Some Thoughts on Cynicism

Today Kevin Drum wrote about why he never “felt the bern.” I’m going to let you read his thoughts on that because I want to zero in on this:

But there’s a decent chance that Bernie’s failure will result in a net increase of cynicism about politics, and that’s the last thing we need.

Over the last few years I have been especially interested in the role of cynicism/optimism (or hope) in our politics. Back in 2008, Barack Obama made hope the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. In response, the Republican strategy of total obstruction was designed to dampen all that with cynicism about the political process. In the lead-up to the 2014 election, Obama once again talked about cynicism and hope. Specifically, he said that whether we embrace one or the other is a choice.

With all of that in mind as we head into another election, I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting discussions about cynicism that I have come across with all of you. Here is some of what Rebecca Solnit has to say in the current edition of Harper’s Magazine in an article titled: The Habits of Highly Cynical People.

Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naive says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.

Maybe it also says something about the tendency to oversimplify. If simplification means reducing things to their essentials, oversimplification tosses aside the essential as well. It is a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither, a desire to shove nuances and complexities into clear-cut binaries. Naive cynicism concerns me because it flattens out the past and the future, and because it reduces the motivation to participate in public life, public discourse, and even intelligent conversation that distinguishes shades of gray, ambiguities and ambivalences, uncertainties, unknowns, and opportunities. Instead, we conduct our conversations like wars, and the heavy artillery of grim confidence is the weapon many reach for.

Naive cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and an avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. But expecting perfection is naive; failing to perceive value by using an impossible standard of measure is even more so. Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards. They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised — but also because the openness of hope is dangerous, and in war, self-defense comes first. Naive cynicism is absolutist; its practitioners assume that anything you don’t deplore you wholeheartedly endorse. But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system or community, as the highest priority.

Here is something written by Clay Claiborne back in 2012 specifically about the left and cynicism.

For someone sitting on the very edge of survival, hope is extremely important. Often it is only hope, sometimes even false hope, that allows him to make it to the next day…Cynicism is deadly for someone on the edge of survival. Even in the darkest night, he cannot afford to be cynical. That cynicism just might push him over the edge.

Cynicism is a privilege. When practiced by those in a position to do it well, cynicism allows them to criticize the oppressor and sympathize with the oppressed without ever having to move out of their comfort zone. In fact, one of the main objects of this practice of cynicism is to make the cynic more comfortable. He may not, as yet, be wanting for much personally, but he can see the growing misery all around him so he has to think or do something. The cynic solves this dilemma by thinking that nothing can be done!…

Since the cynic is not looking for ways to attack the problem but for reasons to carry on as usual, it suits this scenario to make the New World Order, the Illuminati, or whoever, virtually all-powerful and quite capable of tricks we aren’t even aware of.

The people, on the other hand, are sheep.

Cynicism springs eternal, so the cynic carries on. He goes to anti-war rallies, he recycles, he does whatever he thinks is the right thing to do, and since he expects things to stay the same or get worst, he doesn’t question whether it is the most effective thing to do.

Finally, back in 2005, then-Senator Obama wrote something about cynicism that I found very intriguing.

Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.

Are these writers being overly harsh on the cynics? Are there places where you agree/disagree with them? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.