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Cynicism is Boring

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After being ousted from the Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien gave a moving farewell speech that culminated in a specific request to his fans: please don’t be cynical. He said cynicism is his least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere.

I remember liking that he said that, given how much grief his fans were giving Jay Leno over their very public time slot conflict. At the time I was 29 years old and approaching the peak of my own cynicism. Since then I’ve gradually adopted a more generous view of human beings. This is not because I’ve become a particularly more generous person, but rather because a cynical view of our species no longer strikes me as accurate.

I now think humans are mostly good, despite how reflexively we tend to disparage our own species. For example, when Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins died suddenly on tour in Colombia last month, I came across this very normal and predictable tweet:

The first order of business when a bereaved family asks for privacy is of course to release a toxicology report. What a society.”

It’s not important that this thought came from local Winnipeg punk legends Propagandhi, because anyone could have said it, including me. But it is a perfect example of the common fallacy that humans can be fairly summarized as a mean and selfish lot.

Whatever you think about releasing toxicology reports after celebrity deaths, the fact that it happened here doesn’t say much about society at large. It might say something about the Colombian official whose decision it was – I can only guess at their motivation. However, the vast majority of people did give the bereaved family privacy, a fact which is not remarkable (or particularly tweetable) precisely because respectfulness toward the grieving is the norm among humans.

It’s tempting to define society by its exceptions, because that’s all we’re inclined to remark upon. Humans tend towards good, at least more than any other species I can think of (except maybe dogs, which are selectively bred for kindness by kindness-loving humans). You can observe them. Humans tend to feel concern for someone who’s visibly hurt. They will push a stranger’s car out of the snow without being asked. They’ll call out to a passerby who drops a glove or a scarf. They try their best not to embarrass others, take the last donut, or one-up someone’s story. When they end up helping a stranger with some small thing, they find it to be intrinsically rewarding. This is normal stuff.

If you scoff at this, you are probably only noticing the exceptions. People almost invariably don’t want to hurt other people and feel bad when they do. The fact that we can feel a lack of respect or kindness in a given social situation is evidence that those good qualities are the water we normally swim in.

Maybe slightly more good

What Conan could have said, if he were a less diplomatic man, is that cynicism is boring. The “people sure are awful” take is the dullest of clichés. It isn’t original, it isn’t insightful, and it isn’t true. Unrestrained cynicism comes off like a fourteen-year-old writing edgy political rants on Reddit. Everything is so bad and wrong! Truly everything! What a society!

Cynicism is a kind of negative fairy tale, beloved by humans fourteen and up for various reasons. It’s the just-so story that humans are trash, a stain creeping over the globe, with a few glittering exceptions like Mr. Rogers and Dolly Parton.

The cynical fairy tale is beloved in politics for its rhetorical power. To push forward a political agenda with any efficiency, you need to cast the people who oppose it as bad. Not just incorrect, but bad. You have to get your supporters to picture them as legions of petty, selfish, scowling people who are nothing like themselves. Acknowledging that there might be reasons behind those other viewpoints – rather than just depraved impulses — is political suicide. Without invoking the fairy tale, your supporters might recognize that your beliefs, like all beliefs, are intrinsically debatable, and that the effects your policies would have on the world are complex and unproven. Politicians and pundits have trouble convincing people of anything without the cheat-code effect of the cynical fairy tale, and its ability to recast millions of morally-normal people as villains, rather than evidence that reasonable disagreement is possible.

This reliance on the cynical fairy tale is what allows for the Great Myth of Politics we are currently mired in: that your opponents disagree with you because they are bad and wrong — not because social issues are actually very complicated and so fraught with tradeoffs that different people in different cultural bubbles will naturally arrive at different beliefs about them.

In other words, cynicism is a way of refusing to explore the complexity of real-world problems. As an everyday person with lots of important things to weigh in on, it’s hard not to rely on the easy out of cynicism, because the alternative – actively thinking about an issue, in good faith, from multiple perspectives — is profoundly uncomfortable and time-consuming. Few people do it, and if you’re one of them you know why. So much unpleasant emotional stuff bubbles up when you release your grasp on your familiar tribal line, even if it’s just for a moment to try to understand why anybody might think differently than you about pandemic policy, gender, free speech, or military spending. It’s much easier – as easy as slipping into a warm bath — to revert to the fairy tale that says your camp is categorically right on this one, and the only reason it’s even being argued about is the legion of morally defective humans on the other side.

