On Being Skeptical of Cynicism

Sweetie and I made a conscious decision last evening to turn off the TV, listen to music and share some wine and conversation. To connect. Sort of like date night but at home. We’re trying to do this more often. Sometimes on these dates we talk about light stuff, sometimes we venture much deeper.

Our first music choice for the evening was Jill Barber, a Canadian singer with a quirky but mellow voice. A woman with style. Easy to listen to. You’ll see what I mean:

As Jill sang about chances, we talked about how lucky we were to find each other. We talked about our kids, we talked about some long-term plans, we talked about whether to clean the house ourselves or hire a cleaning service (this after a couple of annoying hours spent housecleaning). It was a warm and happy conversation.

When Jill was done, we switched to John Lennon. This was John post-Beatles. Much of it dark and angry, recorded after Yoko had tossed him out for a time. It made for an interesting transition. At one point John began singing about all the things he didn’t believe in.

Sweetie said, “Now that’s cynical. Especially putting Jesus next to Hitler.” But was it? We launched into a spirited discussion about the difference between cynicism and skepticism. I argued that cynics have a consistently negative view of life and refuse to believe anything to the contrary, even when you give them evidence. They’ve made up their minds. Skeptics, on the other hand, are doubtful, sometimes highly doubtful, but they’re open to being persuaded otherwise if you can show them proof or a solid argument.

Cynicism has been on my mind lately because I’m working on a project that, when launched, is expected to be greeted with a high degree of cynicism. My working group has begun talking about what it might do to fight that cynicism. As Sweetie and I talked, it occurred to me that if I follow the definition of cynicism as I argued it, we don’t really have a chance. But if it’s skepticism, we have the potential to suspend disbelief long enough to show that the project can work. So I’m choosing skepticism instead. Now to convince my working group. Semantics? Perhaps. But it’s also a shift in mindset.

I’ve noticed lately that a lot of people I know seem to be embracing cynicism. And with it, a belief that if you aren’t a cynic, you must be naïve and therefore open to abuse and disappointment. That bothers me, not just for its negativity but because it also assumes you’re stupid. It’s an argument that gets us nowhere, hasn’t a chance of improving or changing anything. So why would a person choose to be a cynic?

Curiously, the original cynics weren’t negative.

According to Wikipedia: The term originally derives from a group of philosophers in ancient Greece called the Cynics who rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, advocating the pursuit of virtue in a simple and unmaterialistic lifestyle.

The original cynics believed this philosophy would lead to happiness. By the 1800’s, the emphasis had shifted to the negative interpretation we have today.

Modern cynicism, as a product of mass society, is a distrust toward professed ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions and authorities which are unfulfilled.

George Carlin, who has made a career out of cynicism, once said that a cynic is a disillusioned idealist. If you’ve been repeatedly let down by people who’ve failed to meet their commitments to you, it’s easy to see why you might become cynical. If you refuse to believe, you can’t be hurt. It’s about survival. But the paradox is that if you don’t believe, what chance is there for happiness? Doesn’t it create another kind of hurt?

When we moved past Lennon’s darker stuff, we shifted into the Double Fantasy album. Not cynical at all. He’d found his way to a place of peace and contentment. A place I think reflected who he really was. Or at least who he wanted to be.

Lennon wasn’t always content nor was he always a pacifist… his views shifted back and forth. He sang about “Revolution” and insisted that people “Gimme Me Some Truth”. Some have suggested the idea for the bed-in for peace and other peace activities were Yoko’s ideas, not his. And that remembering him solely as a pacifist and peace advocate is unfair and inaccurate. Throughout his life Lennon challenged ideas and ideals. A skeptic certainly, sometimes a cynic. But he wasn’t stuck in any one place. And isn’t that what you’d expect of a thinking person?

John Lennon was also the man who wrote “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance“. Who loved his wife so much that he refused to be swayed by the negative way much of the world saw her. Who changed his life after the birth of his second son.

A cynic might say, “But he died! Shot in the back! What did it matter?”

In the end, Lennon became a positive demonstration of how people can change and grow. He showed that it’s possible to shift out of cynicism into something better. That despite an ending that could never have been predicted, there’s a place for hope and happiness. Thirty years later, he still provokes thought and debate.

Sweetie and I ended our evening with a return to the mellowness with which we began. And a toast to optimism, good conversation, healthy skepticism, and a promise to keep meeting like this.  

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About saxbergonstuff

I'm a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a daughter, an auntie. When I'm not focusing on that, I'm an educator, facilitator and content designer. When I feel like it.
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2 Responses to On Being Skeptical of Cynicism

  1. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply. Hoping for others is a wonderful concept and one that I would think would give great comfort to those who have temporarily lost it.

  2. Shari-Lynn Peters says:

    Thanks, Barbara … I appreciate what you and Sweetie said as I too have been waging war in my own mind about these kinds of things, for me it isn’t so much skepticism and cynicism but hope and faith. All I can offer is a personal note that…during one of the longest, darkest, most-desparate times of my life when I’d lost the ability to hope, a friend said: ‘then we–those who love you–will hope for you’. Some how those words encouraged me to stop trying to find answers when they weren’t yet ready to be found. And so I hope all cynics will hear those kinds of simple encouragements (from those who love them) while they wait for answers to questions they don’t yet know how to ask.

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