On Cynicism

Somebody accused me the other day of being a cynic, when I opined that all the world’s a scam; that all human institutions are designed by the rich and powerful to ensure the preservation of the status quo, whereby those in charge retain their wealth and power.  Is that cynical?  Come to think of it, what exactly is cynicism?  I looked it up.

Chambers: cynic, -al adjs. dog-like: surly: snarling: disinclined to believe in goodness or selflessness, – ns. Cynic one of a set of philosophers founded by Antisthenes of Athens (born c. 444 B.C.), characterised by an ostentatious contempt for riches, arts, science, and amusements – so called from their morose manners: (without cap.) a morose man: (without cap.) a snarler: (without cap.) one who takes a pessimistic view of human motives and actions; cynicism surliness: contempt for and suspicion of human nature: heartlessness, misanthropy: a cynical remark. – adv. cynically, – n. cynicalness. (Gr. kynikos, dog-like – kyon, kynos, dog, or perh. From Kynosarges, the gymnasium where Antisthenes taught.)

Etymologically, I’m a bit sceptical (sceptical – a word to which I shall shortly return) about the dog.  I’ve never thought of dogs as cynics.  Cats, yes.  They’re always sneering.  But dogs?  Of course, as with human beings, there are a few vicious critters out there, but by and large I find dogs to be friendly and affectionate.  They wear their hearts on their sleeve and they presume we do the same.  They don’t have the cynic’s habit of looking for some sordid motive lurking beneath an act of kindness.

Clearly, to be described as a cynic is something of an accusation; the word is pejorative.  But is that fair to cynics?  After all, maybe their dim view of human nature is quite justified.   But I must say that I baulked at being labelled a cynic, and I protest that I am not cynical.  So what is it about the definition of cynicism that makes the adoption of the cynical attitude undesirable and, indeed, reprehensible?

It’s useful here to consider that relative of the cynic, perhaps a step-brother, the sceptic.  Chambers again:

sceptic, sometimes (and in U.S.) skeptic, adj. pertaining to the philosophical school of Pyrrho and his successors, who asserted nothing positively and doubted the possibility of knowledge: sceptical (rarely). – n. a sceptic philosopher: one who withholds from prevailing doctrines, esp. In religion: one who inclines to disbelieve: an inquirer who has not arrived at a conviction. – adj. sceptical of or inclined to scepticism: (now often) doubtful, or inclined towards incredulity. – adv. sceptically. – v.i. scepticise, -ize to act the sceptic. – n. scepticism that condition in which the mind is before it has arrived at conclusive opinions: doubt: the doctrine that no facts can be certainly known: agnosticism: sceptical attitude towards Christianity: general disposition to doubt. (L. scepticus – Gr. skeptikos, thoughtful, skeptesthai, to consider.)

Now unlike cynicism, scepticism, especially in the culture of the west, is seen as being rather a healthy trait.  The entire edifice of the modern scientific method is founded upon Cartesian doubt.  There is no certainty.  Any theory is only as good as its last experimental verification.  The theory remains vulnerable; perhaps the next set of results will topple it.  That is how science progresses.  Sceptics are open-minded.

In fact, open-mindedness is the quality that differentiates the sceptic from the cynic.  The cynic’s mind is closed.  He has made his mind up.  Once you adopt the mind-set of the cynic, there is no going back.  This is why cynicism is such a dangerous attitude to nurture.  The road to cynicism is a one-way street.  And what lies beyond cynicism?  Hopelessness, and then despair.  Don’t go there.

So when I hear people say that the coronavirus pandemic, if and when it subsides, is going to leave us a better and more caring and compassionate people, I hope my attitude is one of scepticism rather than cynicism.  The fact is that many of the people who were at the top of the heap, before it collapsed like a mountain of sludge on to the poor and vulnerable subsisting in the valley below, now want to reconstruct the heap exactly as it was before.  Yet surely the Covid Pause (assuming it is merely a pause) should make us alter our priorities, to value, cherish, and appropriately remunerate health care workers, carers for the elderly, farmers, crop gatherers, garbage collectors, and many other contributors to society who, the very antithesis of cynicism, aren’t just in it for the money.

At this point I was about to write (a) “I’m not holding my breath” or (b) “Well good luck with that” or (c) “It is what it is”.  But the Masters of the Universe want to hear us echo these sentiments because it means we have stopped challenging the world’s injustices.  So I abjure and renounce the threadbare clichés of the cynic.  I am chastened by this accusation of cynicism.  I hereby quit the cynical habit.  You can say to me, “Well, good luck with that” – but only if you really mean it.

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