A shining example

Since good-faith reasoning is so unpalatable to our tribally-oriented brains, cynicism is the direction of gravity in the sphere of public discussion. It pulls more strongly than anything else, on every part of the political spectrum, but it doesn’t point to the truth. It points to the fire exit – a route of escape from the unpleasant realities that few of our “solutions” account for everything important, that there isn’t a single issue any of us understands completely, and that the more you look into anything the more morally complex it gets. Whatever the issue in question, “people are bad” never explains anything, but it lets you off the hook.

Doing your best to entertain a variety of opinions in good faith is an extremely liberating exercise, but it is at least as unpleasant as other forms of exercise, so I wouldn’t expect most people to make a hobby of it. We can, at least, consciously adopt a basic distrust of cynicism, the way we’ve learned to distrust miracle diet pills and other too-good-to-be-true sorts of claims. We can notice how dull and unhelpful it is when someone summarizes a political controversy as their camp versus the bad people. Even if you enjoy your own cynical feelings, you have to admit that a cynical take is always a boring one.  

Swearing off the cynicism crutch is immediately rewarding in two ways. First, the world starts making a whole lot more sense, because your worldview is no longer underpinned by a fairy tale. Second, it no longer feels like the world is filled with horrible people. Not that it ever was.

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{ 70 Comments }

Brady Faught May 3, 2022 at 6:15 pm

Thanks David, a valuable insight especially with recent events, e.g. Roe v Wade in the U.S. and the simple ‘good and right’ camp vs. ‘bad and wrong’ portrayed.
I’ve had this same disconnect – after scrolling on twitter or the news, the ridiculous notion of ‘those bad / wrong people’ gets inflamed and my cynicism spikes. Then I go to the grocery store and basically all my human interactions are just normal, friendly and good-natured. It’s an eerie thought the power of this cynical fairy tale, woven for the purposes of media, clicks and political votes. Best to go outside, where humans are pretty great overall.

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Kevin May 4, 2022 at 7:02 am

This is a large part of why I’ve largely abandoned most social media (except, ironically Twitter) for longer tail forms of content. Even on third rail issues, the discourse is much more thoughtful.

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David Cain May 4, 2022 at 9:09 am

I have experienced that feeling too — online the world seems so divided and angry, and then in real life it is very much not like that.

The Roe v Wade controversy is a good example of our refusal to engage with complexity. Most people on both sides seem to treat it like it’s an extremely simple moral question, but in reality it is very complex. It’s one of the issues that should be easiest to understand where the other side is coming from, but it’s such an emotionally charged issue that it’s very unpleasant to do that.

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Ron May 4, 2022 at 2:22 am

Completely agree, David. Cynicism is the easy way out. Virtually every cynical/pessimistic person I know claims, no, I’m not a cynic, I’m just a realist, pragmatic. A cynical take on everything gets old fast. That sour view on life and people and events is just boring, as you say. And so predictable.

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ede May 4, 2022 at 3:08 am

my god, you rock
thank you for your views
and your great great writing

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DiscoveredJoys May 4, 2022 at 3:22 am

My rule of thumb is that you should not wish ill of other people. It probably won’t affect them but will eventually harm yourself. One of the ways you might harm yourself is to cement your attitude of cynicism and blind you to the worthwhile parts of living. So yes, cynicism is boring – and boring behaviours become habitual.

My latest self advice (others are available!) is “Be easy with tolerance and courtesy, be miserly with your respect.” That way you avoid harming yourself through cynicism but also acknowledge that other people may have their own priorities that don’t coincide with yours.

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Jon May 4, 2022 at 3:49 am

Great post David and very true: “cynicism is a way of refusing to explore the complexity of real-world problems”….it is indeed easy to be cynical, much more challenging and ultimately rewarding to see the world as it really is

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Jean May 4, 2022 at 4:05 am

Mostly true if you exclude the abuse of power as part of the human condition …here in UK we have a very different culture and political elite.

To express such views re the activities of the UK government vs ordinary people is to sound like Dr Pangloss – sadly we really do appear to be living a dark fairytale here.

Cynicism is rife within our government; it’s hard to remain neutral & open-minded towards a PM who says “let the bodies pile high” etc. …unless, of course, you happen to be amongst the privileged few unaffected by the governments blatant racism, classism, endorsement of increasing child poverty etc etc

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David Cain May 4, 2022 at 9:19 am

Oh there are definitely many reasons to criticize people, of course. But “those people are bad” is never a deep enough analysis to actually address problems. If you stop there, the discussion is just about trying to empower your own camp and disempower the other, which has nothing to do with what’s true and what would improve the situation.

