The scourge of cynicism

Writing under the handle “Bronxiniowa,” Ira Lacher, who actually hails from the Bronx, New York, is a longtime journalism, marketing, and public relations professional.

To paraphrase George Carlin: I used to be a cynic; now, I'm a skeptic. You know; you grow.

"A skeptic is a doubter. A cynic is a disbeliever." Thus saith the Associated Press Stylebook. The difference? In today's polarized America, a skeptic may acknowledge that even though Supreme Court justices, as do all of us, have biases, their rulings we dislike are probably based on their knowledge of the Constitution, the intent of the statute's creators, and what the statute actually says. A cynic believes the justices mine all that simply to impose their biases on what they want to become the law of the land.

Skepticism can be good for societies. If expressed skepticism had been greater during the earlier days of the Vietnam War, that catastrophe might have ended sooner, and tens of thousands of people wouldn't have died. Impelling us to look askance at what political, business, police, and spiritual leaders had always told us, that Vietnam-induced skepticism helped journalists unearth scandals such as Watergate, Whitewater, Enron, Theranos, and pedophile priests, among others. "Healthy skepticism," former New York Times copy editor Merrill Perlman wrote in Columbia Journalism Review, "allows someone to accept as fact that which has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt."

But that healthy skepticism has deteriorated into unhealthy skepticism, which, Perlman says, "is a tendency to believe everything is 'fake news' or wrong, which can lead to 'cynicism.'" She quoted the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines a cynic as “A person disposed to rail or find fault; now usually: One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder.”

As clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Firestone posited in Psychology Today, cynicism can arise from a feeling of vulnerability, of getting off the mat and giving a giant finger to those we perceive have wronged us. And how do we manifest that? "When we get cynical," she wrote, "we are often indulging in self-righteous attitudes and forming expectations that people should behave a certain way." Progressives are quick to identify those folks: the anti-abortion, gun-control, Christian nationalist crowd.

On the left, asserts Abigail Shrier, writing as "Truth Fairy" on Substack: "[c]ynics accuse vast swaths of America of white supremacy or treason. They make no effort to forge common ground because you don’t invite Lucifer to lunch. They find themselves unmoved by the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, perhaps the greatest progressive legal icon of her generation, and Antonin Scalia, arguably the greatest conservative icon of his—were good friends. . . . They care only for their narrow slice of a political party and behave as if the raison d'être of America is to advance their political Tribe—and not the other way around."

Shrier places her hopes in what she terms "Believers," whom she defines as "those who possess deep faith in bedrock American principles—free speech, due process, equal protection, religious liberty." She adds: "Believers strongly tend towards keeping women’s sports for women, keeping police departments funded, and opposing the myriad ways Big Tech seduces and then brutalizes young minds."

Whether you call us "believers," or, as I prefer, "anti-absurdists," we are healthy skeptics who believe what beginning journalism students are advised: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out with reputable sources. We believe an incredible lack of competence and earnestness among certain institutions tarnishes their performance and reputation, but not that they operate routinely with the intent to screw everyone over or harm them. We believe some issues may not have more than one side, but those that do need all sides assessed before rendering a judgment.

Mostly, we believe Americans need to cleanse ourselves of the toxic cynicism that has metastasized, like cancer of the body politic, into a disease that threatens America's vitality. "Less cynicism is good not just for individuals or organizations but also for society as a whole," Brett Beasley asserted for Notre Dame University's Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership. "When cynicism is down across the board, an entire nation has greater economic growth, a more stable democracy, greater civil engagement, and less crime and corruption."

Do you recognize yourself as a cynic? Do yourself and America a favor: Grow out of it.

Top image: Cynical face vector by ykid, available via Shutterstock.

Tags: Commentary

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