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Cynicism is Lazy

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

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“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil, “because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

Cynicism is not a new idea, but it has threaded itself through the underbelly of social, political, and public life (read Everybody Knows by William Chaloupka, for a deeper look into American cynicism). In a world that is more connected and communicative than ever before, we all seem to trust each other less, and not for no reason. Misinformation abounds, and in an effort to not look stupid, many of us, myself included, have fallen into the trap of cynicism. If you don't believe anything, it's impossible to be wrong, after all. Cynicism can feel smart or quirky or brave, but I'm going to attempt to articulate how cynicism has first, become bastardized and second, become a lazy way to shirk responsibility and avoid disappointment.

Cynicism was not always a synonym for skepticism and it's important to understand where the word originated from. Cynicism is a school of thought of ancient Greek philosophy as practiced by the "Cynics." For the Cynics, the purpose of life was to live in virtue and in agreement with nature, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, and fame. They even flouted conventions openly and derisively in public. Their entire purpose was to lead a simple life free from all possessions. The Cynics originally upset social norms and now, cynicism is the norm. The modern pejorative meaning of cynicism derives from the Roman satirist Lucian, who criticized false Cynics — those who exploited the philosophical way of life to get free food and shelter. Lucian’s criticism came to characterize Cynics as a whole and so the word has taken on a negative meaning.

Recently at work, a customer complimented me on my "professional persistence." In my role, rejection is common and I've found it helpful to adopt a habit of stubborn optimism. The only real alternative to stubborn optimism is something Steven Pinker calls corrosive pessimism: why even try when everything is so terrible and hopeless and meaningless? Nobody wants to be around a cloudy pessimist though, and certainly nobody wants to do business with one. But nobody wants to be around a naïvely upbeat and falsely positive person, either.

People default to cynicism because it's safe. Years ago, I dated a string of terrible men and in the process, became very cynical. I had my guard up high, because high walls create the illusion of safety. However, my cynicism became both a self-fulfilling prophesy and the lens through which I viewed most people. It isn't brave to not let anyone close, and it isn't cute to maintain a jaded attitude about anyone new.

People also become cynical when bad things happen to them, or when a pattern emerges that proves to them that the world is cruel and unfair. If hundreds of your job applications get denied, you might start feeling cynical about applying to new jobs in the first place. If you consistently lose friends or date people who lie to you, you might start believing that everyone is terrible and no one is trustworthy. But in both scenarios, the world and other people are not what needs fixing. The sum of your human experience begins and ends with you, after all.

Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty." It takes no courage to not try, and incredible cruelty to mock those who do.

In an attempt to find a compelling counterpoint, I stumbled upon Julian Baggini who writes, "The cynic is inclined to question people's motives and assume that they are acting self-servingly unless proven otherwise... cynicism proves its worth as one of our best defenses against spin and manipulation." Blind optimism, Baggini argues, is just as dumb as blind cynicism, both tipping the scales too far in either direction.

Be cynical about what you see and idealistic about what you can do about it.

P.S. Read this: "How Cynical Are You?" read more about the origin of cynicism here, or read about how to be less cynical here.


Sarah Rose

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