Windowless I

“Which is better – to be born stupid into an intelligent society or intelligent into an insane one?” (Aldous Huxley, Island).

Philosophers are full of shit and always have been. For centuries, they have drooled and tripped all over themselves trying to identify (solely in their minds) the basic building-blocks of reality. These ‘substances’, as they called them, are supposed to be whatever remains once you have ‘stripped away’ (in your mind) all the properties from a thing. A person is still a person, for example, whether black or blonde hair, dark or light skin, 4’6” or 6’10”, twelve or seventy-eight years old, male or female, sick or healthy. Such properties are temporary and incidental to the ‘being’ or ‘substance’ of a person, whatever that happens to be.

Leibniz’s hair is entirely its own entity, distinct from all else. Image soure: Wikipedia.

In the late 17th century, German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz postulated that the world consists of an indefinite number of such substances. He called these ‘monads’. Each of these monads, he thought, can only affect itself. On this view, each thing in the world is truly distinct from all others and cannot, therefore, interact with anything else. Instead, things only appear to interact with each other. Their actions have been programmed in advance by god to harmonize with the actions of other things.

A result of this view is that cause and effect are not real. Let’s say I throw this philosophy book. The book hits the wall. A dent appears in the wall. The book’s pages tear. Leibniz would deny that I caused the book to fly through the air. He would argue that the book did not in fact cause the dent in the wall any more than the wall caused the pages to rip. Rather, the book was preprogrammed by god to take off through the air at the precise moment I opened my moving hand. A certain portion of the wall, in turn, was preprogrammed to crumble at the precise moment the book came into contact with it, just as god had put it into the nature of the book’s pages to rip, entirely by themselves, immediately after the book had hit the wall.

The point to all this is that there is no direct causal or perceptual relationship between one substance and any of the others. You can’t, as it were, ‘see’ into substances and you cannot ‘see’ out of them. They are ‘windowless’. They exist and do what they do entirely on their own without being caused to act and without acting upon anything else. It may seem that things interact with each other in the world, or at least have the power to do so, but they do not. This, you see, is simply god’s ‘pre-established harmony’.

Now this is mostly bullshit, of course. But it does offer a great model for viewing the self (minus the divinely pre-established harmony junk). The lyrics of “Windowless I” (see “Lyrics” menu) build on this perspective. They are also inspired by the writings of various other authors, such as Aldous Huxley, Herman Hesse, Timothy Leary, and Carl Jung.

“Lies. They all lie.” In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, after the protagonist withdraws from society, he begins to realize that “everything lied, stank of lies,” as he walked through town, scornfully glancing at pretty women, well-dressed people, business men and traders, princes and prostitutes, priests, lovers and mourners.

“Everybody lies” – House M.D.

“Windowless I” begins in the realization that society is comprised of lies – incessant efforts to conceal, embellish, spin, ignore, mislead, and appropriate words to twist their meanings. People have grown so accustomed to it that they neither notice nor care. They expect lies and would feel empty and awkward without them in social contexts. Lying is the business of politicians, advertisers, and corporations, as well as the mainstream media, priests, professors, and scientists. All of it to maintain status, to save face and deflect from hypocrisy, to subtly impose one’s will on the masses, to mark oneself off as a member of some tribe.

The media bias is especially obvious. Yet people only pretend to care. They like it that way. The use of catchwords, slogans, and symbols rather than critical thought is especially prevalent here — all to instill conditioned reflexes in voters, to keep them distracted and prevent the sort of rational thought that would topple their empire of false imagery.

The tools used to perpetuate lies are symbols. Symbols are public. But what happens inside each person is private. Think of the so-called ‘cross’. Only one person can understand the sense of spiritual ecstasy, awe, personal helplessness, guilt, and/or feelings of cosmic significance that ground his or her own choice to identify with the cross as some sort of personal symbol. These experiences are as private as an individual’s particular sensation of pleasure or pain. There is no way of passing such experiences on to another person. The only possibility of communication is indirectly through symbols. So one symbol, in this case, the cross, stands for millions of private experiences.

The problem is that symbols seriously over-simplify reality. They replace thought with mere reaction, which is only surface-deep. Trusting a pair of blue jeans because it has the right sort of label, believing a person with a cop uniform and badge, and embracing someone who wears cross-jewelry is like accepting or rejecting a Christmas present based solely on the wrapping paper.