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Jean May 6, 2022 at 1:05 pm

“Those people are bad” and “If you stop there”, “just about trying to empower your own camp” ?
I didn’t say or suggest these things.

Maybe do a bit of research before you make assumptions.
I’m disappointed at such a patronising dismissal – I’ll leave you to enjoy your fan-base.

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David Cain May 6, 2022 at 4:31 pm

Ok, goodbye. I see you’ve chosen your approach to politics and will not be dissuaded

Bill Stuzd May 4, 2022 at 4:34 am

Optional thought exercise:
Reread everything past the dog pic, replacing “cynicism” with “religion.”

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John Norris May 4, 2022 at 5:32 am

Thanks Bill. That was powerful.

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David Cain May 4, 2022 at 9:22 am

I tried this and it makes no sense. Can you explain?

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Larry Dobson May 4, 2022 at 7:34 am

I struggle with cynicism since our last presidential election. I never dreamed that 46.8% of our citizens would vote for that man. In my mind, it boils down to core values. What were they trying to save that is worth sacrificing basic human dignity? I’d like to think that out those 74 million people many of them have to be good human beings but unfortunately I’m not sure anymore. Ultimately would they throw anyone under the bus to achieve their goals? I’ve always been what I thought was an optimistic realist but I lost something in that last election that I’m struggling to get back. Currently I’m staying close to my “tribe” and doing my best to ignore the rest of the world. I realize that sticking my head in the sand is not a solution, but it seems to be the only way that I can preserve my mental stability right now. Meditation, good diet, and enjoying my family are my current top priorities.

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David Cain May 4, 2022 at 9:26 am

The interesting thing is I’m not sure if you’re referring to Biden or Trump.

Whichever it is, I think another way to preserve your mental stability is to actually try to understand what people fear when they consider each of those men being the one in power. They are both understandable fears. If you need help I can offer some suggestions for either.

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Dennis May 5, 2022 at 5:58 pm

Standing. Clapping.

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Keith May 4, 2022 at 7:38 am

Thanks for another great post. I would recommend any of Rutger Bregman’s books to you, especially his latest.

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David Cain May 4, 2022 at 9:27 am

I will check him out, thanks Keith.

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Kim Smith May 4, 2022 at 7:54 am

Inspiring article, David. Thanks for the wake-up call about my own use of the cynicism crutch. I needed that.

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lynski May 4, 2022 at 8:04 am

Zooming out with a wider lens to see beyond the tiny world of the screen. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Perspective. Thank you.

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Rocky May 4, 2022 at 8:12 am

I was okay with with your premise here David, until you had to go and bring up dogs. This sets the bar impossibly high for mere humans. By comparison, we really are “a stain creeping over the globe.” I’m with Will Rogers:
“If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they are.”

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David Cain May 4, 2022 at 9:31 am

Dogs are amazing. I don’t think that’s where the bar is though.

To be fair though, dogs are not naturally occurring creatures, so we can’t compete with them. They’ve been selectively bred for great qualities like loyalty and kindness, and we’ve been naturally selected for a much greater variety qualities, including tribalism.

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Norm Hoffmann May 4, 2022 at 8:57 am

This is an absolutely outstanding piece–insightful, subtle, beautifully expressed, and containing real wisdom. Thank you for putting it out into the world. I wish everyone would see this.

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Paul May 4, 2022 at 9:28 am

Thanks, David. You’ve prompted me to recall a statement from the introduction to the textbook used in my first course on logic. Irving Copi, the author, wrote: all reasoning is thinking, but not all thinking is reasoning. So mental activity can be harnessed, directed, and given purposeful assignments. Perhaps the same is true of our emotional activity? There’s “metta” and exercises like that, but no doubt, when we just let our mental and emotional habits run loose, when we’re lazy, inattentive, and careless, we’ll round things down to the nearest one hundred. Bad habits; they’re a pain in the butt! Thanks for calling attention to our better habits.

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David Cain May 4, 2022 at 9:33 am

The human mind is really amazing, but those uniquely human parts — compassion, reasoning, equanimity — are new. Practicing them involves managing the reflexive older parts that make us angry and averse, which is why it’s so hard to even read a newspaper article from a different political camp.

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Casey Cotita May 4, 2022 at 9:45 am

Thank you for this, it is a great reminder in these crazy times. Your post reminded me a lot of Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind, a Hopeful History. If you haven’t read it already, I highly, highly recommend. He’s a historian who paints in book length with brilliant examples in history of most your points here. Also his “Utopia for Realists” is excellent.

