In praise of being naive

By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Somewhere there is a perfect spot on the spectrum between being naive and being cynical, and humans should try to find that perfect spot. But humans err, so err on the side of being naive.

I write that in the face of the most cynicism-inducing election of my lifetime. And I’m apparently not alone because a deep cynic would say that voting itself is an act of naivety, and yet Arkansans and people across the country are lining up at the polls to do it anyway.

Keep in mind that, regardless of what you think about this year’s choices, at least we had them: for the nation’s chief executive, for lawmakers and for local officials. For more than a year, two rich and powerful people who want to become even more powerful have been required to traverse the country as part of the world’s most challenging job interview. Arkansas voters this year also have a direct say in the governor’s powers; in how long county officials stay in office; in how much debt the state can incur for economic development; and whether marijuana should be used legally for medicinal purposes. True, my vote did not count for much. But it counted exactly the same as everyone else’s in Arkansas.

Giving an average citizen this kind of say is rare in world history but not so rare in today’s world, in large part because of the example set by the country where God let me be born. That’s pretty cool, which is why, even in the midst of all the cynicism of A.D. 2016, just about every polling machine was occupied at my early voting site in Benton, and why, afterwards, a family stood outside the polling place snapping a photo of their son who must have voted for the first time. They all looked pretty proud, but I guess they were just being naive.

Believing a New World would offer religious and economic freedom? You might call that naive. So was believing that freedom was worth fighting for. That self-government was possible. That former slaves and the children of slaves could participate in a society with former slaveowners and their children. That a railroad could be built across a country and a canal dug between the oceans. That wars could be won on foreign shores, and democracy was possible in far-off lands. That a man could land on the moon – in less than 10 years, no less.

It takes a certain naivety to do these things; it certainly doesn’t happen through cynicism. Cynicism is inherently an attitude of powerlessness and inaction, which is why cynics do not grow many successful businesses, plant churches, begin charities, or start movements that change things for the better. Cynicism is self-centered and fearful, and it assumes the worst of people to the point of gross inaccuracy. It’s incompatible with achievement and service because why try to achieve if seen and unseen forces doom you to failure? And why serve if you are only going to be taken advantage of? True, there are some very rich cynics today. But a lot of them only got that way by appealing to others’ cynicism.

Yes, naivety can lead to disaster, because it’s based on trust, and sometimes trust is misplaced. But better to trust too much than not enough. After disaster, a naive person can still “stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools,” as Rudyard Kipling wrote, because he trusts those tools.

I’ve heard it said and implied many times this year that, if either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins this election, then the country will not survive.

But such deep, pervasive cynicism is far more dangerous than the outcome of one campaign. It leads to the kind of “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” attitude of the old Soviet Union. In the United States, structures are still in place that will limit the damage either Clinton or Trump will cause. But a cynical people quits trying, which can’t be overcome.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure there’s going to be another election in four years, and we can all give it another shot. Call me naive.

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