Symbols are meant to limit experience and constrain thought. Stimulus in — preprogrammed response out. The previous post on “Servitude” compared them to “the crack of the whip that a master uses to rouse a slave into action without question.” Symbols are the bonds whereby the powers-that-be control the masses. Media and advertisers, politicians and priests: They speak your language but have no idea what you want or need. Nor do they care. In reality, there is no such thing as ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ — only two supposedly opposing tribes consisting of individuals who identify with each other solely on the superficial basis of slogans and clichés.

Hairstyles, clothing, catchphrases, gestures, body art, piercings, cranial accessories, shoes and the like: None of this is truly significant as expressions of the self. They are as lifeless as a photo of a beautiful woman when compared to her presence in motion. Such symbolic behaviors serve merely to indicate membership in a tribe. Think of those supposedly ‘badass’ motorcycle packs, which tend to employ deafening sonic symbols to mark their territory. If Harleys made no noise at all but were just as powerful and ‘cool’ looking, would anyone want to ride them? Far fewer, for sure. That is because society values the container over the content.

“The F Word,” South Park, 2009

I am reminded of a scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” Brian, the mistaken messiah, abandons his sandal in flight. Meanwhile his followers stop pursuing him and passionately debate whether “the shoe is the sign.” They then go on to contemplate whether the shoe is a shoe or a sandal, and if it is a sign, what it means and how they should react, and if it is not a sign, what other things that happen to be around them might be signs of the messiah. Following this obsessive display of symbol-worship, the crowd runs off to continue their search for the messiah himself.

This scene nicely depicts the eagerness of people to follow and prioritize empty symbols to the exclusion of what they are supposed to symbolize. It shows the human tendency to see symbols everywhere, even where they are not or cannot be; and if they are present, to misinterpret them, giving them far more favorable significance than they are worth. I mean, the crowd got so caught up in symbolism that they forgot about the guy they thought was their savior!

Living a life predominately dictated by symbols reveals a mind that has been conditioned to respond, follow, and obey rather than to think. It is a mind stuffed with arbitrary categories that filter and censor the vastly more complicated flow of reality.

One might choose to escape this tribalistic freak show by seeking alternative forms of enlightenment, e.g., through drug use (as in the 1960s LSD phenomenon), spiritual quests, meditation, holistic lifestyles, etc. — all of which supposedly lead to feelings of intensity, epiphany, and of touching something universal and eternal. These experiences have been said to involve sensing the boundaries between oneself and the world vanish. They supposedly allow feelings of hope and the sense that the universe has deeper meaning. They provide, it is said, a harmonious connection with others, the whole earth, with life in general — a feeling of being united in mind and body and of relating to everything as a part of a greater whole.

But this is tribalism come full circle. What is the satisfaction of feeling that you are a mere pawn and part of some grand design? Why the need for such connection? The universe is absurd and ultimately unknowable. Can’t one find satisfaction and meaning in accepting that? The search for, trust in, and mass appeal to symbols comes from the need to feel significant. But so does seeking a transcendental connection to the universe. Ultimately, admitting insignificance and lack of connection is the only true significance. Labels don’t stick.

In the end, if there really is some grand design of which I am part, then isn’t my sense of separation part of that? Who is society to judge my separation or to eschew values centered on the individual and emphasize disconnection? What of the atheist, the skeptic, the misanthrope, the cynic, the egoist, the nihilist, and the solipsist? Why the stigmas against such individuals when such lives are truer to the flow of reality than that of the superficial, tribalistic symbol-worshiper? If everything really happens according to a plan, then wouldn’t their abandonment of religion and/or society be part of that plan?

In the end, it doesn’t matter. True belonging and participation are as impossible as experiencing another person’s feelings or understanding their thoughts. Any claim to be part of god’s plan or some cosmic scheme is simply human arrogance and on a par with finding patterns that resemble human beings and their artifacts in the chaos of billions of stars in the night sky.

