• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Notes on Cynicism

Two flavors, one more troubling than the other.

August 8, 2019

Connie Schultz’s recent piece on the dangerous lure of cynicism is worth the read.

I try to think of cynicism as coming in two flavors. One is stylistic, working mostly at the surface level. It’s the sotto voce side comment that notes something true, but relatively trivial.  In most contexts, it’s relatively harmless, and it can be funny. (Mystery Science Theater is a hotbed of this style.) I’ll admit occasionally indulging in this myself.

The second, which is much more dangerous, goes to motives. It’s what Piotr Sloterdijk called “enlightened false consciousness,” a sort of illusion of wisdom.  It’s an outward projection of strength and resolve that’s based in a deeper fear. This is the school of “it’s all bullshit anyway,” or “they’re all liars,” or “everyone just looks out for number one.” In the name of preventing disappointment or betrayal, it pre-emptively rejects the possibility of anything good, then congratulates itself on not being sucked in. By defeating any attempt to make things better, it becomes self-confirming: “See, I told you it wouldn’t work!”

As I get older, I’m much less bothered by the first kind of cynicism, and much more bothered by the second. The first is basically the accent with which a personality speaks. The second is what that person says, and what they’re afraid to say.

The sneaky appeal of the second kind is that even as it greases the skids towards appalling inhumanity, it offers a cheap high of personal superiority.  But the high is fleeting, and the damage immense. If everybody is a liar anyway, and nothing matters anyway, then on what basis can you criticize a tyrant or a murderer?  If anything, a cynic might give them props for at least being brazen about what they’re doing. This is the political base of the strongman leader, the authoritarian whose buffoonery doesn’t seem to stop him.  To the second kind of cynic, the idiocy is part of the appeal. “He doesn’t bullshit,” with that term here defined as “consider the needs of other people.” After all, other people are entirely corrupt too, right?  So it follows that their needs are false too, right? Maybe they don’t even exist, right? Right?

Thrasymachus blushed. Cheap nihilism doesn’t even believe itself, when pressed. The point is to press it.

People committed to the second kind of cynicism get nervous when they see good people act in admirable ways. It threatens them. They immediately seek reassurance by trying to suss out nefarious underlying motives. When that fails, they’ll make some up.  When pressed on the fabrications, they’ll double down. As annoying and even destructive as that can be, there’s a logic to it. If some people are capable of doing good, at least sometimes, then it’s possible that their cynicism is both selfish and factually wrong.  The implications of that are devastating. Worldviews, when threatened, fight back.

Some threats are real. They can be beaten, but only if people can get past their cynicism and take the risk of actually trying to make things better. Not perfect, just better. That means taking the risks of trusting people, of giving up easy certainties, and of stepping into roles that may feel awkward or even scary.  It often means accepting only partial victories. It’s one thing to say that gun control won’t stop all violence; it’s another to say that therefore it isn’t even worth trying.  It’s one thing to say that the poor shall always be with you; it’s another to deliberately create more of them as a matter of policy and then congratulate ourselves on making tough decisions. 

Improvement is partial, uneven, and hard.  It requires effort. It requires accepting the possibility that the way things are right now isn’t the way they have to be.  It requires accepting the possibility that people can be more than metabolisms with feet. The world was built by people who actually tried.

Educators, in particular, have no right to the second kind of cynicism. None. Our entire line of work is premised on the future. We look at students who arrive, decide that they can be smarter/cleverer/more competent/better read/better spoken than they are when they start, and set about helping them improve. It’s what we do. Yes, we do it imperfectly. Yes, people need to make a living. Yes, some people lose sight of the big picture over time, and start acting from the wrong motives. It happens. But the core of what we do is about the future. That’s the point of the entire enterprise. If there isn’t going to be a future, or if it’s all just bullshit anyway, who needs education?  

But there will be a future, and the kind of future is up for grabs. Dark cynics will have the future happen to them. I’d rather have a hand in shaping it. It doesn’t have to be this way.


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