Related Book: Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion by Dick Keyes
One of the biggest problems with the world right now is cynicism and sadly enough, it’s difficult to point it out because the cynic will only begin to mock you and others will join in so they’re not mocked as well. Being cynical of someone or something has its place and can often discover what is truly wrong with an idea, but more often than not in our culture, a cynic is simply someone who assumes the worst in most people.
What is cynicism?
Cynicism should be differentiated from being cynical. To be cynical is to find the alternative motive for someone’s action or to discover that what appears to be good is actually bad. Cynicism is viewing all actions as having ulterior motives based on selfishness. If the CEO of General Motors were to say that his company needs another bailout, but this time it’ll work, we would be justified in being cynical of his need for a bailout. A bad history with the company and their lack to get the first bailout to turn them around makes us cynical that a second bailout would work. Alternatively, to someone who buys into cynicism, even Mother Theresa was ultimately selfish or not that great of a person. The best of the saints are still mocked.
Another aspect of cynicism is the mockery involved. If a cynic disagrees with you, no matter how well laid out your argument is, they’re going to treat you like you’re stupid, ignorant, and haven’t studied the issues. Look no further than most atheistic blogs or message forums when Antony Flew became a theist. None of them looked to his arguments on why he had become a theist. None of them gave him the benefit of the doubt. Rather, they almost collectively adopted a cynical attitude and accused him of going senile in his old age. Or look to many conservative responses to President Obama. No matter how well laid out an argument might be or how truthful an argument might be, if he’s the one saying it, then some conservatives simply assume he has the worst motives in what he’s saying and discredit everything he says.
The mockery often leads to overreactions to ideas. Rather than there being an exchange of information and a rational discussion on issues, people tend to overreact to positions they disagree with. Cynicism is so focused with discrediting the opposition that it simply doesn’t allow for the opposition to ever be right or to be partially right. “You’re a conservative Christian, so if you disagree with me it’s because you haven’t questioned your faith or thought of alternatives!” “You’re a liberal, so you’ve never had an intellectual thought in your life and you can’t possibly be right!” No one is treated as an individual and the merits of arguments are ignored; rather, we simply attack the people because it feeds into our cynicism.
Why are we cynics?
One can often wonder why cynicism exists, mostly because it seems unhealthy. I would argue that because we have done away with the Judeo-Christian worldview concerning the sinful aspect of humanity, cynicism is the logical outcome.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the West began to abandon the Judeo-Christian worldview of humanity’s finite nature for the teachings of the progressive Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thought that humans could come to perfect harmony through reason and science. The cause of all wars, the argument went, was because we were ignorant. The more our science progressed, the better we would become as people.
Such hopes and dreams began to be questioned by the populace in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. The mass death and destruction that technology brought made many realize that even with an advance in technology, humans would still steal, kill, and destroy. If the dream of unity through progress was harmed in WWI, World War II completely annihilated the humanistic hope of Utopia. The horrors of WWII brought about postmodernism, which teaches that there is no unified reason and that progress can only occur through tolerance (if it can occur at all).
But we are now experiencing what the WWI generation experienced in that even our acceptance of tolerance hasn’t helped the world. The more tolerant the West has become, the more violent the Middle East has become. The more tolerant our schools have become, the more violence we’ve seen in our schools. Thus, the postmodern virtue of tolerance seems to do nothing in terms of preventing a hopeless state of nature.
Because the collective community of the West has consistently put its hope in certain ideals, only to see those ideals fail, they have become cynics. They are cynical toward anyone who holds to an ideal that is not their own. They have been let down repeatedly, thus they are cynical toward anything that promises to be a solution unless they thought of that solution. Cynicism is the surest sign that someone lacks hope.
Why do we like the cynic?
After the above description, one might be inclined to ask, “The cynic looks like a jerk, so why do we like him?” There are good reasons to sometimes appreciate the cynic, but most of the time our appreciation is based upon our own insecurities.
