Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

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The hopeful virtue of cynicism

I looked in my work CD player today, where the Marshall Crenshaw CD with the song "Cynical Girl" on it seems to sit perpetually perched on it. This is not my favorite CD, though it is a worthy one, but for some reason I'm drawn to that song "Cynical Girl" lately. I guess it's because almost all my really close male and female friends over the years have been to a greater or lesser extent cynical people. Certainly almost every woman with whom I've been seriously involved has had a strong cynical streak (though arguably, my wife is less cynical), and all my best platonic friends. I went over to to see if what I think about when I think of the word "cynical", that is, "eager to see the dark part of people", is in any way related to the actual definition. Sure enough, once we throw out the "what some wiseacre says in college" primary definition related to the Cynic philosophical movement, my impression is not that far off the true definition.

Anyone who knows me know that I am in some ways very pessimistic, and yet I am a deeply hopeful person. I want to try to tie those two ideas together, as I do not believe they oppose one another. I am not sure that negative thoughts always belie positive dreams.

I think that if I am puzzled by the power of "positive thinking", I am always also perplexed by the crushing certainty of cynicism. I'm among the sometime practitioners of the dark art of cynicism. I find myself with a short list of intellectual and historical heroes, some religious, some divine, some compassionate, whom I suspect of being in intermittent bursts non-cynical. In general, though, I find myself seeing misplaced motives lately more than I think optimal.

On one level, I see cynicism as a mood or mode of living rather than an intelligent choice. I love the passage in Tolstoi's novel Resurrection when the wealthy landowner seeks to give his estate to the people descended from his serfs. The scene is spectacularly comic (in a particularly non-comic novel)--the "peasants" are not certain whether this is a new trap to reduce their lot, or a sign of insanity by their wealthy neighbor. Their negative view of the land-owning class is too deeply ingrained to allow them to appreciate genuine reparation and reform. I do believe we must all try to "break out" from a "we're beaten before we start" view of life.

Yet, in another respect, cynicism has a deeply intellectual component for me. I dislike poorly reasoned cynicism, when people see dark plots in the color of the quarter pounder box or in the fact that merchants want to make money for their wares. I get so bored of alternative paper "cute cynicism". There's a sort of "easy" cynicism which makes simple beatitudes of saying negative things about people who "have" anything. To me, cynicism is not some Sermon on the Mount, which goes "damned are the people with nice homes, for their homes should be burnt, damned are people who seem happy, because they are really miserable, damned are people in the mainstream, for they shall die in a flood". Rather, I like a certain reasoned cynicism.

In some ways, I think that cynicism is a useful evolutionary defense mechanism. I love to read books about ants. If one reads books about ants, one learns that these social insects, while individually quite moronic, can assemble quite complex societies, becoming almost a single mind through unitization of tons of individual morons. The analogy is inapt, and some recent writing has focused on pointing out that ants, while socially successful, are still often moronic even as they operate as a "hive mind". Still, ant civilization seems much more "human" in many ways than many other parts of the animal kingdom.

Study of the ants teaches one that ants are a darn good argument for cynicism. They can be absolutely ruthless in dealing with others than their own kind, and even their close-knit societies are built entirely on exploitation of one another for evolutionary advantage. The whole scheme is built on most members of the colony foregoing reproduction in favor a structured society, after all. This is not a matter of conscious choice, though, it's a matter of evolutionary advantages of survival. As a result, ants are among our most successful living species.

The conclusion I infer from ants is that the instinct to survive causes ants to do things that in a world of plentiful food and easy company they would not do. One recent study has even suggested that Argentine ants (those "little black kitchen ants") in Europe do not engage in inter-nest warfare, unlike their South American relations, because there are essentially no predators and plenty of food for all.

I think that many of the things that people do which make me most cynical about people have similar origins. Ethnic hatred seems related to ant warfare in my mind; some dire, antiquated internecine survival instinct. Even in the Bible, Saul's "great sin" is allowing Amelekite women and children survive, when God has apparently decreed they all be put to the sword. We see people act out of greed (gaining possessions to accomplish the protection of oneself), out of selfishness (grabbing a resource in order to prevent someone else having that coping mechanism) and out of needless aggression ('protecting oneself' from any imagined slight). In some ways, my cynicism that this occurs is, to my mind, a recognition that evolutionary defense mechanisms, which have some purpose, are merely expressing themselves en masse. We tend to take the metaphor of what Adam and Eve learned in the Garden of Evil when they ate the apple as the knowledge of sin, and the metaphor usually acquires a sexual overtone. I am much more attracted to the idea that the "apple" is the metaphoric survival instinct, which we are then to learn to evolve away from into something better. I am always somewhat amused, by the way, that some folks who spend the most time attacking selfish behavior and Judaeo-Christian thinking, particularly in the various American "counter-cultures", are actually assiduous practitioners in their own right of this same type of thinking. Whether inside or outside our society, one is drenched in these values.

In my view, the odd behavior people engage in is something like the moronic individual ant. The individual ant will do things that seem utterly irrational (bite here, wander aimlessly there on some supposed but non-existent mission, follow nitric acid signals poured from a bottle instead of nitric acid left by a nestmate). Yet they are all coping mechanisms ingrained for evolutionary advantages. People seem to me to be misplaced evolving creatures, too, sometimes.

