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Glass Half Full/Glass Half Empty: Political Theory

November 2, 2009

Half-a-glass-of-waterWhich type of person are you: glass half full or glass half empty? It’s a clichéd idiom we’ve all heard before. A litmus test to determine whether one is an optimist or a pessimist.

A couple weeks ago, I was at home with my 4 year old daughter. I can’t now remember what she said, but it seemed that my little angel was quite a pessimist. So we did a quick pseudo-scientific test. I took out two glasses, filled one with water and left the other empty. I asked her to complete the phrase “this glass is ___” for each glass. So we had one”this glass is full” and one “this glass is empty.” Then I drank half of the water from the full glass and asked her again. Without any prompting, “this glass is half-empty.” Case closed! Confirmed. My daughter’s a pessimist; which, frankly, seems troubling at the age of four.

I immediately thought, “well she must come by it naturally, both of her parents are pessimists.” The funny thing is, though, that my husband is always telling me that I’m an optimist. I just think I’m a pessimist. Hmmm…When I thought it over, contrasting the two of us, I suddenly had a bit of a revelation. Because I’m a political junky, I looked at how we both view politics. Our political views and beliefs about the way the world should be are virtually identical. But, while I am passionate about and actively engaged in politics, he is cynical and uninterested. He doesn’t really think anything he could do would make a difference. Now, I am also cynical, to some degree at least, but I do believe I can make a difference.

At this point, a theory started to take shape. I conducted an unscientific poll through Facebook and Twitter to try to confirm my thesis. I postulated that politically active people will often believe themselves to be glass-half-empty folks: we moan, groan, and bitch about the way things are and the way things should be. There is so much work to be done! (Obviously: half-empty.) And yet, our actions betray a deep optimism. If you just moan and groan, then perhaps you are a true pessimist. But if you moan and groan and pick up the phone to call your representative, you’re at least a bit optimistic. If you donate money or volunteer time, even more so! You just might be a glass-half-full type, and not even know it.

But, then again, we could look at the old idiom a different way. Instead of it being glass-half-full equals optimist and glass-half-empty equals pessimist, maybe we need to look at where we started. For my daughter, we started with a full glass and removed half. Naturally, she now sees it as half-empty. I repeated the “experiment” a week later. This time, I started with three glasses, one full, two empty. I then filled one of the empty glasses half-way. What did she see? “This glass is half-full.” Voíla! My precious child was now an optimist!

Of course, all I had really succeeded in was proving that my experiment was in no way scientific. The glass-half-full/glass-half-empty idiom is just that. It is not a litmus test of optimism versus pessimism. It simply demonstrates that there is always another perspective. In fact, the results of my Facebook and Twitter polling were inconclusive at best.

Now, lest you think that these results/revelations have led me to abandon my theory: pshaw! I have still developed a wildly unsupportable theory that I will cling to like religion and guns. Ready? I assert that liberals/progressives have reason to view the glass as half-full; having started with an empty glass, we are slowly filling it, and while it may at times be rough going, even depressing, to look at how far we must go to achieve a just society, we are making progress. Conservatives, on the other hand, have reason to view the glass as half-empty. They started with a full glass of “tradition” and have watched as it slowly leaks away. Demographics and history are not on their side, and there is not much cause for optimism.

What about the many, many people who just “aren’t that into politics” (like my hubby)?  Most are probably intelligent enough people with other things with which to concern themselves. They either a) stubbornly see a full glass, so what’s to worry? or b) cynically see an empty glass, so what’s the point?

Is my theory ground-breaking? Will it catch on? Does it mean a thing anyone? Not really, but in the end I’ve at least learned something about my self. I always thought I was a pessimist, but really I’m an optimist. Maybe not one of those bubbly, smiling-all-the-time people that the rest of us secretly loathe, but an optimist all the same.  Some would call that naïve; but today I like myself just that much more.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott B. permalink
    November 23, 2016 4:36 am

    I wonder what reply you might have gotten if instead of decreasing the amt of liquid in the glass from full to half you poured an empty glass to half capacity. In other words, one might be inclined to focus on the fact that water was removed and naturally answer half empty, whereas filling it half way may illicit the opposite response.

    • Scott B. permalink
      November 23, 2016 4:38 am

      Nvm lol. You were ahead of me. I should have kept reading first

  2. January 8, 2014 3:10 pm

    Helpful info. Lucky me I found your web site unintentionally, and I am stunned why this twist of fate didn’t
    took place in advance! I bookmarked it.

  3. November 3, 2009 7:41 am

    Okay, I actually read the whole post this time and have more thoughts. 🙂

    First, I don’t believe that being cynical automatically makes you disinterested in politics. I’m a case in point. But I’m not a big believer in the ability to change the world, either. “If everyone did X then we’d have Y.” True. But I don’t believe everyone will ever come to together like that for the common good. Most of us are too purely motivated by pure selfish interest.

    I do like your insight into the “why” of the glass. That makes it much more than a question of how you define the current state. According to you it almost makes a difference how it got there, and I think that is a valid observation.

    How that really translates to the landscape of progressive and conservative viewpoints, well, I’m not so sure. It is definitely something I’ll be thinking about.

  4. November 2, 2009 7:14 pm

    If I’m going to be honest…

    I don’t think about the glass as half empty or half full. Instead, i think about how big will the spill be when it gets tipped over.


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