In defense of cynicism

“There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist, except an old optimist.” — Mark Twain

It’s fair to say that in our culture a stigma exists against individuals who disconnect from society and religion (skeptics, misanthropes, cynics, atheists, etc.), all of which exhibit their own sort of cynicism in varying degrees. (Note: I’m not equating atheists with cynics. In fact, these days, a good number of atheists tend to be humanists and thus maintain positive feelings about society. It’s just that I don’t think in absolutes, so I don’t really believe there is such thing as a ‘cynic’. But there are varying degrees of cynical attitudes and perspectives. So on this view, atheists by definition are cynical about religion.)

As part of this stigma, society tends to see cynicism as some sort of disease, whether physical, psychological, social, or spiritual. Distrust is seen as a mental illness.

Consider the following examples:

  1. Distrust and an anti-social personality are key symptoms associated with what psychologists call ‘PPD’, or ‘Paranoid Personality Disorder’;
  2. Distrust of authority and anti-social behavior are key traits among conspiracy theorists, whom mainstream society has been trained to look down upon as a bunch of lunatics;
  3. Cynicism and pessimism are linked to higher rates of depressiondementiaheart diseasecancer-related deaths, and mortality.

Wow! Optimism — the true panacea, discovered at last! Of course, none of these articles considers, if there really is such a link, whether cynical personalities can in fact be changed and “cured,” any more than any other sort of personality. I certainly don’t recall ever selecting my particular personality. It’s just kind of what makes me… me, you know? But the point isn’t to understand cynicism. It’s just to make oneself look good by making cynicism look bad and blaming it for the supposedly bad things that happen. Hmmm… sounds exactly like what some in the optimistic crowd say about cynicism.

Google ‘cynicism’ and you will find yourself inundated with — what!? — intensely cynical reactions to cynicism. Ironically, however, it is not the cynics who have these reactions, but those bragging about, or at least implying, their own optimism or healthy idealism. What about ‘glass half full’? Here’s a list of the usual clichés:

Cynicism is: ‘for losers’, ‘lazy’, ‘selfish’, ‘a waste of intellect’, ‘a missed opportunity to improve the world’, ‘blind’, ‘unattractive’, ‘intellectual cowardice’, ‘a cop out’, ‘rooted in fear’, ‘unrealistic’, ‘toxic’, ‘pitiful’, ‘naïve’, ‘intellectual treason’, ‘cheap’, ‘impotent’, ‘contagious’.

So cynicism is for ‘losers’, is it? Aww, shucks. The last thing I want is to be called a ‘loser’. Goddamn half-empty glass… gonna make me unpopular. Remember name-calling as a child? The fact that so many adults cannot avoid perpetuating the label- and clique-mentality of high school kids is one thing that makes me especially cynical.

This sort of cliché, stereotyping, slogan-based criticism of cynicism also seems to be fashionable among late-night comedians:

  • “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us” — Stephen Colbert
  • “All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” — Conan O’Brien
  • “It’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” — Craig Ferguson

This is strange stuff coming from sarcastic men whose job consists of deconstructing and ridiculing everything that comes their way. Maybe they feel guilty for creating hordes of mindless drones who believe they are gaining genuine political awareness simply by watching the late show. Or perhaps they see themselves as similar to smokers who warn their children not to smoke. Whatever the reason, George Carlin would be rolling over in his grave – if he gave a damn.

The problem with such reactions to cynicism is that they are hypocritical, trite, and grounded in unrealistic stereotypes. A particularly cynical attack on cynicism can be found here.

The author repeats the usual claims — that cynics are ‘cowards’, ‘lazy’, ‘afraid’, and somehow cultivate a false appearance of sophistication and depth. Oh no! Please don’t call me a coward!! Anything but that!! Of course, the author simply states all this and fails to back any of it up with specific examples or argumentation. Regurgitate those clichés!

