“The age of anxiety has given way to the age of cynicism,” then 30-year old Mohammed Fairouz wrote a few years ago in the On Being blog. “Among my generation, cynicism is no longer a bad word: it’s celebrated, and is often mistaken for intelligence.”
It’s not hard to imagine the sources of this cultural turn toward an attitude of futility and mistrust. The human-caused climate crisis, the fractious and factional political landscape, wealth disparity, unrelenting racial and gender injustice – all give one cause to throw up one’s hands in despair.
A cynic lacks trust in the motives of others and, more broadly, may lack hope for the species and the planet. Given the state of affairs at the start of 2020, that might just be a rational outlook.
After all, it’s said that a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist.
Maybe it’s a generational thing, but cynicism does not seem so highly regarded by members of the current older generation. Time magazine columnist Joe Klein quipped in an interview that “Cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre.”
Peggy Noonan, an opinion columnist at the Wall Street Journal, says “Cynicism is not realistic and tough. It’s unrealistic and kind of cowardly because it means you don’t have to try.”
And so it goes in what is obviously an age-old debate. In an earlier generation, the playwright George Bernard Shaw sniffed that “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”
Perhaps cynicism is inevitable, not unlike the second law of thermodynamics, which dictates the natural tendency of all things to gravitate towards chaos and disorder. Just where the cynics would assume things would go.
But it’s easy to conflate cynicism with skepticism, critical thinking or discernment. Skepticism may be wary but open-minded, while a cynic’s mind has generally already been made up, with a negative verdict.
George Carlin once commented that “Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist”. Indeed, one can imagine a spectrum – with cynicism near one end and idealism near the other.
And along that spectrum we may find ourselves at various points, depending on the day or the year. This brings us to some of the specific questions we could ask:
- Where do you find yourself on this spectrum, at this time and age?
- How has it changed in the past decade?
- For you, what mitigates against the force of cynical entropy?
The first Big Questions Forum of the year will be a discussion about the perceived cultural tendency toward cynicism, and the benefits, pitfalls, and antidotes to an attitude that goes beyond skepticism to unmitigated doubt and mistrust.
We hope you can join us on Tuesday, January 28th from 7:30 – 9:00 in the Parlor.