What is Cynicism?

April 26, 2007

In my last post, I claimed, amongst other things, that when businesses like Crest or Whole Foods employ green brand strategies, they care little whether their products and business practices actually have a positive impact on the environment and people’s bodies. It occurred to me later that many people would be quick to label such an assertion cynical.

This sort of knee jerk use of the term “cynical” reflects the incredibly broad and general misunderstanding of what cynicism is (and it drives me up the wall). Indeed, it’s a term so popularly misused by journalists, politicians, and people in everyday conversation, that dictionaries now offer the popular incorrect meaning of the word as its primary definition.

Of course, that’s how languages change and shift over time. And dictionaries at best can only be indexes of a language according to its conventional use. But in the process, the actual meaning of cynicism is being lost, so that no word, least of all “cynicism,” applies to what it more usefully might mean.

Popularly, cynics are understood to be people who tend to ascribe selfish and dishonest motives to the actions of others. In this view, “cynicism” labels not the questionable actions of the party being subject to scrutiny (for some reason this party is always given the benefit of the doubt), but rather it describes the negative attitude of he or she who is presumed to imagine disreputableness everywhere.

So, for example, if I were to suggest that the real motive, behind the ongoing military debacle in Iraq, is the Bush administration’s desire to assure that either the U.S. profits from Iraqi oil or no one does. And what’s more, I might continue suggesting, Bush, Cheney, et. al., want to prevent Iraqi participation in an Iranian oil exchange, which will trade oil in euros rather than dollars. For, they worry, if Iraqi participation in this Iranian oil exchange were to take place, it might upset the U.S. dominance of the global economy by undermining the predominant adoption of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency. If I were to suggest this, as merely an example, I might well be called cynical.

Could Bush, Cheney, et. al., really prefer a military debacle in Iraq over pulling out, as at least a second best choice to an ever elusive victory? Only someone who thinks the worst of other people would propose such an argument! Cynic!

And so the cynic (wrongly) becomes he or she who perceives nefarious motives on the part of others. What’s lost in this is the possibility that maybe Bush and Cheney are indeed sneaky fellows. Maybe they aren’t even as good as their word. As usual, the person who perceives the problem is called the problem.

In point of fact, there’s a lot of controversy about the dollar/oil argument I just presented. But the strange thing is, I’d be called cynical not because the argument might be incorrect, but rather just for considering it at all. What does that say about the willingness of people to, oh, I don’t know, think?

The Cynics (the original ancient Greek ones), interestingly enough, believed above all in self-discipline and virtue, through actions, rather than ideas. They tended to lead monk-like lives, eschewing ordinary pleasures. So the Cynic, way back when, was far from the bitter and paranoid curmudgeon we imagine today.

I would suggest, then, that those who critique the darker side of contemporary culture and politics are not cynical at all. They are skeptical and analytical. The true cynic, if the term must maintain its contemporary negative connotation (and it likely will), is the person whom the skeptic critiques. The cynic is the politician or business person who has so much contempt for other people, that he or she says whatever it takes to accomplish their narrowly interested ends. Moreover it is a sort of person who usually exclaims virtue, while exploiting the good will of others. That’s cynical. Yet strangely, in contemporary culture, it tends to be the person who points out this sort of behavior who gets labeled cynical.

This, of course, is all part of a larger issue. Americans do not like to admit that there could be anything not-nice about our wealth and power. So in the U.S. we tend to label any claim about our less than admirable motives, hidden beneath the surface, as paranoid or a conspiracy theory, or just plain cynical. It is part of our long tradition of anti-intellectualism. Ignorance, it turns out, (willful, happy, Pollyannaish ignorance) is a privilege of power.