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Language Commissioner Graham Fraser on optimism and pessimism

Language Commissioner Graham Fraser on optimism and pessimism

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Graham Fraser is Canada's Commissioner for Official Languages. His office is responsible for protecting language rights and promoting English and French in Canadian society.

Optimist; pessimist. Which are you?

I'm an optimist.

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It's healthier. Medical data has shown that those people who live longer and healthier lives are those who reach out to other people, see the positive, optimistic side of existence. To a certain extent, pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Pessimists die sooner and sadder.

I have a German study before me that indicates just the opposite. It found that older adults who had a dim view of the future lived longer and healthier lives as they were more cautious, more likely to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Well, that's fascinating. I think there is a distinction to be made between being optimistic and being Pollyannaish or foolhardy, assuming that dangers don't exist and we live in a risk-free environment. It is possible to interpret facts. There is a natural tendency on the part of journalists – and my professional background was journalism – to see the negative interpretation of a given set of facts.

Some would call that a healthy skepticism.

Sure. There has to be a balance. Often, the cynic is someone who always assumes the worst, the most negative interpretation. That gives an unbalanced view of how the world looks.

Your milieu now is politics. Isn't it politic to put a rosy glow, a positive spin on any given set of facts?

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Well, sure, the nature of politics is to try and persuade the general public you are doing all the right things, if you are in government, and in opposition that you can do better. We've seen a greater polarization of partisan debate and less of the quiet give and take that used to take place.

You can argue that [what] has occurred with political life is politicians over-promising and a general disillusionment with what they achieve. But if you look behind the Sturm und Drang of Question Period … one of the reasons that some MPs continue to get re-elected election after election is because of the quiet, steady work they're doing on behalf of constituents regardless of political party.

What is the default setting of most people – optimism?

You feel better being optimistic. Being pessimistic is a less pleasant existence. If you are deeply convinced that everything that could go wrong will go wrong, this is not a happy way to live.

This study to which I refer says that too much optimism is bad for a person and society as it discourages preparedness and caution and deep thought. Assuming naively assuming all will work out well.

If you look back to the great philosophers, there has been a fairly constant train of thought that one should live a balanced life. Moderation in all things. Excess of any kind is not good for personal health or well being.

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Our society has many optimistic catchphrases: "Cheer up," "Let a smile be your umbrella," even "Don't worry. Be happy." Where are the balancing phrases extolling pessimism?

There is no question you can certainly find things to be pessimistic about. Anyone who feels that because they are of an optimistic frame of mind, all's for the best in the best of all possible worlds, this is a no more realistic or effective way of dealing with the world than the constantly pessimistic view.

The survey's point is that pessimism is undervalued – that we need pessimism to identify and deal with real problems.

What you are calling pessimism, I would call realism in any assessment of a course of action. How long it's going to take me to drive to the airport at 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon involves some realistic assessment of conditions. If you set out at 3:30 to get to the airport at 4 o'clock, this isn't optimism, it's foolishness.

What's optimistic in official languages right now?

We just had a census study in which the story line that everybody is using is that there is a decline in the percentage of Canadians who are bilingual – a decline from 17.7 per cent to 17.5 per cent. That's all true, but what people neglect is that the number of bilingual Canadians has actually increased, from 5.2 million in 2001 to 5.8 million in 2011. Arithmetically, it is impossible for us to welcome 250,000 newcomers and maintain the same percentage of English-French bilingual Canadians. We actually have half a million more bilingual Canadians than we had 10 years ago.

Very optimistic! Can you allow yourself a pessimistic thought as Commissioner of Official Languages?

Well, sure, there are problems. This same study shows that there are fewer students outside Quebec studying French than in the past. That there has been a drop in the number of those studying core French, even though there has been an increase in those taking French immersion.

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