Main Site         

Normal Cynicism Will Be Resumed As Soon As Possible

2012 September 28
by Paul Vallely

Normal Cynicism Will Be Resumed As Soon As Possible, read a headline in one rag almost before the echoes had died away from the final ceremony that closed the weeks of Olympic and Paralympic celebration which seized Britain over the summer. Don’t Be Afraid to Go Back to Being Your Cynical Self, said another.

It was not just British reticence which evaporated during the great festival of sport, with strangers smiling and chatting to one another on the capital’s normally dour streets. Members of the commentariat who had spent the build-up to the Games in full sneering mode suddenly began to confess that they had been wrong and developed wild enthusiasms not just for sport but for collective enterprise and the power of positive thinking.

What this highlighted was the extent to which jaded cynicism is in normal times the default mindset of sophisticated metropolitan chic. Disdain is the standard mode of modern discourse along with a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.

Cynicism, of course, originally had more noble antecedents. To the ancient Greeks it was a philosophy that rejected conventional desires for wealth, power, sex and fame. It advocated a way of life characterised by the discipline of living a simple life, free of possessions. Its most prominent exponent, Diogenes, lived on the streets of Athens in a barrel. Suffering, the Cynics believed, along with the Buddha, was caused by false judgments of what was valuable and what was worthless.

Indeed some thinkers have even regarded Jesus as a Jewish Cynic mainly because of the similarities between his life and teachings and those of the Cynics, but also because the city of Gadara, a centre of Cynic philosophy, was only a day’s walk from Nazareth. It was a tradition continued in the medieval church in the ascetic orders of wandering mendicant monks who, in both appearance and practices, bore a striking similarity to the Cynics of ancient times.

All that is lost. What remains is the original Cynics’ habit of using bitter irony, biting sarcasm and mirthful ridicule to critique the lives of those around them. The word Cynic, it is often noted, derives from the Ancient Greek kynikos which means “like a dog”. But snapping and snarling has passed from the Greeks of old to the grumpy old men of today – and to a lot of grumpy young ones too, which is why Maya Angelou once observed: “There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic because he has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing”.

A lack of belief – or a fear of it – is central to contemporary cynicism. It is a defence mechanism for those who worry that to be too positive, committed, idealistic or enthusiastic will make them look naïve. But in truth cynicism is not more sophisticated; it is just safer.

True, there is more to cynicism than just enjoying a good old moan. It is more even than pessimism or preparing for the worst. It has about it something jaded and disgruntled in its low opinion of humanity. It is captious, carping, cavilling and fault-finding. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is dull-witted because, in their self-imposed blindness, cynics don’t learn anything. As an intellectual standpoint it is vacuous because it is empty of values.

The Olympics and Paralympics exposed all that because they highlighted the opposite. There were about belief, dedication, effort, commitment, team spirit and – above all – action. Cynics, by contrast, rarely do anything, they merely stand on the sidelines and make mock of the efforts of others. Cynicism and activism are anathema to one another. Cynicism is cold where the blood of enthusiasm is warm or even hot. In the Paralympics dwarfs can throw and not just be thrown.

Cynics will say they are merely realistic about human motives; all they want to do is expose hypocrisy or to point up the gulf between individuals’ ideals and actual behaviour. But cynicism, in its determination to perceive ulterior motives in all human action, its unwillingness ever to attribute sincerity in public service and its reluctance to suspend judgement to give the benefit of the doubt, is imbalanced and essentially one-sided. The cynic is one who never sees a good quality in another person yet never fails to see a bad one. Cynicism is distrustful, contemptuous and disparaging.

Our sportsmen and women with their openness, honesty and willingness to lay their vulnerabilities publicly on the line held up a mirror to the way we normally are. Barack Obama knew that when, on the campaign trail, he warned voters: “If you turn away now, if you buy into the cynicism that somehow the change we fought for isn’t possible, then of course change won’t happen. Change won’t happen without you.”

That is why we need to guard against the temptation to revert to the old cynical mental default. The changed mood during the Olympics has proved that, as Ortega y Gasset put it in The Revolt of the Masses, the cynic is the parasite of civilisation.

No degree of cynicism can undo the good achieved during the extraordinary summer, claimed the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He is wrong. Cynicism is a profoundly corrosive quality. It will eat away at the good unless it is actively combated.

“The greater part of the truth is always hidden, in regions out of the reach of cynicism,” JRR Tolkein wrote in a letter to his son. The Olympic and Paralympic Games pointed a pathway to those better regions. But unless we are vigilant in our determination to stamp on the snake of cynicism whenever it rears its slippery head, that path will soon become lost in the undergrowth, just as it was before these game-changing moments forced themselves upon us.

Third Way

Comments are closed.