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David Cain May 4, 2022 at 11:02 am

You are the second person to recommend Bregman to me today so I’ve just reserved that one from the library.

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Dave May 4, 2022 at 10:20 am

“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” — Charlie Munger.

Approaching life Munger-like is hard work.

Thanks for your brilliant essay, David. You are doing hard work. And definitely not boring. If I ever spot you, I’ll buy the beers.

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David Cain May 4, 2022 at 11:03 am

Definitely a lot of work, even for a single question. The ultimate achievement would be to “Be able to restate the oppositions argument in a way that would satisfy them.”

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Irene May 4, 2022 at 11:03 am

Thank You, David,
for once again helping me pay attention to my occasional knee-jerk responses to the perplexing activities/controlling attempts of us humans. Mirrors are useful.
Irene

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Alex May 4, 2022 at 11:43 am

David – loved this one. Great essay. You should move to substack. ;) Better money for you, more reliable stream, etc.

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Matt May 4, 2022 at 1:19 pm

I know you’re right, but I bristle at the framing of cynicism as “boring”, which can come across as insulting. Most of us probably want to get better at living because what we’ve been trying doesn’t work, not because it’s tedious to others. Sure, we may not want to be around relentlessly negative people, but they don’t need our approval, they need a method to gradually adjust their perceptions that they will buy into. I hate to be the “ackchyually mental health!” guy, but pervasive cynicism and its friends pessimism, misanthropy, mistrust, etc. are often a part of depression, PTSD, etc., where they are deeply embedded and automatic, not just an aesthetic. Even our angsty 14-year-old hero probably has compelling developmental or environmental reasons for being such an edgelord. Cynicism itself is, as you say, a viewpoint with at least some reasons behind it, rather than just depraved impulses (to be cool/punk, to fantasize about being a Grand Theft Auto/Falling Down protagonist, etc.). You’ve written in the past, very helpfully, about both quitting the news and also using it tactically as a controlled training exercise to develop distress tolerance. I hope you’ll consider exploring cynicism/hope more deeply soon (maybe like how you’ve done with meditation?), because I think many of us are trying to navigate this dilemma of whether to avoid toxic influence or build resistance to it, and how to most helpfully do these. I’ve benefited a lot from your posts about quitting the news and putting the Internet in a box, but it felt like cynicism toward the media/politics/attention economy underlay why I found those ideas appealing! So it would be nice to have more granular techniques for after one has left the fairytale mire.

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David Cain May 5, 2022 at 9:04 am

I think we are using the word cynicism differently here. I don’t mean “general negativity” so much as the reflexive belief that human malice is what lies behind society’s problems. That this belief is so commonly assumed to be true is obviously bad for our mental health. Examining this belief has helped me a lot on that front and I am encouraging others to do it.

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Jenni May 4, 2022 at 1:32 pm

It’s too easy to be cynical about U.S. politics. It’s very easy to find someone in opposition.
Thanks for remembering Mr. Rogers and honoring Dolly. I love them both.
You DO rock David. Keep this good stuff coming!

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Melinda L. Rusaw May 4, 2022 at 1:57 pm

Once again you nailed it Thanks!!

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Patricia Stoltey May 4, 2022 at 3:47 pm

This is my favorite post from Raptitude so far, David. It goes straight to the heart of what I’ve noticed when I’m out in the world (and not on Facebook or Twitter): people are kind and generous and helpful and mostly happy, especially when greeted with a smile and a please or thank you.

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DrSloperWazRobbed May 4, 2022 at 8:59 pm

Wow. Boom! Amazing stuff. Hit out of the park so much of what is going on today and in life in general.

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DrSloperWazRobbed May 4, 2022 at 9:05 pm

Just re-read this. I read a lot, and this is one of the most insightful and positive combo pieces I’ve ever read. If I recall, it was a piece on this very site many months ago that I also thought was such a great mix of the two as well. I hope to hear more from the site!

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Gene McCreary May 4, 2022 at 10:46 pm

Best would be not to make the judgment at all about who is “good” or who is “bad.” Whatever those mean. But that is a difficult skill to master. Meanwhile we can remember that they are out there “… the countless unacknowledged bodhisattvas, people who did not go through any formal spiritual training or philosophical quest. They were seasoned and shaped in the confusion, suffering, injustice, promise and contradictions of life. They are the unselfish, big-hearted, brave, compassionate, self-effacing, ordinary people who in fact have always held the human family together.”–Gary Snyder

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Scott Israel May 5, 2022 at 12:46 am

I agree that there are far more good people in the world then bad people but the good people are much too easily bullied and manipulated by the bad people even when they know, or should know, the people doing the manipulating are bad. That’s why I will continue to be cynical.