Interestingly, this person also insists that if all the cynics and skeptics in America “made noise,” and worked actively “for the restoration of a democratic republic, justice, and the rule of law,” then things “would instantly change for the better.” You know, that sort of thing is very easy for a blogger, comedian, politician, or some other talking head to say because they get paid to spend their time and effort “actively changing the world for the better.”

I laugh at this sort of advice. It presumes that people adopt cynicism by choice and can just choose not to be cynical. Simply push the happy button in your soul and ‘bam!’ — you no longer notice or care about the insurmountable obstacle of lies, hypocrisy, and corruption in politics.

But seriously, such critics, if they really want to change attitudes, need to take a step back and reevaluate what they think is the cause of cynicism. I assure you it is not the cynic him or herself. If you want to fight cynicism, at least on the political level, then point that scathing finger at this sort of thing: here and here. Let’s not get distracted from the real problem.

“Show me somebody who is always smiling, always cheerful, always optimistic, and I will show you somebody who hasn’t the faintest idea what the heck is really going on.” — Mike Royko

I mean, I get it. A representational form of government is largely incompatible with widespread cynicism and apathy. But more importantly, so are all the power, wealth, security, and status that accrue to political representatives. So the politicians need the talking heads to be cheerleaders, encouraging their mostly young, brainless, TV-watching audience to believe in the system, to hope for change, and to adopt other such useless states of mind. Go team!

Professional politicians and the mainstream media loathe the cynic because the cynic reveals their game for what it is. Such honesty threatens the illusions they must create to maintain power. And so, instead of facing the cynic’s criticisms head on, they attack an abstraction. They set up a token cynic, a straw man to knock down so they can appear caring and productive. Yet no one really exists exactly like the people they describe. Reality is far more complicated and interesting. But polarization sure is a nifty means of thought control.

A common cliché is that cynics are apathetic or lazy. Most cynics, however, I have ever known or have known about are hard-working, productive individuals who care quite deeply about what is happening in the world — at least more so than the many who wear optimism as a mask. They are just honest with themselves in admitting that they don’t have the faith that things can or will improve. You can’t force faith.

Another little platitude that passes as wisdom is that cynics live miserable lives, so we ought to refrain from being cynical. But this is like telling a gay guy he shouldn’t choose to find other men attractive. In the end, the stigma against cynics and those like them stems from the usual ignorance and prejudice of people who don’t understand what they fear. Cynics need not be miserable. Some are. Some are not. Some are sometimes. Some are severely unsatisfied with society or politics or religion, but perfectly happy in their personal lives.

A misanthrope, for example, can find satisfaction in knowing that he or she is conscious of the lies and hypocrisy that define society. Such individuals find true contentment, at least, in trying not to perpetuate the tribal game of make-believe. There can be pride in refusing to stick one’s head in the sand or to whitewash what can be very ugly facts about our social existence.

Speaking of make-believe, here’s a Christian take on cynicism, which pretty much sums up the sort of hypocritically discriminatory perspective from which society tends to represent the cynic:

“A cynic is self-centered. Jesus is self-giving. A cynic has a low view of humanity. Jesus died for humanity. A cynic builds himself up by mocking others. Jesus lays down his own life so others can be filled with life. A cynic assumes people in the end get what they deserve. Jesus does all He can to ensure as many as possible get what they do not deserve.”

This is great material — fuel for the fire. You just can’t make up stuff like this. It is as real as it is fake. The author concludes: “Don’t get me wrong, Jesus loves cynics. He died for cynics. But not just to save them; He died also to change them.” Why in the world god would require the brutal death of his ‘son’ to ‘save’ a cynic the author does not say. But perhaps that’s just me being cynical — you know, using my mind to think through the implications of astonishing claims.

Face it: Faith, not cynicism, is a mental disorder. The tendency to place unwarranted trust in religion, society, self-servinig politicians, and others is no different than childish fantasy.

I have always found the phrase ‘beating a dead horse’ to be delightfully cynical. Coincidentally, that’s precisely how I feel at the moment writing this. So I’ll just wrap up with another comedian’s quite sane assessment of faith:

“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It’s nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it are intellectual slaveholders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do.” — Bill Maher

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.