fighting cynicism

Identifying, Avoiding, and Fighting Cynicism


The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. Local and National news and quite a bit of social media is designed to remind us of this constantly. I am guilty of having written more than once in a negative light about our current social and political fabric. It’s much easier to state what’s terrible in the world than to come up with or work toward solutions to colossal problems. The cynic always seems to be the most popular during a time when solutions to our troubles are hard to find. Cynicism has proven time and again to be a dangerous path for a society to walk down and it is my belief that the two greatest issues of this century, climate change and the rise of anti-liberalism, will only be appropriately addressed when hope trumps the cynics. 

Now, hope is at its easiest when there are answers. FDR had many answers to the Great Depression. Some answers worked while others failed. But the hope he inspired with tangible solutions to people’s problems set the United States on the path to be the strongest nation in the 20th century. It’s always easy to read through history and find the leaders with answers were the ones who gave their people the most hope, even if the answers fell flat or were a dishonest action. A leader needs good marketing to connect his work to the optimism of the people. 

Jimmy Carter provided an honest review of his day in his infamous “Malaise” speech. “For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years.” He was right to say, “The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.” Unfortunately, Carter gave no solution to be hopeful for, only the abstract call for people to regain their confidence in the American way. Carter invited the cynics to move right into the White House. 

Cynics are easy prey for grifters. People want a snake oil pill to take away their worries. Grifters always have an obvious solution to the obvious problem. The defining feature of the cynic is they don’t mind being fooled. Hannah Arendt so rightly observed:

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds.

Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.

The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

Hannah Arendt

What may seem outrageous on its surface is actually quite easy to understand. Nobody wants to be made a fool of. And like a child who is ready to say “I knew that all along” instead of admitting their embarrassment, many cynics will happily take a chance on being right with the confidence they can fane their support tomorrow. It is harder to take the risk of hoping for change and to be wrong about it not happening. 

The political connections today should be easy to piece together. Joe Biden and most of the older Democratic caucus are literally Jimmy Carter’s colleagues, they are pragmatic, work within the system, and (usually the only ones) play by the rules. The Trump era has been the elementary school version of Arendt’s summary. Trump has as many snake oil pills as any major political figure in US history. The moment one pill is discovered as phony, he denies mentioning it and is on to the next one. Hell, he told his followers to inject bleach and each horse dewormer. The metaphor I’m trying to use isn’t even abstract. 

But it runs deeper than that today. There are many active elements of the various American conservative organizations (political, intellectual, media, etc) that use cynicism to bring about a new illiberal form of democracy. The popular phrase we hear “We’re a republic, not a democracy” is an open call for the cynics to take their position. I turn to John Ganz in explaining what they mean by this

There are some actual substantive commitments that come with [democracy]. One of the most important of these is a belief in popular sovereignty, which is the principle that virtually all Republican politics are designed to get around: either in the old fashioned form of Senatorial or Judicial anti-majoritarianism and gerrymandering or its more recent politics of menacing putschism and election denial. The former is bad, but conforms to the rule of law and one hopes can be remedied over time. The latter breaks the system. Fused together, as they are now, they form the basis of potential one-party rule.

John Ganz

Many on the right grasp at solutions and scapegoats. Fodder for the cynics. The younger democrats (and some older like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren) have identified that a party can’t run on “vibes” as the post JFK democrats have tried to do. Perhaps a party competing against cynical populism can be successful with popular solutions. 

But these solutions are for massive problems. Climate change is such an all encompassing catastrophe that it’s much simpler to pretend it doesn’t exist. To change our entire infrastructure, economy, and daily routines just can’t be done. The cynic struggles with the multi-step and multi-generational process. Rebecca Solnit says this is for two main reasons. The first being, “[d]espair’s cheerleaders offer the same message that institutions all around us do: that power resides in the few, at the top.” So much of the climate change language has been on what individuals can do, like recycling or conserving water. The real change will occur when corporations and nations are held to that same standard. 

Solnit addresses that this is ample time for cynicism to set in. “If you do not take the long view, you cannot see how campaigns build, how beliefs change, how what was once thought impossible or outlandish comes to be the status quo, and how the last half-century has been an extraordinary period of change for society, beliefs and values.” Nick Cave goes even further, 

It does seem possible — even against the criminal incompetence of our governments, the planet’s ailing health, the divisiveness that exists everywhere, the shocking lack of mercy and forgiveness, where so many people seem to harbour such an irreparable animosity towards the world and each other — even still, I have hope. Collective grief can bring extraordinary change, a kind of conversion of the spirit, and with it a great opportunity.” 

Nick Cave

It is here that the response to cynicism must change from avoidance to rejection. Maria Popova of The Marginalia provides a passionate and pointed plan for fighting the cynicism that creeps within us. 

Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that great Rilkean life-expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive…Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.

Maria Popova

Cynicism is corrosive in its nature. It tricks us into thinking it is our protector. But with hope we can continue to fight it. Hope in our future and hope in ourselves. Walter Brueggemann reflected that “[m]emory produces hope in the same way that amnesia produces despair”. We have seen our society tackle massive challenges all while continuously progressing technologically, socially, and economically. 

I’ll end with Heather Cox Richardson’s trust in the American people. Before I do, I would like to say that I’ll never be short of criticism. I hold art and politics to a very high standard. From now on, when I begin to criticize I’ll be sure to hold hope in my mind. What could have been and what could still be! You can’t score if you don’t shoot, and you can’t play if you don’t hope.  Richardson says: 

“Far more Americans today are concerned about our democracy, and determined to reclaim it, than were even paying attention to it in 2016. There are new organizations, new connections, new voters, new efforts to remake the country better than it has ever been, and the frantic efforts of the Republicans to suppress voting, gerrymander the country, and now to take away our right to choose our leaders indicates we are far more powerful than we believe we are. No matter what happens tomorrow, that will continue to be true, and I am ever so proud to be one of you.”

Heather Cox Richardson