Years spent in the media, plus decades of independent practice as a writer and social critic honed my native skepticism into a protective psychological barrier against a wide range of social ailments and inappropriate, often dangerous beliefs. It has made me question motives, statements, logic and conclusions, and search for the underlying truths. It motivated me to explore, to examine, to dig deep. To try to understand, not simply deny.
It’s an easy slide, however, from a healthy skepticism to a soul-destroying cynicism – using the modern sense of the word. Modern cynicism encourages acceptance of the notion that everything is bad, rotten and evil except the viewer; cynics become too lazy, too self-assured of their own faith and beliefs to investigate further. They draw conclusions from surface appearances without going deeper; and blanket everything with negativism.
Skeptics, however, keep enough of an open mind to continue asking questions. Healthy skepticism is often paired with conscious awareness, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion:
In order to have more freedom and empowerment in our lives we need conscious awareness, healthy skepticism, emotional intelligence and ruthless compassion. The more we practice these skills, the less we’ll be subject to manipulation and exploitation and the more unencumbered we’ll be in pursuing true happiness and fulfillment…
Our skepticism will bring out the best in the upstanding people and institutions and will bring out the worst in those that are dishonest and corrupt. By asking questions and observing the reactions and responses of those we’re questioning, we’re able to discover who we’re really dealing with and make informed choices with respect to them.
To question things is to take back control of our lives, because knowledge and understanding bring us power and choice and enable us to act on our own behalf in the best, most informed manner. Not accepting everything at face value and being skeptical about the underlying motivations of those who want to lead us, advise us or profit from us is a wise course of action for all the above reasons.
Cynics simply don’t believe in anything but their own surety. They don’t feel the need to go looking for the roots and the causes that skeptics hunt and wrestle with. Cynics are negative, skeptics are searching for answers. Cynics don’t have to take responsibility for things because they’ve already decided the world is against them: skeptics look for answers and meaning to make things connect and work.
You cannot shed light into the darkness if you’re convinced that there’s some ulterior motive behind the light. That’s why conspiracy theorists are for the most part cynics in the dark. Scientists, on the other hand, are generally skeptics with candles.
I’ve tried, through my life, to keep my skepticism healthy and active; a tool to fuel my curiosity, while dampening the trend to assume a cynical approach. I have tried to use skepticism in the way of free inquiry, as taught in the Kalama Sutra. After all, the word comes from the Greek skepsis, meaning “inquiry.” Not doubt.
I’m not always successful in avoiding the cascade into cynicism – it’s easier and faster, requires less effort and thought, especially with social media, but overall I believe I have stayed above it.
The philosopher Denis Diderot wrote in Pensées Philosophiques (1746):
Scepticism is the first step towards truth.
Skepticism helps me avoid many of the mindless afflictions that beset us today in an age of declining literacy and attention spans, of reactive social media, conspiracy theories and egregious narcissism.
Skepticism encourages me to read rather than watch TV, to investigate, to research and to explore rather than merely accept. It helps me question rampant conspiracy theories, hoaxes, unfounded allegations, pseudoscience and pseudo-medicine.
Being a skeptic saved me money: because I don’t buy into a wealth of popular trends, social ailments, fashions and beliefs, I don’t waste my money on a wide range of commercial claptrap (although I do admit I buy rather more than my fair share of books, particularly those which debunk popular beliefs and pseudoscience).
It saved my sanity, too. It made me prone to be cautious, often suspicious of motives until I understood them, to withhold faith and trust without proof, to read between the lines and question authority. Instead of simply rejecting, as the cynic does, I try to use logic and reason instead of ideology or a fixed faith.
And in examining the motives and reasons of others, I end up examining my own. Like Montaigne, I try to use skepticism as my mirror. After all, a true skeptic must also be skeptical about his own beliefs, motives and observations; and constantly re-examine them as he does those of others. Wisdom emerges from such practices.
Cynicism, however, is a trap that, if unchecked, rapidly leads to anger, bitterness, distrust, jealousy and resentment. And cynical suspicion can blossom into paranoia.
I’ve seen it happen to often to friends, to people who burn out in their profession, and to a public pummeled by claptrap, crap and mindless pap on all pop culture channels, and weary from the constant spume of vitriol from narcissistic, angry bloggers.
I’ve seen cynicism overcome people in the media: once open-minded, they come to apply their disbelief to all business, all politics, all people outside a close, little circle of equally cynical friends. The spectacle-ridden nature of modern media, with its coarse gossip and crude sensationalism, encourages cynicism.
