Thursday, March 10, 2011

Strategic Naivete

In grad school, postmodernists were thick on the ground. I learned quickly that the greatest sin one could commit, in the eyes of a postie, was naivete. “Naive realism” was one that stuck with me, since its implications were so staggeringly arrogant: “how could you possibly believe in the reality of your world? We can see through it, why can’t you?” It was fine to be “transgressive,” or “subversive,” and of course it was wonderful to “problematize,” but you didn’t want to “solve,” or “improve,” or (shudder) “clarify.”

I tried that stuff on for a while, but it was never a great fit. After a little while, I shrugged it off and moved on.

Now, strategic naivete one of the best tools I have. The sin of my early twenties is really helpful in my early forties.

Anyone with some experience and intellectual honesty knows that people’s motivations are often complex, and sometimes imperfectly understood by the people who have them. And anyone with experience and honesty knows that many actions have mixed results, some unforeseeable. From those two observations, it follows that claims of pure motive or certain success are to be doubted. And at some level, that’s a healthy move.

But it’s also true that knee-jerk cynicism can be both self-defeating and self-fulfilling. Sometimes, it can even be inaccurate. If realism can be naive, so can cynicism.

There’s something to be said for holding yourself open to being pleasantly surprised. When it happens -- when someone you were tempted to write off as shortsighted and self-interested actually comes through with something genuinely good -- it’s humbling, and life-affirming, and gratifying. It suggests that there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy, and a good thing, too.

I recall learning in high school that fiction required a “willing suspension of disbelief.” The same can be said for administration. I tweeted a few days ago “must...control...snark...” because I was struggling with exactly that. After watching people for years, it’s easy to decide that you’ve figured them out. When someone you’ve pegged negatively comes to you with yet another variation on “here’s why you should upend the world to give me everything I want,” it’s easy to write it off. But reminding myself not to do that has led to some pleasant surprises. In a few cases, I’m pretty sure the folks who proposed something wound up surprising themselves.

Failure, partial or total, is easy to forecast. The harder thing is to be aware of that, and to choose to be naive anyway.