Those who know me are of the impression that I am a very cynical person. My own grandmother, as a matter of fact, when I was only nine years old, labelled me as being “the single most naturally cynical person that [she had] ever met.” And it is true that I have a history of being distrustful of other people’s stated motivations, and that I have a habit of ruthlessly picking things apart in my mind to find their (often very unfortunate) ramifications. Some people* have claimed that this is a character flaw on my part, but on the other hand, I feel that it has, to some extent at least, shielded me from the bitter extremes of jingoism, nationalism, and hucksterism.
And, in many ways, I was born in the right age for it. During my lifetime, I have encountered very little penalty, in terms of social currency, for being unrelentingly negative. This is almost always the case: standing up and stating what you believe in will leave you vulnerable to attack**; you can come away looking very silly. But to attack what everybody else believes–if you can do it cleverly enough, and with enough wit and humour–you can come away looking like a genius without ever needing to worry about putting something of itself out into the open. But in this day and age, cynicism has become an end of itself, particularly if you, like me, consider yourself to be an “intellectual.” We’re very good at pointing out the many flaws in the existing status quo, but when it comes to imagining a coherent, appealing alternative, we seem to be dealing, at best, in very vague ideas. Even in popular culture, cynicism reigns supreme: mine was the generation which came of age on Dilbert*** and Dead Baby Comedies in which no good deed ever went unpunished. As adults, we enjoy shows about morally ambiguous, or even villainous protagonists who explore the dark realities of Human Nature. Even science fiction–that great laboratory for alternative social models–has been effectively neutered****; today we either project existing social trends into the future, or forecast the sort of collapse which we have come to regard as inevitable. The dominant idea seems to be that Humans are hardwired to be corrupt, stupid, and evil, and that these are fundamental, essential, and intrinsic aspects of our existence from which there is no escape.
And that, right there, is how I became an idealist. Because, as I have said, to be truly cynical is to always pick things apart. To consider full ramifications. And, above all, to examine, with a jaundiced eye, the motivations behind people who tell you what it is that you ought to be believing. So when the dominant cultural message becomes one of cynicism, and you know for a fact that culture does not exist independently of power, then the only reasonable question that you should be asking is: Who Benefits? Who benefits from an ideology which regards moral turpitude as being irreducible from Human Nature? Who benefits from an ideology which regards ecological catastrophe and therefore the collapse of civilization as being inevitable–and therefore, not worth countering? Who benefits from grim dystopian fantasies which paint the world today as the best that we are ever going to get?
Don’t misread me; I don’t want to overstate the influence that any one ideology can have on cultural trends. But it is nevertheless a demonstrable fact that the very cynicism which we adopt to shield ourselves from manipulation has itself been used to manipulate people in a manner which can only be described as “cynical.” And thus, I have been left with no other choice but to become an idealist, for the very simple reason that I have become cynical about cynicism.
*Almost universally people who would stand to benefit from my not being so cynical.
**Unless you happen to have a totalitarian state or cult backing you up.
***Dilbert manages to be very funny, because, of course, good comedy is supposed to cynically poke holes in things.
****I was going to include a discussion in this post, but it’s important enough that I would rather do a separate entry.