Cynicism is simply the flip side of naïveté. You’re no more mature, just more burned.
—Karl Marlantes (Vietnam veteran, author of “What It Is Like to Go to War”)
I think a lot of people go through a cynical phase as they’re growing up, and that’s probably normal. The problem comes when you get stuck there, when it becomes your lifelong worldview. This isn’t just a problem because it’s dark. It’s a problem because it’s illogical and inaccurate.
Naïveté means seeing or imagining only the good side of human nature, being blind to humanity’s evil and its base self-interest. Cynicism means the opposite. When you spell it out like that, it’s obvious that both viewpoints are equally skewed. Yet somehow, many of us get the idea that cynicism is wiser, closer to the truth. But is it really?
Let’s think about some examples.
Say a politician is involved in a scandal. When pressed about certain key details, he says he “can’t remember.” A cynic rolls his eyes. Yeah. Can’t remember. Sure.
This reaction makes no sense.
Even if humans are 100% self-serving habitual liars (which is demonstrably untrue), we still know that people do sometimes forget important things. It’s happened to everyone. It becomes more likely as you get older. Someone could even have early-onset Alzheimer’s – we don’t know. So even in our “all humans suck” alternate reality, there’s still a chance, small but significant, that this person is telling the truth.
The same goes for people who are charged with crimes, but not yet convicted (or acquitted). “I’m innocent!” Cynics hear this and scoff. But again, even if everyone is scum, it may still be entirely reasonable that this particular person didn’t commit this particular crime. If every single person arrested were really guilty, that would imply an astounding degree of competence on the part of law enforcement – a notion that no self-respecting cynic would endorse. Like all logical fallacies, cynicism leads to contradiction.
A 100% guilty rate would also imply that trial by jury is unnecessary and should be abolished. Yet I know almost no one who really believes that.
And that’s just assuming that everybody is self-serving and crooked. In reality, we have good evidence that that isn’t the case. To cite just one example among millions: researchers have found that fewer than a quarter of riflemen in World War II were actually willing to shoot at their enemies. Their aversion to killing was so strong that they would miss on purpose most of the time, often at the expense of their own lives.
Obviously, people commit horrific atrocities and engage in mundane cruelties, too. The dark side is there. Of course it is. But it’s absurd to think that the dark side is the only side.
Cynicism is also linked almost universally to pessimism. There’s no necessary logical link between the two: it’s possible to think that humans are scum, yet life overall is improving; and conversely, it’s possible to think that humans are all wonderful, yet life overall is getting worse. But these pairings of belief rarely happen, in part because cynicism is an emotional reaction, not a logical one.
Cynics – in my experience, at least – are pessimists. They think the world is going to hell, and that we’re already most of the way there.
Again, this makes no sense. By almost any measure, the world is improving. Since World War II, war and murder have declined globally. Homicides in the U.S. have dropped by half over the past 20 years. Infant morality has dropped by half worldwide in the same time period. Literacy is rising. Computing power has grown exponentially, consistently, for 50 years. We’ve had a continuous human presence in space for over a decade. We eradicated malaria, and we’re getting close with polio. If you think I’m cherrypicking facts, by all means, do your own research.
And that’s just the recent stuff. Read about Elizabethan (16th century) England sometime: the horrific and unbelievably common use of torture in punishments; the primitive understanding of medical science; the lack of anesthetic for surgery; the cruelty to animals; the way government and church alike suppressed free speech; the overwhelming and universal prejudice against women, poor people, gays, other races, and other religions; on and on. Some of these problems do still exist, but they’re ghosts of their former selves. Nobody in their right mind would rather live then than now. (I’m not picking on England – the whole world is the same.)
Yes, of course we still have major, serious problems, including discrimination, torture, and suppression of free speech. Yes, they’re being solved far too slowly. But they are being solved. Our species is getting better.
By the way, the kind of human being that cynics evidently believe in – someone completely self-serving, self-interested, devoted to pleasure, with little or no empathy for other people – does actually exist. The clinical term is “psychopath,” and the tools for diagnosing this disorder are well-established. That is, doctors have gotten pretty good at distinguishing these people from everyone else.
Psychopaths are estimated to make up only 1-2% of the population. Even if they’re as high as 5%, that’s still 95% of humanity that is, by definition, at least moderately empathetic and concerned with the needs of others.
See, this is why I love science.
For myself, I find I become less cynical rather than more—remembering my own sins and follies; and realize that men’s hearts are not often as bad as their acts, and very seldom as bad as their words.
—J. R. R. Tolkien