My life isn’t boring, I make the effort to see to that, but I never forgot that I’m living in a world with mostly good people who will spend a great deal of their lives being run by bad people to the harm of all and there’s nothing I can do about it.

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Fourmarys May 5, 2022 at 6:26 am

Yes most people are ok on an individual level but consider our collective track record. We continue to trash the environment, abuse animals in factory farms and research laboratories, tolerate extreme wealth inequality, support openly corrupt governments and systems, believe wholeheartedly in whatever propaganda the media spews out (both sides), ignore unfashionable wars while supporting more fashionable ones etc.
Add to that our other cultural achievements -death camps, slavery, torture, genocide, destruction of indigenous peoples, witch hunts, racism, misogyny etc etc etc. Just open any history book to see what humans collectively are capable of. So…humans suck. We’re a horrible blight on this planet.
Greed and cognitive dissonance define our species. Yet most people are ok. Most people don’t want to declare war or oversee a concentration camp or abuse animals. Yet somehow it happens. Go figure. If this makes me a 14 year old I’m ok with that.

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David Cain May 5, 2022 at 9:36 am

Nobody is disputing that we cause a lot of harm. We’re animals, and animals are evolutionarily inclined to exploit their environments, and our technologies allow us to do that at scale. If you imagine the world’s seagull population got smart enough to operate fleets of fishing trawlers, they probably wouldn’t do much better at preserving fish stocks. We’re just the first species capable of recognizing the different kinds of harm we cause and trying to mitigate it.

My contention is that “humans suck” is not a very useful interpretation of our problem. It’s more complex than that. For example, everyone hates oil companies because they destroy the environment. But everyone also pays them to do this because we like driving cars. That relationship alone makes for an uncomfortably complex moral issue to untangle, and “humans suck” doesn’t begin to do it.

It’s also easy to interpret history as just a collection of atrocities. But it is also a collection of collaborative efforts to make things better for people and animals and the environment. The badness is entangled with the goodness, and it’s a lot of work even to think through one issue with any clarity — what exactly should people have done about X, and was that actually feasible at the time? Can we expect ourselves to have always behaved with optimal morality, given the difficulty we have in even keeping our own New Year’s resolutions? These are hard questions to answer if you think about them carefully. It’s easier just to say humans are basically bad, which only adds to the bad part and gets us nowhere. I think it’s a habit we’ve fallen into, and we are capable of doing better than that for ourselves and the world by interpreting the problem differently.

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Douglas Beagley May 5, 2022 at 6:54 am

Everyone should read this.

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Tom May 5, 2022 at 3:15 pm

Well Said.

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kid May 8, 2022 at 5:23 am

Not necessarily a criticism, just a thought. Supposing you are the one who makes an effort to look at issues from many sides and not get overwhelmed by tribal emontions, but most people don’t. How keep yourself from not being cynical about that?

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David Cain May 8, 2022 at 3:00 pm

The pull towards cynicism is always present, so I think it’s just something to be aware of and manage. It helps to remember how hard it is to engage multiple perspectives, and how the culture doesn’t really provide any incentives to do that. It only comes from your own desire to understand things better, and others might not yet have had the kind of inner crisis that drives a person to step back and question the normal partisan approach. In other words, it isn’t necessarily people’s fault that they’re caught up in the ideology machine, and to be fair none of us can claim to be entirely free of it.

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Calen May 8, 2022 at 11:26 pm

I remember a quote from David Foster Wallace that was particularly moving, to me. I’m having trouble tracking it down, unfortunately, but even if the specific quote isn’t somewhere there in his writing and interviews, the sentiment is;

Cynicism is a far more deadly poison than the naivete it was meant to protect us against.

He’s got another one on cynicism, too; this one was easier for me to find.

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

There’s truth to that. I think that at root cynicism is a fear of vulnerability making you look naive/stupid/unfuckable/weak/whatever your particular hangup is.

The big takeaway from this comment should be to look up David Foster Wallace, btw. If you find his speech “This is Water” it’s pretty profound.

Although now that I think about it I’ve been following your blog for like a decade now? There’s a not-small chance that you’re the one who introduced me to Wallace. So there’s that.

