I’ve been thinking about cynicism a lot lately, for no particular reason aside from the fact that I am a cynic.
According to the actual definition, a cynic is either an adherent of the Greek philosophical school of cynicism, and/or simply a person who believes that human actions are motivated by selfishness (or rational self-interest, to put it more euphemistically).
While I do happen to believe that, I think the word “cynic” has taken on a slightly different, more general meaning, and that is the one that I usually think of when I call myself that. This general definition is that a cynic is a person who sees the faults in things more clearly than most.
Obviously, this entire blog is an expression of that particular trait of mine, and that’s why people seem to either love it or hate it–for the most part, you either “get” cynicism or you don’t.
I think, though, that at least when it comes to politics and social justice, cynicism isn’t nearly as miserable and self-defeating as people think it is. Most intelligent people, if pressed, will admit that there are some serious problems in our society. However, they will tell you that none of this will ever change, that it’s depressing to even think about, and that it’s best to focus your attention on friends, family, work, hobbies.
But we “cynics,” who point out all these problems and analyze them so enthusiastically, seem to actually enjoy the process of unearthing trouble, even if the things we find often disgust and dismay us. The reason the process is so rewarding is because we know that we’re crawling along towards change, and that the more people we urge to care with our commentary, the faster that crawl will go.
So who’s the real cynic?
Of course, there are certainly people out there who cannot remain informed about societal problems while still holding on to their mental health. To such people, I would obviously say to take care of yourself first.
But I think that most people who protest that being critical is “depressing” are selling themselves short. What’s truly depressing is to feel like you have to deceive yourself into believing that everything’s just awesome because you can’t change it anyway.
Cynicism may not be the right word for my approach, but I don’t think there really is one. For instance, calling myself a “critical” person sends an equally distorted message, because it makes it sound like I criticize things for the sake of criticizing them. I don’t. I criticize them because they need to be criticized, and because we all stand to gain from criticizing them.
Instead, I like to call my philosophy “optimistic cynicism.” Or, you know–hope.
I think it was George Carlin who said Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist. I see your point that cynics who criticize the system—to the chagrin of others—actually want the system to do better and hope so. We cynics are probably more optimistic than those who ignore the system’s flaws believing that there’s no hope for change.
Exactly. “Yeah well that’s just how things are” never seemed like an extremely empowering position to me.
Exactly right. People often don’t understand that one needs to be highly idealistic and imaginative to do useful critical thinking.