal to view every situation through rose-colored glasses is a good thing. What I always hope for in a project is that we can channel that tendency into productive engagement with realistic solutions to the problems that we all want to solve.