C

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Swaranpreet May 9, 2022 at 12:31 am

Dear David
I think you will really like the new book Humankind by Rutger Bergman, especially the first half. A wonderful antidote to a cynical and pessimistic view of humanity.
S

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Terence Wall May 10, 2022 at 11:14 am

Just reading Stephen Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”. Ideal for anyone who would like assurances that this life right now is so much better than any human life that has occurred before, for the vast majority of people.

That’s the whole reason that the media is filled with the negative view of the world – because it is so unusual. The problem then is that this does breed cynicism as these unusual things are all you hear about. Saying “yes, but that’s the exception not the rule” every time makes you appear to be uncaring.

Good news is – mostly – just not news. As you suggested in an earlier article, give up news media for a month and see how much better you feel.

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Brady Faught May 11, 2022 at 11:22 am

Thanks for the Steven Pinker recommendation, Terence! Yes, I realized I’m craving this information. Step 1) 30 day social media and news break, Step 2) use all that time to read books about how we are actually in a point of great prosperity, health and wonder.

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Betty May 11, 2022 at 3:43 pm

I’m trying out a new strategy: asking myself (and others), “I wonder what the reasoning is behind that?” Better than instantly going on a rant!

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Jo Ann May 13, 2022 at 9:57 am

This is the first time I’ve gone into the comment section, and that is after years of reading your articles. I’ve obviously been missing a lot of interesting viewpoints and information. Most of your articles hit the spot, as does this one. After disconnecting from a couple of ‘friends’/acquaintances in 2020 due to pandemic and election differences, I realized that my diplomatic nature could not overcome all differences between people. I was able to readily accept what had happened, as it was their choice, and do not regret the separation. When friendships become that uncomfortable, they can be unfixable. I try not to associate with only like-minded people, but it sure does make life easier. At least there are still others in my life who can be reasonable about our differences and make wonderful and loyal friends. What a world that would be!

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Vance May 13, 2022 at 5:55 pm

I like the idea behind this — abandoning cynicism — even though I’m a fairly cynical dude, and always have been. I’m approaching my senior years now, and I’ve seen no particular reason to snap out of it. But maybe “cynical” isn’t the right word to characterize people who tend toward dark moods. Maybe it’s weariness instead, because you must admit, the history of humanity is pretty thick with inhumane horrors. There has not been a single era of human existence, from the first days to the here and now, when some group of people were not the victims of abuse, discrimination, marginalization, enslavement, genocide, want.

This is wearying — it’s difficult not to think the worst of humans amid this constant din of cruelty. Some stranger helps you move your car out a ditch; the next day 80 strangers are slaughtered by a madman with high-powered weapons. Many Germans tried to help the Jews; many more Germans turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. Some Americans opposed slavery; many more turned a blind eye to it. You get the idea. I’m more upbeat than downbeat, but I am also weary.

Also: humans might be among the only creatures who tend toward good, but they are also among the only creatures who kill for pleasure.

Anyway, thanks for sharing.

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David Cain May 14, 2022 at 12:29 pm

We may have slightly different ideas of what the word cynicism means. I don’t interpret cynicism as a propensity for dark moods (a propensity I have myself). I see it more as a worldview in which humans are regarded as generally bad, with goodness being the exception.

I don’t think the holocaust is a fair characterization of typical human behavior, and in fact it is notable because it is really the worst thing we can think of humans doing. Chattel slavery too — it’s been abolished by those same supposedly evil Western societies who in the end found it morally abominable. You have listed here the worst human acts you can think of, rather than behaviors that reflect the values of yourself or myself or the vast majority of people. It’s just that the worst evils are more resonant in our minds because they clash so strongly with our values.

Weariness is understandable. Evil and suffering are generally unbearable to us, even when it’s a stranger’s suffering. They have a strong and lasting negative impact on our psyches, which I think supports my view more than it does the cynical view.

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Clickbait Victim May 14, 2022 at 5:00 am

Though I clicked on this because I too dislike cynicism and agree that most people are good, I think this piece stumbles by mistaking anti-cynicism for middle-of-the-road politics, and mixing up the goodness of people with the qualities of politicians themselves.

In my book the least cynical people are the ones who take a brave stand for democracy and human rights. The cynics are the ones who decide those folks must be silly because they themselves are too cynical to believe in the highest ideals. Just my two cents

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David Cain May 14, 2022 at 12:32 pm

Can you unpack this? It would help to know what you think middle-of-the-road politics is, and what a brave stand for democracy and human rights is to you. Otherwise I can only guess at what you mean.