Who am I? I might apply endless labels: ‘American’, ‘man’, ‘middle class’, ‘white’, ‘musician’, ‘teacher’, ‘writer’, ‘editor’, ‘citizen’, ’40 year-old’, ‘progressive rock fan’, ‘libertarian’, ‘drummer’, ‘philosopher’, ‘atheist’, ‘skeptic’ — all ultimately as meaningless as a mask, badge, or uniform. Several of these, in fact, can be used by social forces to categorize and control a person. Impermanent marks of tribalistic identity are helpful in a superficial society. But are they truthful? In the end, the only true identity is ‘I am I’.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

Ritual: Observing a servile culture

“Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” — Frederick Douglass (“The Hypocrisy of American Slavery”)

I once visited a strange foreign land. I was shocked to witness its people habitually engaged in activities that seemed exceedingly irrational. It was amusing to observe how progressive and free they presumed to be culturally and as individuals. For, unknown to them, a deep-rooted tribalism of the most servile sort dictated most of aspects of their lives.

For instance, certain tribes would drill holes into their members’ flesh, highlighting the openings with pebbles of various shapes and sizes. Many of these members would also allow certain people to carve obscure sketches and symbols into their skin in exchange for goods and services. At first, those receiving such modifications would express discomfort, which led me to believe that the process was punitive. But upon completion, the subject would leap up with an expression of deep pride, quickly gaining admiration and praise from peers.

Oddly, the individuals involved in this rite seemed to assume that it provided them a means of self-expression and individuality. But nothing could have been further from the truth; for, the presence and style of the markings was always determined according to the expectations of the group. Indeed, the point of allowing oneself to be marked in such ways was to display the etchings as a sort of public announcement of belonging and boasting. Rarely, if ever, did those tags remain concealed and personal.

In addition to self-mutilation, loud barbaric noises were common as a method of proving one’s tribal identity, status, and supposed worth. One group, for instance, would move about public spaces while creating deafening roars with devices they had affixed to the flashy carriages on which they traveled. They would also wear flamboyant clothing, often stamped with the emblems of the tribe that assembled those carriages, thus marking their perceived territory both visually and sonically.

Many females of this land were perplexing. They would vigorously protest and make all sorts of noise whenever a male or members of some other tribe attempted to exercise control over their bodies. One almost got the impression that they were attempting to defend some sense of personal freedom. But that impression faded quickly, as the women would then proceed, out of shame and peer pressure, to decorate and dye their bodies in the ways that their own tribe (esp. the male members) expected of them. Hair, eyes, lips, nails, skin, artificial body parts, stilts to increase height — not a single aspect of their appearance could be considered free or personal. The males, in their own ways, also decorated their bodies according to the tribe’s expectations. But many also applyed such cosmetic modifications to their material possessions in an odd attempt to announce virility and prowess.

The raised pick up truck = the male equivalent of high heels.

Whenever an infant was born in this culture, the adults would not fully accept it unless a local shaman had taken a sharp rock and sliced away portions of its tiny genitalia, thus marking tribal membership in yet another bloody manner. Similar tribes would shun their newborns until a man who dressed differently from the rest had doused the helpless infant in water over which he had waved his hands. During these senseless rites, the infant would usually scream in pain or fear. But the parents and adult witnesses did not seem to care. After all, the pride that followed upon this fresh sense of belonging far outweighed, in their savage minds, the physical pain and distress they were inflicting on the child.

Stop mutilating me, sadistic morons!!

The selection of leaders in this culture was equally bizarre. Whenever the stars had returned to a certain position in the sky, certain loud individuals who happened to have more possessions (and thus power and status) than the others would stand before crowds of people while uttering certain sounds and performing certain gestures over and over, just as other such individuals had done so many times before.

This political ritual, I believe, was some sort of collective form of role-play in which tribe members would act as if they had power over their lives, much as a rain dancer attempts in his actions to recreate, and thus control the rain. The two most notable contenders in this game would pretend to oppose one another and behave as if they represented not only one tribe or the other, but also the entire population and its descendants. But the contenders themselves clearly had little in common with the people and rarely any clue or concern about what was really best for the community. The crowd would then divide into two halves, each side shouting at the other, often in mockery, though they were usually expressing the same ideas.