A good reason to like a cynic is to appreciate how they can find ulterior motives to someone’s ideas or actions. For instance, if a politician wants to allow a company to do a certain thing and passes it off as “for the good of the country,” the cynic can quickly discover if the politician is actually just trying to make a buck or curry favor with lobbyists. We do and should appreciate such insight.
At the same time, we generally fall in love with cynics because they make us feel better about ourselves (until they turn on us). Look no further than Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.” His audience is primarily liberal, so notice that whenever he attacks a conservative viewpoint, even if he has to twist what the conservative said in order to make his point, the audience cheers and laughs. But whenever he does this to a liberal viewpoint, even if he has to twist what the liberal said, the audience is uncomfortable or less enthusiastic with their laughter. The same stands true for conservative comedians and how conservative audiences lap up jokes about liberals, but lose their sense of humor when conservatives are mocked.
These actions occur because people can hide behind cynicism. We love the cynics of society because they can mock and berate those we disagree with without challenging our own beliefs. It makes us feel superior to the target of cynicism; that person is just a fool while we are enlightened and see his problems.
What is wrong with cynicism?
Some might wonder how any of what I have written shows that cynicism is wrong. In fact, the cynic would probably mock it or simply dismiss it outright. But I think there are some major flaws with cynicism that cynics don’t realize and the realize they don’t realize their flaws is because of the first flaw of cynicism; it’s not self-critical.
The cynic will only mock himself when it’s tongue-in-cheek, but his mockery will never point out an actual flaw or a glaring moral shortcoming. For instance, how many jokes did David Letterman make concerning his adultery when compared to Jay Leno stealing the Tonight Show from Conan O’Brien? Certainly Letterman gave a tongue-in-cheek apology, but the actual mockery and pointing out the moral shortcomings through jokes was reserved for others. The cynic simply ignores his own moral problems and assumes he lives his life correctly and everyone else is wrong.
Another problem with cynicism is that it’s second-level thinking. It finds the problem, but rarely ever offers a solution. To be quite blunt, cynics are idiots who feign intelligence. We often think cynics are brilliant, but the never really offer practical or viable alternatives to the things they criticize. They’re smart enough to point out the flaws, but they’re either not smart enough or too lazy to come up with a solution. A child can point out the flaws in something, meaning a cynic is nothing more than a child who has mastered the language enough to make his criticisms funny, but it still means he’s thinking at the same level as a child. True intelligence will find the flaws, but it will go further and provide a solution.
Cynicism also lowers the value of intelligent and respectful rhetoric in our society. The cynic is listened to while the civil person is ignored. It lowers the intelligence of a society because it encourages people to react to arguments rather than think through arguments. It forces people to lose their civility and simply mock their opponents rather than give respect to their opponents.
Finally, cynicism is quite arrogant because it assumes it understand the heart of another person’s actions without actually knowing that person. If a man says how much he loves his wife and that he finds her to be the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, the cynic automatically assumes the man has cheated on her, will cheat on her, or is addicted to pornography and therefore doesn’t really love his wife. The cynic never gives people the benefit of the doubt; all people, especially those the cynic disagrees with, are evil and always have the wrong motives. The targets of cynicism are, to the cynic, never genuine, never real, and always putting up a front.
If you suspect you might be a cynic, the best solution is to begin to give people the benefit of the doubt. Realize that some people might do things for the right reasons. Instead of “shooting from the hip” with a reaction to what a person says or does, sit and contemplate what the person might mean and if you have any reason to doubt the genuineness of the person. If you don’t have a reason to doubt, other than “he’s conservative” or “he’s liberal” or “all people are selfish,” then give the person the benefit of the doubt.
Most importantly, evaluate situations rationally. Just because you disagree with a certain person or certain ideology doesn’t mean you will disagree with everything that person or ideology espouses. Listen to what a person has to say, consider it, evaluate it, and if you still disagree then do so in a respectful manner rather than just mocking the belief.
At the end of the day, cynicism is an ill for the modern world and one that must be cured, or it will simply contribute to the lack of civility in America, which undermines the fabric of any nation.