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Perse May 14, 2022 at 5:17 am

That was a great article highlighting how a change away from cynicsm could improve your well being and thinking. I really do agree with it. OK there’s a few buts coming….

It’s true that when you are out and about people are friendly and helpful. Sure, they’ll point out if you’ve dropped something or are pleased if they can help you with directions to somewhere. But those are easy, non committing acts that are over and done with in a minutes or seconds. I don’t think it infers much tbh. That’s not to say that there is no wellspring of empathy within humans – far from it – but it flows less freely as measures of time, distance , and diffferences in kin, culture and ethnicity increase. J D Trout’s ‘Why Empathy Matters’ (previously titled more more accurately IMO ‘The Empathy Gap’) looks at how we can organise society to maximise empathic flow across many contexts, and I would suggest it ties in very well with David’s post.

My second “but” is to point out that evolution has created the “dark triad” of traits in humans. We probably all have them to a greater or lesser extent, but we need to be on guard about being fooled by the small number of people who have these traits in larger measure.

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David Cain May 14, 2022 at 12:51 pm

Good points. I agree that empathy decreases with proximity, and that small acts of kindness are easy and non-committal. I should have used a wider variety of examples, because our goodness is by no means limited to those sorts of acts. Look at how many people are earnestly trying to improve conditions for people they’ve never met.

You could argue that same point in favor of the anti-cynical view however — that most of the harm we do is harm we are distant from and which does not trigger our empathy and moral intuitions for that reason. If we had to witness the lives of the animals we eat, we would be more reticent about eating them. If we had to see the sweatshops that produce our clothes, we would opt for better brands. But because technology allows us to impact the world at a distance, through convoluted channels of causality, we are ill-equipped to restrain harm we cause that way.

It’s complicated because who do we blame for these sorts of perceptual errors? The reflexive way is to attribute all human harm to a sort of mass failure of character, as though we are capable of harmlessness but choose to do harm anyway because we’re a bad species. Another thought is that our moral capacity is a new and limited feature of the human animal, and it is always working against other, older, more selfish products of evolution, such as the dark triad traits you mentioned. It’s definitely not an easy question. I just don’t think cynicism is a good answer.

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Perse May 14, 2022 at 6:38 pm

“You could argue that same point in favor of the anti-cynical view however — that most of the harm we do is harm we are distant from and which does not trigger our empathy and moral intuitions for that reason.”
That is a very interesting point. The Russians are cruelly hurting Ukraine civilians and infrastructure because it is relatively easy to press a button and fire off stuff into a coordinated location without having to witness the effects. Most soldiers are reluctant to shoot directly even at enemy soldiers – at least according to WW2 US research.

I agree that cynicism is defintely not the answer. I a solution lies in some sort of benevelonet pyschosocial engineering that people find acceptable. Do read Trout’s bool if you get the chance :)

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Burt May 14, 2022 at 3:39 pm

Honestly, as a Brit I find this ‘cult of positivity’ from Americans kind of boring myself. Plenty of American writers like Barbara Ehrenreich did too, with a number of books railing against it. Constantly being chastised because you’re not living your life according to an Instagram motivational meme; this to me is a real cliché online now.

Also, it’s funny you use Conan as an example. Him being the man that wrote much of The Simpsons in its heyday, with it having some of the most incisive commentary on society for its time (which many would regard as somewhat ‘cynical’).

I do understand not wanting to be bogged down in gloom and doom, as that gets pretty stale fast. But neither do I want to give up all critical thinking faculties. I want to believe the best in people, I really do. I’m one of the people like everyone else after all. We are capable of good, we really are, but it doesn’t help anyone by standing by an atrocity and saying ‘well hang on, lets hear all the sides here.’

The holocaust was evil. Lynching’s were evil. The Nanjing Massacre was evil. I am vehemently against these acts of human cruelty and this shouldn’t be a controversial statement to make. Uhmming and ahhing about such issues isn’t bravely nuanced, it’s moral cowardice.

I’d also like to ask what you would say to a family in a country effected by the outcome of military spending? Maybe tell them they need to adjust their attitude? I’m guessing this article isn’t for them though…

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David Cain May 14, 2022 at 4:29 pm

Who’s on the fence about lynchings and massacres? I’m not arguing that there’s nothing to criticize about human beings, only that “humans are bad” is an inaccurate and ineffective way of summarizing human problems. Nobody said renouncing cynicism is the same as renouncing critical thinking. The opposite really.

