Cynic Pride
Living with Negative Optimism

Attacks against cynicism are on the rise.  Surprisingly, even household names like Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, and Barack Obama have voiced their distain for cynics.  

“I hate cynicism. It’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere,” O’Brien said as The Tonight Show door slammed behind him. 

“Cynicism is a self-imposed blindness,” Colbert told Oprah Winfrey on Ophra’s Next Chapter on the Ophra Winfrey Network.

“Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or started a business, or fed a young mind, or sent men into space," Obama said at UCI’s 2014 commencement. "Cynicism is a choice,” he said.  “Hope is a better choice.”

What’s so bad about cynicism and why are these people going out of their way to criticize it?

I’m a cynic.  I voted for Obama.  I liked him — not because he was full of hope, but because his proposed policies made more sense to me than his opponent’s. Maybe, I wasn’t cynical enough.

My cynicism is not so much a choice, as an orientation. I come from a long line of cynics.  As a cynic, I’m uninterested in the self-serving and self-congratulatory. I’d like to hear more intelligent critical thought — even if I don't agree with it.  That doesn’t mean I’m always negative, but I am often skeptical so I can distinguish between reliable and unreliable points of view.

Sadly today, cynics are vastly misunderstood.  Obama, Colbert, and O’Brien compound that ignorance.  But why would a satirist, a comic, and a president imply that a cynic only has contempt for society? Why would they think that cynics don’t have hope?  We do.  We hope that society recognizes that optimistic yea-sayers often have selfish motives. We also hope that society will eventually face its faults, especially the tendency to be ruled by emotion and pride, rather than by virtue. That’s not to say virtue is rare — only that you shouldn’t count on it.

There are, of course, good cynics, bad cynics, happy cynics and sad cynics. The sad cynics carry a fatalistic pessimism with them.  Don’t pick it up.  The bad cynics are negative in order to deceive you. The good cynics are critical about the state of things, but idealistic about what can be accomplished. The happiest cynics (and I like to think I’m one of them) know that cynicism exceeds optimism as a force for social progress.

There are good and bad optimists, too. But generally, optimists believe that change is just around the corner and that being optimistic about that change will somehow make it real. They don’t so much focus on changing reality, as on changing their attitude about it.   “Don’t be so negative.  Be positive,” they say.  Some of them believe that negativity is the cause of the world’s problems and that by cheering louder, the problems will melt away. Some are optimists because it’s better for their career. Others are so optimistic they completely reject reality. Optimists don’t do well with doubt, especially if the doubts are significant. They have trouble believing that you can love a society you criticize.  Optimists may bring good energy, but good energy alone is something I’m cynical about.

As a cynic, I’m cynical about Barack Obama’s Wall Street ethics. I’m cynical about his corporate-privatizing education reforms. I’m cynical about his drone policy that justifies assassinations. I’m cynical about his promise to head the most transparent government in history, only to have him push prosecutions for those attempting to make his government transparent. I’m cynical about his surveillance state; about his attempt to ram through the pro-corporate, anti-American Trans-Pacific Partnership; about his support for a drug war, discriminatory sentencing, and his too-little, too-late climate change initiative.

Being a cynic doesn’t mean you don’t love the world. You just like to cut through the crap. Cynicism finds faults and exposes weaknesses. At its best, it questions the things that are wrong with society and strives to make it better. 

I’m not against hope and optimism.  In fact, cynicism and hope work well together. You can’t have faith without doubt.  Hope by itself is a fool.  Cynicism by itself is a dullard.

In my own cynical way, I like to think that I can make a difference, so that others, like me, can replace irrational exuberance with meaningful dialogue. We can only make things better when we acknowledge what’s wrong. I’m sure Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, and Barack Obama realize this.  So, why are they being so damn cynical about it?  Maybe, it’s because sometimes there’s nothing more cynical than an optimist.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast June 27, 2014

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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