And with that media cynicism comes anger and myopia: reporters assuming they will uncover ill will, trickery and deception means it’s easier to accept wild allegations of guilt, rather than search for innocence. Objectivity is compromised from the start by cynical preconceptions.
A little cynicism is tolerable, maybe even necessary when covering politics, but it needs to be tempered by wisdom, self-denial, reason and not a little bit of joy to offset its tendencies to becoming a miserable, angry and misanthropic curmudgeon.
In 1894, George Bernard Shaw wrote that,
The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.
I think he was really speaking of skepticism, “a method of intellectual caution, suspended judgment, and pursuing knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing.” Others have commented:
Cynicism is only intellectual sloth.
Henry Rollins, Columbus Dispatch
The greater part of the truth is always hidden, in regions out of the reach of cynicism.
J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter to his son, Michael Tolkien, 1st November 1963.
What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Oscar Wilde, in Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892).
Cynicism, and skepticism both spring from ancient Greek schools of philosophy. Cynicism traces its roots back to Socrates and a school of philosophy unlike today’s cynicism. It originally meant to live in virtuous harmony with nature, not simply to distrust the motives of others. As Wikipedia tells us about what the original cynics believed:
As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans, rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Instead, they were to lead a simple life free from all possessions.
Cynics were actually well respected for many centuries, but the meaning of the word began to shift and the linguistic relation with the original philosophers was lost. The only intersection left is that the cynics of old and modern times share an indifference to public opinion.
Having decided ahead of time that everything is rotten, the modern cynic treats criticism as the buzz of a mosquito: a minor and transient annoyance. In contrast, the modern skeptic will engage in debate, in reflection, to try and understand the reason for that criticism. Social media rewards cynicism and reaction rather than reflection and debate (especially not civil debate).
Most cynics are motivated by self-interest, which defines them as a*holes in the Aaron James’ model of this personality type (as I wrote about earlier) because they feel imbued with that sense of self-entitlement. James writes, “A person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”
Skepticism came from a different school, albeit one as ancient as cynicism:
Pyrrho and his school were not actually “skeptics” in the later sense of the word. They had the goal of … peace of mind, and pitted one dogmatic philosophy against the next to undermine belief in the whole philosophic enterprise. The idea was to produce in the student a state of aversion towards what the Pyrrhonists considered arbitrary and inconsequential babble. Since no one can observe or otherwise experience causation, external world (its “externality”), ultimate purpose of the universe or life, justice, divinity, soul, etc., they declared no need to believe in such things… They added that consensus indicates neither truth nor even probability. For example, the earth is round, and it would remain so even if everyone believed it were flat…
The goal of this critique… was to cultivate a distrust of all grand talk.
Of course, that’s not what the word means today, any more than cynicism means what it did in ancient Greece. This LinkedIn article lists several of the differences between today’s skeptics and cynics:
- Skeptics look for holes in your idea because they want to help you plug those holes. Cynics look for holes so they can make them bigger and sink your idea.
- Skeptics ask questions to try to make your idea better. Cynics ask questions to try to make you look stupid or incompetent.
- Skeptics say, “I’m not sure if you have enough data to support that… lets do some digging and figure it out.” Cynics say, “You don’t have enough data to support that. You’ll have to prove to me that you’re right.” (And you never can.)
- Skeptics have the “meeting after the meeting” to find ways to get past their doubts so they can jump onboard. Cynics have the “meeting after the meeting” to tear down the idea so no one is onboard.
- Skeptics are people you go to when you’re unsure because you know they’ll help you refine your thoughts and give you ideas to help you better build your case. Cynics are people you never go to – for anything.
The article concludes:
Every team needs at least one skeptic. Every team needs at least one person willing to ask questions, identify potential problems, and point out when more analysis is necessary.
Every team needs at least one person they can look back on and say, “You know, at the time it was frustrating when Michelle kept pointing out stuff we hadn’t thought of… but now I’m really glad she did.”
No team needs a cynic. No team needs a person who always says no… not because they don’t believe in ideas but because they don’t believe in people.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846):
All skepticism is a kind of idealism. Hence when the skeptic Zeno pursued the study of skepticism by endeavoring existentially to keep himself unaffected by whatever happened, so that when once he had gone out of his way to avoid a mad dog, he shamefacedly admitted that even a skeptical philosopher is also sometimes a man, I find nothing ridiculous in this. There is no contradiction, and the comical always lies in a contradiction.
So I remain happy to be a skeptic, while trying to keep my cynicism in check. Positivism is always better than negativism.