If you watched the Simpsons when it was in its prime (seasons 2-8), it wasn’t cynical. It made many precise criticisms about society, and didn’t bother with the sweeping condemnation of the species that cynicism makes. It had a heart and it understood the complexity of human morality. Can’t vouch for it now though, but Conan and the other best writers are long gone.

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Matt May 14, 2022 at 7:04 pm

I’m very on the fence about this article, i suspect that overall i am in agreement with the aim – i absolutely agree that it would be better if we all made more effort to understand the driving forces behind the opinions people hold that are different from ours. But i have an issue with the singling out of “cynicism” as problematic – and calling it “boring” is pretty much on a par with calling a set of humans you disagree with “bad”. Ultimately, having thought about it for a while, the conclusion i have come to is that i simply don’t agree with the definition of cynicism used here. Not sure if that is a cultural, geographical or generational difference – i suspect the last of those thinking i am a fair bit older than you. To me “cynicism” is not the tendency to assume malice, but the expectation that through a wide variety of reasons (be it malice, imcompetence, poor planning, changing drivers, external blockers or just over-promising through a genuine desire to make people happy) most humans will ultimately not succeed in delivering what they have planned or promised to themselves or others. Which is why i personally have no issues with cynical people, because they are a necessary check on the actual delivery of authority.

Having said all that, i’m not sure that the “cynicism” you describe – which i freely admit is one of the valid dictionary definitions – is universally problematic either. If we just take your first example of the toxicology report, i agree we don’t know the motives of the person who released it – the pressure or reward that they faced for doing so – but nevertheless it was ultimately an unpleasant act by that person and if we imagine a world where no one was cynical enough to make that comment then that act becomes condoned by silence.

One other point i would like to make, although i’m not the first to do so, so i’ll be brief – the percentage of humans who take the “good” action in a situation drops dramatically when there is an actual or perceived threat to them from doing so. Laughing along with a workplace or schoolyard bully so as not to risk becoming a target is an instinct in humanity that needs working on, i would say, more than propensity to cynicism.

Reading through all that, i am concerned that i come across as hyper-critical. That is not my intent, thank you for a thought-provoking article and i fully support the drive for a world where we all truly think about the reasons why people disagree with us.

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David Cain May 16, 2022 at 1:12 pm

I think we do disagree on the what cynicism means. For me it is the tendency to assume malice or moral dubiousness in humans, which, whatever you want to call it, is a very common trope in politics and daily discussion. Published definitions of cynicism seem to fall into line with this — attributing negative moral qualities to people’s motivations. The

I agree that most of the time humans do fail to fulfill their intentions and promises. As you say this is often not their fault, and so the worldview that attributes problems to human badness is unfair and inaccurate. This seems very pervasive to me, but that could be a function of the media I consume. Either way I think it is worth advocating for a suspicion of cynicism where it does appear, since it is something many of us are susceptible to and it has its downsides.

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Frank May 15, 2022 at 11:46 am

There’s a great point fighting to get out in there… but it’s painfully obvious that you’ve just written a whole article trying to replace “people are bad” with “people are kind, but also lazy and tribal”.

Which is true. There’s loads of psychological evidence that not just humans, but other mammals as well, are kind, lazy, and tribal. And I suppose that replacing one simplistic tag with three is an improvement.

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Sarah May 16, 2022 at 9:33 am

I like the spirit of this and the idea that we should have more faith in ourselves and each other, but have to strongly disagree when it comes to the application to politics. The writer’s own characterization of politicians is cynical: “Politicians and pundits have trouble convincing people of anything without the cheat-code effect of the cynical fairy tale, and its ability to recast millions of morally-normal people as villains, rather than evidence that reasonable disagreement is possible.”

My point is that there are many political issues that are not morally ambiguous and the “both sides are actually valid” take is lazier than being “cynical” about things that are objectively wrong.

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Sarah May 16, 2022 at 9:49 am

Additionally, isn’t it cynical for the author to assume that people with fully formed opinions didn’t already consider the other side?

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David Cain May 16, 2022 at 1:14 pm

I would argue that “both sides are valid” is not a good faith summary of “things are complicated and there are a lot of places to land on an issue if you think about them carefully instead of cynically.”

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paul May 17, 2022 at 3:43 pm

Very poor article. With fascism knocking at the door in many countries, your article takes completely the wrong tone.

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David May 17, 2022 at 10:55 pm

Fascists love cynicism. Show me a fascist dictator who didn’t rise to power by exploiting the cynicism of the population.

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