Following the shouting performance, members of each tribe would raise their hands to select one of two most notable individuals, while a group of chieftains from each tribe would pretend to tally the raised hands. For some reason, these exceedingly odd people believed that the best policy was always the one that the majority — no matter how slight — believed was best, as if there was some sort of mystical authority in larger numbers but not lesser ones.

When the ritual was complete, the new leaders would cease making those inspiring noises and gestures, often even proceeding to make opposite ones. They would then continue to preoccupy themselves with amassing possessions, power, and status, all at the common people’s expense — both those who did and those who did not select them to lead.

The two previously opposed tribes, however, would no longer care about the noises and gestures to which they had once reacted so passionately. Instead they would return to their daily routines, drudging through lives that this silly little ritual hadn’t improved much at all, and living right alongside members of the tribe they had not long before been conditioned to hate vehemently.

The single most perplexing aspect of this primitive society was its members’ apparent admiration for something they called ‘free-dum’. They appeared to believe that this idea was inherently important and necessary to their society — that is, if one can say that any idea at all lay behind what was largely inarticulate grunting. In fact, whenever the tribes selected their leaders, they would show most interest in those individuals who promised to protect the ‘free-dum’ of all tribes. The reality, however, was that the tribes were selecting leaders to restrict, suppress, remove, and trample ‘free-dum’ little by little. After all, the existence of this thing, which the leaders pretended to value so highly, in truth scared them and threatened their status.

Upon leaving this land, I was pleased to return to the rationality of my own world, where freedom and individuality would never succumb to socio-political pressure and tribalism. In retrospect, I concluded that the primitive obsession with social control I had witnessed was a defense mechanism. The fear of change and death was so strong among these tribes that they would do and believe anything to convince themselves that ritual gave them some sort of purchase on immortality. The bonds of unquestioned tradition — as these folks believed on a subconscious level — would always outlast the individuals forced to engage in it. Freedom, therefore, in their cave-dweller minds, was the equivalent of death and oblivion.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2014. All rights reserved.

Servitude

This lyrics to the song ‘Servitude’ (Lyrics menu; see also music video under ‘Media’) are mainly about the tendency of society to idealize self-sacrifice and its hypocritical inability to follow that ideal. Think of how often you hear people draw attention to the supposed ‘service’ they have performed simply in order to get what they want:

  1. Want to fool the voters into thinking you give a damn about them? Brand yourself a humble ‘public servant’ at a fundraiser (then fly back home to your publicly-funded mansion on your publicly-funded jumbo jet under the protection of your publicly-funded bodyguards).
  2. Want to graduate? Well, ‘community service’ is required. Just ignore the fact that you’re being coerced into it. It’s a ‘do this or else’ sort of thing. Nevertheless, others will praise you for it. This is the point, right? Or not.
  3. Want to sell lots of pills or pizzas or health plans? Then constantly remind the public that yours is a ‘service-oriented’ company. Just say it, regardless of what it means or if it’s true, and that should be sufficient to make people like you and trust your product.
  4. Want to get on God’s good side? Two words: ‘Church service’. I have to admit, however, it is beyond my ability to comprehend how sitting in a building with others singing songs to a divinity constitutes ‘service’ — unless, of course, we view that divinity as some sort of Medieval Lord who demands song and dance from his serfs for… uh… his own entertainment? Then it almost makes sense, I suppose.
  5. Finally, what about ‘serving the company’ or ‘service to the profession’? When my father died, the funeral director recommended addressing his ‘service’ to his job in the obituary. I guarantee my dad didn’t see it that way. He had busted his ass for countless years for a paycheck, plain and simple. Nothing wrong with that.

Anyway, the problem with all this is that it’s brazenly hypocritical. People pretend to be sacrificing something important to them as if they’re noble and admirable; but in reality, they are using the labels ‘servant’ and ‘service’ to benefit themselves. And when they do so, society rewards them with a nice pat on the belly. This is, however, exactly the opposite of the self-sacrifice that service entails. It’s as if people use the words ‘service’ and ‘serve’ as passwords to prove they’re members of the ‘good people’ club. Beyond that, the terms are empty and meaningless.

This brings me to the second theme of the lyrics: symbol worship. It makes sense that society would care only to flash their ‘service’ to others as an empty token of their supposed virtue because society as a whole is obsessed with symbols over substance, container over content, image over reality.

