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.