Banishing Cynicism

Cynicism needs to be banished from humanity’s collective thought process.

I don’t mean the classical Greek concept of the Cynic with a capital C. Diogenes  had many great traits and his philosophy had wonderful components to it. The legend of him telling Alexander the Great to “Stand out of my sunlight” is a fantastic example of a man speaking truth to power with courage. Diogenes rejected property, challenged    Plato’s interpretation of Socrates, and violated social rules. Though often unpleasant, his personality and his philosophy battled social hypocrisy.

No, I mean modern cynicism, with a little “c”.

You know the kind of cynicism I’m talking about. The reaction to an atrocity that states, “That’s just what human beings do”. The idea that “those people”, whoever they are, just can’t possibly change. We see it everywhere: On Facebook walls, from the mouths of pundits, from our elected officials.

It’s the reaction that expected that the Egyptian revolution would end with them returning to a dictatorship, and that that therefore meant that the whole enterprise was worthless.

It’s the reaction to police brutality that states that people with power just tend to beat others.

I’ve had people insist to me that they shouldn’t bother telling others how they feel because every person, without exception, would react by telling them to shove it. I’ve had people insist to me that there’s no point in talking to anyone in the Middle East about trying to improve their gender relations or work with them to develop a better way of living because they’re just like that. If I suggest anything, from the idea that we could improve the foster care system to the idea that we might be able to have better economic and political institutions, one of the major reactions is, “It’s all fucked, there’s no point in trying”.

Okay, I’m picking some of the most extreme examples. But I invite everyone reading this to consider: Was there something that they’ve heard from others or even said themselves in the last week that simply assumed that something couldn’t be accomplished, with no real research or evidence to back it up? Did they hear someone just assume that another person was irredeemably stupid or angry or flawed?

We can all recognize, as individuals, that we can’t do anything to advance ourselves unless we believe in ourselves. Though it is a cliché, Henry Ford’s statement, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right”, still points to powerful wisdom. No matter how hard people believe in themselves, they can never flap their wings and fly into the sky. But if humanity had therefore given up on the dream of flight, we wouldn’t have helicopters and airplanes.

In educational theory, it’s often said that students rise to the level of our expectations. If a teacher thinks that a student is stupid, that student will absorb that concept, that self-image. Meanwhile, if a teacher insists that a student has potential, that student will be able to find it. Sure, not every student will be a budding Mozart in music. They may not be a young Picasso. But those students will surely do better if they are given the tools to succeed.

Cynics are like bad and hopeless teachers, but for the whole human race.

Every single time someone says, “People are just like that”, without having exhausted every way of perhaps making it so people aren’t like that, a ceiling is being built on all of our aspirations.

Think about it. The cynic saying, “People just suck, they just commit violence, rob, steal and rape” has just lowered their hurdle to a simple step. As long as the cynic doesn’t do any of those things, they’re fine.

Whenever people I know discuss ethics, I almost always hear about what ethicists call “negative duties”: What we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t kill, we shouldn’t steal, we shouldn’t lie.

What should we do?

How many people have honestly looked inside and asked, “What do I owe this world? What should I do to improve my community? What are my values, not in the sense of what I think is wrong but what I know is right?”

We need the answer to that question to be, “Everyone”.

Every time we make some snarky comment on Twitter that racists will always be racists, we let those racists off the hook for losing the battle against their own ignorance and hatred.

Every time we respond to some problem that someone is expressing by noting that there’s a lot of other problems, we’re impeding the ability to solve every single one of the problems we mention. No one says, “There’s no point in doing the dishes because we also have to take out the trash”.

I’ve been guilty of this cynicism too. Cynicism is so warm and safe. It justifies our cocoon of inaction. It leaves us free from having to be hurt if we try to fix things and fail. It lets us distantly comment from a place of safety instead of having to admit that we care about something and then having to defend that passion from those who disagree.

I’m not saying that every person should become an inveterate optimist. I’m not even suggesting that every person must adopt the maxim of “Optimism of the spirit, pessimism of the intellect”.

Nor am I saying that every solution that someone suggests should be adopted. Some solutions are just harebrained. Others are plausible on their face but are unworkable or not possible to achieve within a reasonable timeframe.

I would never accept anyone telling me, my friends, or anyone I love, “You can’t achieve your dreams”. No good parent would ever sit by while an authority figure told their child, “You’re just not good enough to do what you believe you should”.

We should stop accepting that for everyone’s children.


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