Think again of all those dutiful Sunday morning worshipers kneeling before… not Jesus or God, but the so called ‘cross’. Bumper stickers, flags, logos, badges, uniforms, trademarks – none of these really says anything substantial about the thing or person bearing them. But they pretend to do so. If you’re a Christian, do you automatically respect those with crosses around their necks? Probably. Should you? Uh, no. No more than a Yankees fan should think he or she has anything significant in common with some random guy on the street sporting a cap that the Yankees corporation branded with their logo. And yet, such senseless solidarity thrives, all at the end of strings pulled by advertisers, corporations, politicians, and priests.

Basically, symbol-minded = simple-minded. Symbols replace thought. They are like the crack of the whip that a master uses to rouse a slave into action without question. The upshot? Society’s symbol-worship and praise of service reveal people’s secret desire to be dominated. They obsessively long for a lord and master to command them. They want to be controlled and released from the burden of thought. They desperately desire to ‘turn the other cheek’ like their idol, but can they?

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

Contagion

“God is not to be feared, death is not a risk. It is easy to procure what is good, while what is bad is easy to endure” (Epicurean ‘Four-fold Remedy’).

Under the media menu of this site, you can find a link to a song that my friend Andy and I wrote (under the band name ‘Misanthrophile’) and the accompanying video I created for it. The lyrics to “Contagion” are in Latin. The lines I used are from the poem “On the Nature of Things” (De Rerum Natura), penned by the Roman poet Lucretius (94 BC – 55 BC). Lucretius was an ardent admirer of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived and taught in Athens roughly 250 years before the poet’s death. In light of his deep respect for Epicurus, Lucretius composed his 7400-line poem to expound the philosopher’s doctrines.

Epicurus bust. Wikipedia.

At the core of this philosophy was the secular, mechanistic view of the universe known as ‘atomism’. In particular, Epicurus (and Lucretius) argued that all that really exists are an infinite number of tiny atoms moving around empty space at random, colliding with each other and forming all the visible stuff and events that we experience in the world according to fixed natural laws.

The idea here is even more relevant to life today than it might seem. Lucretius’ overall intention, as that of his predecessor, is that a rational understanding of why things happen in the world as they do will remove our fear of the gods and of death, thus allowing us to attain true peace and happiness in life.

The human soul, for instance, being purely physical in nature and subject to natural laws, must die along with the body. As a result, Lucretius insists, we can experience no sensation at all after death. Death will be for us just like what it was like before we were born: absolutely nothing.

As for god, a perfect divine being must be content with its existence. This means that god can have no needs, desires, emotions, or worries. God would therefore have no reason to interfere with the workings of nature or human beings. This knowledge, in turn, should free us from the anxiety that comes from our efforts to worship god correctly and to live a righteous life – all in order to avoid everlasting punishment after death.

This is Epicureanism in a nutshell. Now, the lines I have used for ‘Contagion’ can be found at the end of the final book of Lucretius’ poem (book six). There, the poet describes in gory detail the horrific plague that devastated the population of ancient Athens during the Peloponnesian War (430 BC).

So how does this graphic plague narrative fit in with Lucretius’ mission to explain the mechanics of the universe and dispel our fear of the gods and of death? Keep in mind that Lucretius is attempting to explain the nature of things. This includes everything that might exist or take place around us: e.g., the earth, sky, stars, animals, humans, the soul, civilization, the gods, hallucinations, the seasons, meteorological phenomena, and supposed miracles.

The basic idea is that nothing comes-to-be from nothing or perishes into nothing, as if by supernatural agency. All things change, come-to-be, and perish because of the combination and separation of atoms, and all according to the immutable laws of nature. Not even god can influence or interrupt this natural flow of cause and effect.

Consequently, the various imperfections of the world must also have specific causes, especially the countless disasters that afflict humanity, seemingly for no reason, or in the eyes of believers, because of god’s wrath. For instance, Lucretius offers a natural rather than supernatural explanation of lightning, which was often seen to strike even the temples of the gods. Similarly, he explains volcanoes and earthquakes as the result of natural processes underneath the earth’s surface.

It is within this context that Lucretius turns to the plague. He reminds us that world was not made for us. Disease, he says, has a physical cause in the combinations of various types of atoms which accumulate and upset the balance of health. He also discusses what we know today as infection and contagion, as well as the influence of climate as a factor in the spread of disease.

