Day 22 – Have we reached peak cynicism?


(This post is part of the 30 for 30 Challenge).

We all know what happens when excess is mistaken for progress: housing bubbles, tech bubbles, financial bubbles – name your bubble. I’m beginning to feel we are approaching the zenith of a cynicism bubble. Peak oil?  It’s time to start talking about peak cynicism and its repercussions.

Here’s why I am just as guilty of it.

As we start to enter the heat of the political election season, my mind begins to finely attune itself to better detecting bullshit.  I am constantly on the prowl, using sites like Politifact, Fact Check and Open Congress to spot check random claims, and to eye their voting records (if they even have one) for signs of hypocrisy.  It can be a fun game for a while, but quickly leads to frustration and a growing cynicism. Once one realizes just how much bullshit, humbug, and flat out lying public figures and television personalities manage to get away with in our lax media environment, it is difficult to remain hopeful of the political process and its ability to accomplish anything for the good of the everyday citizen.

But I can’t help but wonder: Is this attitude I have a result of the cultural/political environment in which we find ourselves, or is it something else? Did we just end up here through policy decisions, and that’s why I am feeling this, or has something else shaped it along the way?  What is the balance between cynicism and critical thinking – between remaining hopeful and a believer in change, and completely hopeless resignation?

Maria Popova of the blog BrainPickings has a great post on the subject.  In short, she says that the difference is thus:

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.  Finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving the situation produces resignation — cynicism is both resignation’s symptom and a futile self-protection mechanism against it. Blindly believing that everything will work out just fine also produces resignation, for we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. But in order to survive — both as individuals and as a civilization — and especially in order to thrive, we need the right balance of critical thinking and hope.

The news media seems to holds a great deal of control over our perceptions of reality.  They control the message, and how it is framed. They control the types of stories we hear and see, thus exhorting our perceptions of a subject one way or the other. Depending on one’s proclivity to listen to one news source or another, one may test poorly on their understanding of the facts regarding modern civics.  This is problematic for any society to thrive, especially in a representative democracy where an informed electorate is essential to selecting qualified representatives, and more importantly, holding them accountable when they do not act in accordance with their constituent’s will.

All of this amounts to the notion that cynicism and/or hope is bred by the stories in which we tell ourselves, and whether or not we believe these stories fit in with the greater idea of what is True. Whether these stories are self-created, or re-circulated through the echo chamber that is 24/7 news, our outlook on the state of affairs is wholly influenced by these stories.

Not only formal news, but “informal news” – i.e., the news feeds (Twitter and Facebook) that consume so much of our daily attention. They are individually curated to be what we want them to be, in essence, shielding us from views we don’t want to hear, while only showing us that with which we agree.  They perpetuate the story line we’ve decided fits our fixed worldview, and as such, nothing else is of interest to us.

Ms. Popova has a more positive perspective on how storytellers can shape the world we perceive:

What storytellers do — and this includes journalists and TED and everyone in between who has a point of view and an audience, whatever its size — is help shape our stories of how the world works; at their very best, they can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better. In other words, they help us mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of critical thinking and hope. Truth and falsehood belong to this mediation, but it is guided primarily by what we are made to believe is real.

In essence, anything is possible. It all depends on who we prop up in society as the respected storytellers.

She ends the post with an inspirational takeaway, and one that I think we all need to remind ourselves of daily, most especially this year:

…evil only prevails when we mistake it for the norm. There is so much goodness in the world — all we have to do is remind one another of it, show up for it, and refuse to leave.

We may be in a heightened time of cynical thought towards authority, but it is not too late. Just like with peak oil, we have a choice not to contribute to the problem by continuing to by gas guzzling cars – or in the context of peak cynicism, not support and follow stories and leaders that feed the problem.  Remain vigilant.  Remain critical. Maintain perspective and hope. It’s a choice we make.

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Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

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