Thursday, December 6, 2007

“Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist”

There is a charge with which I have been lumbered so many times since my early secondary school days, that I have lost count many times over. It has dogged my step through university and will doubtless continue indefinitely. The charge is cynicism, and whilst I would never dream of denying it, I would question whether this much-maligned vice is not unfairly dismissed by society in general. I write this, partly for my own interest (writing the words as they occur to me serves to anchor them to a page and helps me to pull the remaining thoughts out of my jumbled and disorganised mind) and partly for certain individuals of my immediate group of close friends who view cynicism as simply the dismal perspective of life taken by those who like nothing better than putting out bonfires with bodily fluids.

The connotations, of course, are of a pessimistic and dull individual with a less-than-generous view of humanity. Here is perhaps not the place to argue for the respective merits or pessimism and optimism, but I would like to combat the view that cynicism is a miserly and unwarranted position to view the world from, which should not be welcome in public discourse.

First of all, what is cynicism? Using google, the first definition I find is on TheFreeDictionary site, and is as follows:
  1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.
  2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.
  3. A member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed virtue to be the only good and self-control to be the only means of achieving virtue.
Other dictionary definitions follow in a similar vein.
I would have to agree that there are three aspects to the definition of a cynic - but would define them slightly differently:
  1. Scepticism of human motives and professed virtues. Unwillingness to simply take everyone at their word without critical appraisal.
  2. A person who wilfully behaves immorally, motivated by self-interest. Often exploiting the credulity of the victim(s).
  3. Follower of the philosophical school of thought of the ancient Greek Cynics.

I think for the purpose of this blog I can dismiss the third aspect of the definition. Unless I have vastly misunderstood my co-interlocutors, I have never been accused of belonging to an ancient Greek sect.

I would like to explore the meaning of the other two aspects, as I see them. The first is Scepticism of human motives and professed virtues: Here I am not referring to the pessimistic, surly, contemptuous connotations of the word but the cynicism employed by Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain and Voltaire. Cynicism has steadily increased as society has developed. As we explore in literature and what it means to be human, so we have developed our understanding of the less than flattering aspects of humanity.

Scepticism is a fundamental building block of scientific inquiry. If every bit of research and every paper written were to be simply accepted without critical analysis, I feel that it's safe to say we would not have got far in many fields of science or indeed many fields of academia; such as history, philosophy, law, politics.

Cynicism - in the context that I often find directed at myself - is the very same concept. It should not imply the automatic assumption by the cynic that the subject of the cynicism is being dishonest. It is merely that the possibility will almost always be entertained, for at least long enough for the notion to be dismissed.

The following is an example of cynicism that everyone can be comfortable with, because everyone is (or should be) cynical of the objective honesty of a door-to-door salesman who insists that his product is the finest example of it's kind. In this case the motives are completely transparent. The salesman may deploy artful turns-of-phrase, a certain tone of voice and any number of devices to distract from the potential customer's certain knowledge that all the salesman wants to achieve is to make a sale. Very few people, when confronted in such a way, will dismiss without consideration that the salesman may be prepared to lie in order to sell his product.

How about a climate scientist sponsored by a large oil company? Surely judicial application of cynicism is apt in such a case.

Of course, in many cases - if not most - the motives may not be so transparent. A cynic will analyse a statement, taking into context many possible motives and weighing them up against the professed one. The cynic is then free to conclude which motive(s) is most plausible. Needless to say, this is a speculative exercise. In many cases the speculator will not have sufficient evidence to support the theory, and in these cases it should be perfectly acceptable to reserve judgement, with the qualifier that unprofessed, secondary motives cannot be ruled out.

It is in these latter cases that cynicism is usually picked up as such and reviled. The cynic might entertain out-loud the possibility that the subject of conversation is infact disingenuous. However, if the motives are not sufficiently transparent, the very suggestion is denounced as needless and pessimistic defamation.

I argue that cynicism is necessary. Clearly not everyone is capable of cynicism, and others may be happier to live behind rose-tinted glasses and leave the upsetting details, such as truth, to others. In many walks of life, however, cynicism is required. Journalists, for example, keep the public figures in line by noting their discrepancies and contradictions and make a career out of not taking people simply by their word. Cynicism - as a industry-wide attribute in the press - can be dated back to the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration in the United States. Before this the overarching tendency was to take politicians at their word.

Cynicism is useful in other professions, to varying degree; lawyers are trained to look at cases from every conceivable angle, and invariably from perspectives not professed by the subject of the investigation. The same goes for police detectives. Many among the medical profession are also required to apply cynicism in their job in order to understand what ails the patient. Historians use cynicism when researching past events - was the author completely subjective? What motives were involved? Could the authors personal history affect the subjectivity of the account? How might the political climate of the time have affected what was written?

So to conclude, I would deny that there is anything necessarily misanthropic about this form of cynicism. A misanthrope may well apply cynicism to everyone without remorse or justification - but a cynic need not be a misanthrope. I fully recognise that much of human behaviour is motivated by self-interest. Yet I don't dislike humanity for it - infact, I would say that without it we wouldn't have got so far as a species.

There is another kind of cynic and it is mentioned in some, although not all, dictionaries. This is the second aspect of my definition, above: a person who deliberately behaves immorally, motivated by self-interest. Often exploiting the credulity of the victim(s). The person in question is fully aware of the moral transgressions he is making, and often occupies a position in society/government/a company/church, etc. for which a certain moral rectitude is assumed. Often the perpetrator has deliberately led people to believe he holds and adheres to a set of principles that he secretly, and wilfully breaks. For example, the Watergate scandal could have been described as a cynical abuse of the responsibilities of many in the administration. It is assumed that the same virtues and laws defended by the administration would be observed by all in the government, where infact many were secretly flaunted.

A cynical abuse of the legal system could be one where a claimant, consciously in the wrong, takes someone to court, despite privately knowing his own guilt.

This is what I understand by the words cynic and cynical and thoroughly defend where I stand as a type-1 cynic.

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