Against cynicism

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic”. Maya Angelou.

When he rose to speak at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23 of 1910, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt delivered a powerful call to action against the seeping cultural tragedy of cynicism, which, in his view, was a poison aimed at the heart of a just and democratic society.  Roosevelt, who served as the 26th president of the US, cautions against “that […] cheap temptation” to be cynical.  He said:

The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister 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, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities — all these are marks, not […] of superiority but of weakness.”

One of the tendencies we might find most troubling in contemporary culture is that of mistaking cynicism for critical thinking.  This confusion seeds a pernicious strain of unconstructive and lazily destructive condemnation.  Amid this epidemic of self-appointed critics, it becomes harder and harder to remember just how right Bertrand Russell was when he asserted nearly a century ago that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.”

Cynics have a jaundiced view of life. They operate from the assumption that people are motivated purely by self-interest rather than acting for honourable or unselfish reasons.  They tend to assume that anything that appears to be well-meant and for the good of others, is corruption and selfishness dressed up to look pretty.  Cynics are suspicious of decision-makers; they seek to knock things down in the expectation of exposing their corrupt foundations.  They like to negate and destroy.

Now, you might well say that a drop of cynicism is a sensible homeopathic remedy against the abuse of power and the apparent madness of our times. History illustrates that, indeed, institutions and individuals can use their responsibilities and powers to evil ends.  In this way, the part-time cynic might say that she protects herself from the abuse of power.  However, I would like to suggest that cynicism as a default setting is as imprisoning as the abusive use of power and self-interest.  It is also a lazy non-participative attitude.

Roosevelt concludes:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat…”

Powerful stuff indeed.  Yes, as the modern world spins with shape-shifting complexity, the appeal of making a retreat into self-protective cynicism may be increasingly tempting.

In her excellent book, How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran, regular columnist in The Times newspaper, writes against succumbing to the temptation to recline into lazy cynicism:

When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas. Cynicism means your automatic answer becomes “No.” Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment.

And this is, ultimately, why anyone becomes cynical. Because they are scared of disappointment. Because they are scared someone will take advantage of them. Because they are fearful their innocence will be used against them — that when they run around gleefully trying to cram the whole world in their mouth, someone will try to poison them.”

Ok – you do have to be a bit savvy; a bit street-wise. Not every individual is trustworthy; not every organisation is benevolent.  But, the default must surely remain with optimism.

This place, this school, is the least cynical place I’ve ever worked. You are the least cynical children I’ve ever worked with.  Ok, there can be the odd rolling of eyes; the occasional sideways glance – but I forgive you that – you’re teenagers after all! (He said, patronisingly).

And for the very most part, you raise your concerns and express your voices in a constructive spirit. See, for example, the work of the School Council, as I did yesterday, and you can admire a blend of open discussion and reasoned challenge.  You don’t have to be cynical to change things.

The staff here are the least cynical I have ever worked with. Even the longer in the tooth rarely grumble, and if so it’s mostly about sensible things.  On the whole, this is because our School encourages a constructive approach to life.  That it is better to get stuck in, than to stand on the side-lines and comment; that it is better to participate than be a spectator; that you get more out if you put more in.  That it’s easy to sit in the armchair and poke fun at others; but much harder and more rewarding to get up and do something.  That it is the creators, the optimists, the constructors, who make a difference.  That nobody ever put up a monument to a critic; and, when it comes down to it, nobody likes a smart-arse.

We must be on guard against the pernicious laziness of cynicism. Here’s to positive engagement; true critical thinking; making change happen from the inside.

 

 

[Source credit for inspiration and excerpts in italics: http://www.brainpickings.org – Theodore Roosevelt on the Cowardice of Cynicism (Accessed 8.5.2018)]

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