Plague in an Ancient City, Michael Sweerts. Wikigallery.org.

As mentioned, Lucretius’ description of the plague’s symptoms is graphic. In addition to the lines that I have translated above, the poet describes anxiety, incessant retching, convulsions, and exhaustion. The sufferer’s body was cold to the touch, but the inside burned to the bone. Medicine was useless. Some people jumped into streams and wells in a futile effort to quench their constant thirst. Delirium and hallucination set in. Breathing was nearly impossible, and sweating profuse. Putrid blood flowed through the nose. After nine days of agony, along with uncontrollable twitching, coughing, and tissue deterioration, the victims would finally die.

The plague also had severe social consequences. Unburied corpses littered the streets. As soon as people got sick, they fell into frenzied despair. Ironically, many committed suicide. Those who dreaded death most refused to tend to the sick. But they too succumbed, as did those who tried to help the victims. Lucretius also describes parents stretched out over dead children, and dying children clinging to the bodies of dead parents.

Finally, and most relevantly, the temples and shrines of the gods were filled with corpses. Lucretius emphasizes how little believers’ reverence and worship of the gods mattered in the end. The entire nation was in terror, and lawlessness ensued. Some families even began to use other people’s pyres to burn their own dead, which often led to disputes and bloodshed.

Lucretius’ tragic picture of the Athenian plague shows us humankind at the mercy of natural forces beyond the power of their own knowledge, science, and religious customs. It depicts the inevitable suffering that human beings face in a world that was not made for them. Ironically, the power that comes from knowledge of the atomistic structure of the universe reveals the painful fact of our ultimate powerlessness within a hostile world. Most of all, the narrative strongly suggests that god does not care a bit about the welfare of human beings.


The occurrence of extreme, senseless suffering is not restricted to the ancient world. We need only turn our thoughts to the recent disaster in Nepal. We have all seen the clichéd memes on social networking sites expressing prayers for the victims and survivors of the earthquake. Such responses make even less sense than the disaster itself. If god has the power and will to alleviate human suffering, then why would he wait until enough people asked him to do so?

As my mother used to say, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” Nature is a cruel killer who indiscriminately attacks young and old, innocent and guilty, rich and poor, healthy and sick. Consider yourself lucky if you get through life without experiencing serious suffering, sickness, or misery. Only deluded, narcissistic fools would consider it a divine blessing granted specifically to them… and why? Just because they had gained divine favor by praying, kneeling, or chanting in the prescribed manner? So Jesus says: “Clasp those hands real tight, and get down on your knees, or I won’t help those little children I allowed to be crushed by falling debris!” Do I understand that right?

The specific function of a mind is to think — to figure things out according to common sense and reason. So what does reason say about all this suffering? Either god doesn’t know about it, doesn’t care about it, can’t stop it, or doesn’t exist. Those are the only options. Of course you could simply ignore the rational workings of your mind and cling to faith — convince yourself that god was ‘ready for’ the victims of the plague or the earthquake, or whatever other disaster.

You could convince yourself that the suffering all makes sense in god’s mind, but not ours. (Of course, leave out the part about how our own tiny, limited minds could know even that much.) Reassure yourself that despite the victims’ unspeakable suffering, it is all part of the plan of a god who loves them very much. But this is not love. Most of us had unquestionably loving parents who would never allow us to suffer in such ways if they had any say in the matter. Whatever was at work behind the scenes during the Athenian plague or the Nepal earthquake, it is not what any sane person would recognize as ‘love’.

I often say that faith is a mental illness. Of course, this metaphor is meant to be provocative. But the similarity between faith and delusion is striking. Faith is a matter of stubbornly denying whatever conflicts with one’s beliefs regardless of reason and common sense. An adult who goes through life refusing to accept conclusions that contradict what they simply feel to be true no matter how strong the contrary evidence is a person who is not using his or her mind in a healthy, sane manner.

Lucretius’ point is that a rational view of the universe allows us to see an event as horrific as the plague as far less of an illness than religion. Religion and the fear of death that inspires it are the real contagion.

© Joshua J. Reynolds 2015. All rights reserved.

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.