Holding Out Hope for Cynicism

I have occasionally been accused of being cynical, mostly by a bunch of jerks. I will readily confess that I have a tendency towards seeing what’s wrong instead of what’s right, and that the words coming out of my mouth are often called “pessimistic,” “negative,” and “gloomy”—especially by empty-headed optimists.

I recognize that cynicism (or its less resigned cousin negativity) is not a commendable way to approach the world, nor to endear yourself to people. Dale Carnegie would not hold me up as a role model.

But I do want to put in a good word for cynicism. I might even have the audacity to say that cynicism is nearly the same thing as hope. To (ab)use a tired metaphor, I’ll say that they’re two sides of the same coin.

Engraved on this metaphorical coin is the phrase “things are not the way that they should be.” This knowledge may spring from a reasoned critique or from that locus of intuition colloquially known as “the gut.” Usually it’s a mysterious combination of both. Those who are cynical and those who are hopeful recognize this wrong-ness-in-the-world.

Cynicism and hope therefore must be apocalyptic: they believe that there must be something great (and likely terrible) must happen to usher this world into the one it should be. I know that many are mentally begging to tell me the difference between cynicism and hope at this point, but I’m going to delay. Cynics don’t often get to stand up for themselves.

Now, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, cynicism and hope are apocalyptic, dreaming of a world laid on very different foundations than our own. This is why, for instance, it will be quickly shown that the “hope” peddled by Barack Obama is nothing of the sort. Obama’s “hope” is a drearily reformist affair, not daring to ask, for instance, if it might be better for the world if the USA did not exist. Real hope is always far too radical to run for office.

But I wasn’t speaking of hope as much as what hope and cynicism have in common: being deeply troubled by the world as we find it. In this sense, cynicism has much to recommend it over apathy, which couldn’t be troubled to be troubled by much of anything.

Now at last we can speak of that small difference between cynicism and hope: whether or not we believe that the world will actually change into what it should be. And even this important difference might not be as large as it appears on first glance, since we can look at cynics are frustrated hopers. Cynics therefore provide better material to work with than those flimsy apathetic people who don’t care enough to develop frustration—except perhaps in the people futilely trying to convince them to care.

If I’m right about this analysis, the presence of cynics should itself give us reason to hope. It’s heartening to know that there are many people out there who don’t take the way things are as a given. It’s encouraging to know that there are people who aren’t interested in bowing and scraping at the altars of the Powers That Be. It’s enough to make this cynic smile.

Well, almost.

8 responses to “Holding Out Hope for Cynicism”

  1. good word matt, in so many ways. I would question, however, whether Obama’s “hope” is truly not-hope. I wonder if there are strands of this cynical longing present in the dawning realization that a black man (not necessarily a good man) will be president of the U.S. tomorrow. Riding the train from MN to St. Stephen by way of Washington, I met a few black people who were traveling across the country to witness the inauguration. This desire must symbolize something surely.

  2. @joel mason Cheers bro. I thought that the Obama bit would probably be controversial, but I stand by it in the context I wrote it in. What I could have clarified is that I don’t think that the actual policies and actions undertaken by his administration will be worth calling “hope.”

    That being said, Obama himself is a powerful hope-engendering symbol, one which I am glad for. For a nation founded on African slavery to have an African-American man as president is beyond imagining. I just don’t think that the man will be able to live up to the symbol – nobody could. We need another world, not a different president.

  3. i don’t think he can live up to it either. i relate strongly to your connection between cynicism and hope. what i found wonderful about the speech today was not his words nor his promises. what was great was the psychic break from a cycle, not of policies or presidents, but of the deep racist roots of america. it was, as you say, a powerful symbol.

    my problem right now is that i am looking for a way to speak to people’s hope in a way that doesn’t destroy it but splices the prophetic from the nationalistic. could the church take this, the election of a black president, as an encouragement to be the politic it is called to be. I have never been over excited about Obama, but i see it as a divine gift that Bush is no longer in power; that is the more powerful symbol to me in which i see tangible hope. though the words today were filled with pluralism, the massive presence of the people at the event signify to me a hope for ‘something’ better which perhaps can be midwifed by the symbol of obama until the church begins to practically act in a more truthful and interesting way.
    for that is the lesson embedded in nationalism; that if the church will not be a strong voice, than there are many other voices willing to take the reins, for a range of reasons varying on a scale from good to bed. perhaps that is what i want to avoid, the dismissal of the gradient scale. there is not only the apocolyptic hope and the false hope of the world. they are combined in a messy assortment of wheat and bramble.

  4. @joel mason I also see it as a divine gift that Bush is no longer in power. :)

    As for the rest, I’m less sure we can start with the nationalistic and pare it back to the prophetic. I just think it’s entirely back asswards. Romero, Bonhoeffer, MLK Jr., Dorothy Day, John Dear… here’s some politically active brothers and sisters who are worth talking about. I think we need to run away from nationalistic spectacles like Inauguration Day as fast as we can, because we quickly lose our way in trying to separate false and true hope in spectacles like this.

    Just call me gloomy Gus.

  5. I don’t have problem with optimistic people who also are humble. I’m troubled when people is optimistic and prideful. Like all those who pretend they will change the world just because they pretend more holy, smart, inteligent, good, nice, etc etc.

  6. @mountainguy My problem with optimistic people tends to be when they can’t see a problem staring them in the face. I’ve met some very humble optimists that I wanted to slap repeatedly for their refusal to see what was wrong.

  7. Thanks for sticking up for us cynics. I argue all of the time that I’m more hopeful than those who are not; and I expect more than what the world lazily gives. You help my argument along nicely. :)

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