Rebecca Solnit has a powerful essay in the May issue of Harper’s that gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
In “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” Solnit writes about what she calls “naive cynicism” — a pervasive cultural tendency to predict the worst, as if somehow that will protect us or make us seem smarter.
“We live in a time when the news media and other purveyors of conventional wisdom like to report on the future more than the past,” writes Solnit, and “use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures.” The problem with this mindset isn’t just that it’s not accurate, but that it “bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.”
I’ve noticed this attitude pervade so many conversations these days, as people assume political movements or other signs of collective interest and action will ultimately go nowhere, so that even if they believe in the goal, they feel no need to actually participate. It’s why so many people don’t even bother to vote. “They’re all the same, what’s the difference?” is a common refrain about political candidates. As if Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton were actually interchangeable.
This “naive cynicism,” Solnit notes, is “first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish.” But refusing to look at the details of one policy or another, or to acknowledge nuances in different positions or values, is really just refusing to engage with reality. Not because the details and differences don’t matter, but rather, because they’re complicated. And to acknowledge those complications and uncertainties makes people feel uncomfortable.
“Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards,” writes Solnit. “But denouncing anything less than perfection as morally compromising means pursuing aggrandizement of the self, not engagement with a place or system or community, as the highest priority.”
I agree with Solnit’s message wholeheartedly, but I’m troubled by her tone. Solnit’s essay suggests a certain contempt for these “naive cynics” who declare activists’ efforts a failure long before their outcome is clear, or assume victory must be immediately visible to be worth acknowledging. But while their view may be simplistic, it’s also understandable.
I have a certain sympathy with cynicism, not of the kind Solnit’s talking about, but the historical kind, the cynicism that’s skeptical of powerful institutions and entrenched traditions, not of individuals’ ability to act virtuously and to effect change. To me, that’s “mindful cynicism.” But I can see how, particularly if you’ve tried participating in collective actions that don’t yield the outcome you’re after, one can unwittingly slide into a more profound cynicism about the possibility of change at all.
It’s a form of hopelessness, really, and it’s not just self-aggrandizement, but also fear that underlies that mindset. It’s a fear of hoping for something better that may not change within the foreseeable future; it’s the fear of looking foolish for trying to change something that often looks like it’s not going to budge. It’s a very natural inclination to look for solid ground to stand on, in a world that’s ever-changing, never standing still. It feels safer to predict the worst for the world, and to focus instead on self-improvement, or at least on making our own lives more comfortable. That may seem, at least, like something over which we’d have more control.
That kind of mindset is ultimately a recipe for misery. Our self-improvement is never good enough, and neither are our material comforts. Philosophers and then psychologists have long understood that human beings need to believe in and strive for something more meaningful — something that transcends ourselves. Naive cynicism – or hopelessness, which might be a more accurate word – discards the possibility of all that. It is profoundly depressing.
At the same time, to proclaim our dominant culture naively cynical, as Solnit does, is to buy into a similar mindset that assumes a static entity. Yes, we’re surrounded by forces that encourage a cynical mindset: simplistic and extremist punditry that boosts individuals’ careers, the pronouncement of disasters and exaggeration of fears that boosts audiences and ultimately ad revenue. But to some extent, even those institutions are on the decline: the proliferation of news sources saps the influence of television stations like CNN or Fox News that peddle cynical sensationalism; and the surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign suggests a groundswell of support for renewed engagement in civic life, especially by a new generation of voters.
I agree with Solnit that “what we do begins with what we believe we can do. It begins with being open to the possibilities and interested in the complexities.” That applies to the phenomenon of naive cynicism as well. It means not writing off those who feel hopeless, but engaging with them. Which requires first understanding their fear and discomfort, and then, rather than dismissing it, helping them see that a mindlessly defensive response does not serve them — or anyone else.