If I proceed, then, from the view that "cynicism" is merely a recognition that people act with ingrained and taught self-protective devices, then my hope for the future arises from the application of this cynicism in an unexpected positive way. I find that hope in the progresses we have made--more than limited human rights in some countries, technological improvement of standards of living in some countries, and a recognition by many folks, "great thinkers" and "the ordinary faithful" that we must evolve beyond some of our self-defenses before they become self-defeating. I believe that the ideas that personkind as a whole must evolve more cooperation in its own self-interest.

The 19th C. thinkers called this idea "enlightened self-interest", and used it to justify a faith in market capitalists that history did not ultimately fully bear out. But the old "enlightened self-interest",the idea that a just society would arise from people acting for their own best good, was not entirely right, because the very people supposed to be willing to re-make society without governmental intervention to create productive workers and happy, spending consumers, were still too mired in their own evolutionary shortcomings of greed. The notion that captains of industry were highly evolved proved flawed, but not the notion that a highly evolved set of folks would make things right in the long run.

I think that maybe a kernel of the truth lay in that self-interest line of thinking. For millenia now, founders of our world religions and the saints who people them, visionaries from outside the religious folds, far-sighted society builders and simple wise people have recognized that if we are to move forward as a society, we must show more compassion and less selfish conduct towards one another. We see the positive effects of these ideas in many societies today, but the self-interest showed by many folks still justifies a deep, if nuanced, cynicism from time to time. I do not think this is for want of faith in Heaven. I think it is a matter of human societal evolution. We must build better ant nests.

I think that a reasoned cynicism, applied to historical possibility, can still give rise to hope, somehow. Even if one assumes that people are not "intrinsically good", one must acknowledge that hopeful beacons have arisen to suggest the possibility for societies built on other than self-interest.

One can be hopeful, because even as selfish as people are,
they can do some beautiful things sometimes. Although people seem like a huge agglomeration of cats, impossible to herd, people can build societies which can offer human rights, a chance for material comfort, and a striving for the good. Even people, base and problematic as they are in their misplaced ant-like efforts, can do such amazing things. Even on a personal level, I often say that while I don't believe that people are necessarily basically good, I am nonetheless provided so often with endless joy when os many of them nonetheless do something kind.

Part of this is still the old evolutionary path, doing its job.
I am not much one for lionizing "other cultures" for their "otherness", but a number of non-western cultures seem to have a basic day to day complacent kindness to one's neighbor we do not always have here. Surely this helps the community survive. But the really impressive thing is when mind (or spirit, if you will) moves beyond the evolutionary imperative of "protect my neighbor, so (s)he and I can fight you off" and moves into "we are all here together" mode.

So I will plead guilty to the charge of cynicism, but I like to think my cynicism is an optimistic one. I believe that as flawed and selfish as we are, we are capable of so much. I refuse to see life as hopeless because people are so flawed. I draw great hope from the fact that, as non-evolved as they are, people can do such great things. I tend to expect great things, even of people I suspect of great pettiness and self-interest.

I have a related feeling about progress and technology. I value people who wish to live a less materialistic life, because that makes sense. But the endless longing for an earlier time, which supposedly would be "simpler" than our technological age, really does not move me. I do not believe we should wish for some "simpler" time when the life expectancy was forty five years and the literacy rate was less than ten percent and human exploitation was at least as rampant as today. I do not believe that we should believe that people then were less "cynical" or self-serving or irrational. History is replete with the evidence that the opposite is true.

Such material comfort and movement towards a more "evolved" and humane life as have achieved has come directly from technological and social advance, not in spite of it. We are not going to feed the world and eliminate poverty without it. A cynical person does not insist we go back to primitivism, on some misplaced notion that then peoples' innate goodness will "save the world". A cynical person realizes that we must put thought and energy, and, yes, technology into this process. In short, a cynical person believes that people must think and negotiate ways to work together to end exploitation and increase happiness, because people left individually to their own devices are as moronic as individual ants.

So today I celebrate cynicism as one component of my philsophy of hope. I do not believe people are "good" in some Judaeo-Christian sense, and I certainly do not believe they are enlightened in either of the very different Buddhist or Hindu senses of the word that might apply. I take as read that people are trapped in their defense mechanisms. Yet, trapped as we all are in our doubt and fear and self-interested behavior, people are capable of so much.

This has all gotten somewhat high-flown, but it is really more a day to day thing for me. I do not recoil from people as awful, because I know so many people who, despite feeling awful, can do such wonderful things. I see works of beauty, and I do not imagine these works are from people who have achieved some new saintliness. I assume almost everyone I know is flawed, and that some people I know are deeply flawed. Yet people have made my life very rich, in the main through kindness their self-interest did not require that they show me.

In this way, I see the virtue of a certain "meekness", a willingness to leave that selfishness behind. I also believe that I need not check my cynicism at the door to accept that these "meek" people, wise and scientific though I think they must become, will indeed, as Christ suggested, inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. I am not sure if it is a matter of mind or spirit, or something else, but I think that intelligent meekness, but alive to the cynical turns of negative human possible behaviors, is a very good thing.

I am puzzling all this through, don't really know what I am talking about, see this as a feeble construct, and have no solutions. In my day to day life, though, all I know is that I receive warm feelings from friends and unmet friends, offline and online, and I am deeply grateful, amid my cynicism.

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