The Meaning of Cynicism

In the wake of my recent post in the progressive blogosphere, I find myself thinking a lot about cynicism. The article, “Now What? A Cautionary Note, and an Invitation, to Progressives”, appeared on Truthout.com, outlining the inevitability of letdown after victory, and the need to shift the progressive group identity from underdog to agent of change, via accountability and cooperation.

Readers posted comments in reply. Some loved it; some missed the point; some understood but struggled emotionally with how to negotiate this. A significant subset simply dismissed my ideas out of hand as unworkable. This last group is worth examining.

To some of these readers, there was no progressive victory; they see virtually no difference between Obama and George W. Bush. Some were unable to recognize any progressive content in Obama’s policies, focusing exclusively on the centrist aspects of Obama’s initiatives. Some readers were ardent supporters of Obama who already felt profoundly let down by compromises Obama appears to have made (ironically, these people were demonstrating the very thing I wrote about in the article.)

The thing these people seem to have in common is cynicism. Whether they are too disheartened to concede that any forward motion was signaled by the recent election, or they have found their way to total disillusionment so early in the game, these individuals are apparently not able to hold out any hope for change for much more than, at best, a brief moment.

Cynics, I’ve found, are brokenhearted people. Often they appear in therapy unable to have satisfying relationships. Long ago, they once held out hope (as we all do when we start out in life). But, since that time, they have been bitterly disappointed, so that now they no longer allow themselves to believe that anything other than further disappointment is possible.

Their cynicism protects them from risking further letdown. Even one more disappointment would be more pain than the cynic feels ready to bear. So, the cynical person must deny the existence of any opportunity for positive change to protect oneself from the potential pain of losing. What appears outwardly to be confident bravado in disparaging other’s optimism is really just fear of being harmed again, and a searing need to avoid that risk.

What’s interesting about cynics is that, often, the hopes that were dashed were in fact not hopes grounded in reality at all, but wishful thinking that did not come true. This is an important distinction. Cynics are typically not people who had realistic adult expectations dashed, and are now struggling to recover equilibrium. They had idealistic aspirations or childhood wishes dashed, and have given up ever since.

Although they appear outwardly to be opposite to one another, cynical people are no closer to realistic assessment of the conditions of their environment than the idealists they disparage. Both have stalled in the developmental process of learning to balance one’s internal desires with the demands of the current world they inhabit. Ironically, idealists who lack a counterbalancing pragmatism, who have not yet learned to evaluate their situation with an eye toward practical planning for how to approach their goal, are at risk, in fact, for becoming cynics themselves.

The tendency to waver between cynicism and idealism has plagued progressives for too long. It’s time instead for some hopefulness tempered by realism.

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