The Conformity of Cynicism
Government corruption is a fact of life in many countries around the world.
Excess payments are required to get permits, driver’s licenses, business licenses, passports, safe passage, or even information.
So why don’t the people in these countries revolt? Tolerating corruption means living in poverty, amid crime, disease, and war.
Yet, people rarely revolt in a constructive way.
When they do fight back, the revolt is usually violent in nature, led by despots who promise their supporters yet more cronyism, looting, and extortion opportunities in exchange for their support, rather than transparent democracy and an end to corruption.
To many disillusioned citizens of our world, the idea of a low-corruption country with checks and balances and peaceful democratic transfers of power is a utopian fantasy.
Only a naïve fool would tell them they could organize and end the culture of corruption and create a peaceful, prosperous society. Power and money are zero-sum games, they’d respond, and the regime is too powerful.
Yet, a few hours’ plane ride from Angola (Transparency International rank = 163) are the peaceful democracies of western Europe, where corruption is a headline-making exception, not the rule. At some point, these people managed to end their own cultures of corruption.
One person’s utopian fantasy is another person’s reality.
Perhaps the difference is cynicism – a lack of confidence in the virtue and motives of our fellow human beings.
So who is correct? The cynics or the optimists?
Logically, the optimists are correct: Because some people have succeeded at creating cultures of low-corruption democracy, it is possible for others.
The low expectations of the cynics keep the bribes flowing. Where there is enough cynicism, there is space for the corrupt.
What about the United States? Is our culture becoming cynical? Are we setting ourselves up for failure?
Is your favorite news source conservative or liberal? That question would have baffled people a few decades ago. They’d be outraged to discover someone was slanting their news. To them, the news was supposed to be as objective as possible so people’s opinions would be consistent with the facts.
Today, journalistic objectivity is passé, and many would say it is naïve to think such a thing was ever possible. People who watch Fox News or read the Drudge Report live in a different informational reality than people who read the Huffington Post or Salon.com.
Does the campaign for president of the United States inspire us? If not, this attitude might have surprised earlier generations of Americans. Why would any campaign focus on discouraging the other’s voters? Wouldn’t the voters gravitate toward the candidate with a vision to make everything better, rather than the professional critic?
Today’s cynical voters consider optimism to be inauthentic – a sales pitch. Today’s debates are about which potty grown adults should use, not how soon we want to put an astronaut on Mars or how to address income inequality.
All this negativity makes us want to plop in front of the TV or watch a movie. But in The Walking Dead, every organization formed by the survivors of a zombie apocalypse crumbles, apparently due to an underlying sickness of the mind that dooms humanity’s efforts.
House of Cards imagines a level of corruption, selfishness, and crime in government that many viewers consider non-fictional.
In the 1960’s, Star Trek offered a vision of a united Earth whose diverse inhabitants explored the galaxy on a desegregated spaceship with alien friends. Today, the franchise is more about the casual destruction of entire planets and less about imagining a future in which we’ve resolved our deepest challenges.
We are immersed in a culture of cynicism, and we don’t even realize it.
Questioning The Conventional Wisdom
Should freethinkers just accept cynical cultural assumptions? Is it really true that ALL of our politicians are corrupt, our democracy is a farce, most people are fools, and individuals cannot improve their situations due to the interference of others?
Are we propping ourselves up by thinking less of others? Is cynicism something like racism against the human race?
Cynicism vs. Facts
Steven Pinker provides a convincing rebuttal of cynicism in his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”.
He claims that this the best time in history to be alive. Democracy is spreading. Violence is actually decreasing dramatically overall. People are becoming increasingly educated and ethical.
As Michael Shermer points out in “The Moral Arc,” our circle of moral concern has expanded over time to include women, children, people of different races and creeds, and even animals.
Cynicism = Losing
One effect of cynicism is a reluctance to join organizations, which in turn leads to underrepresentation in government. That should sound familiar if you are among the 55 million Americans whose religion is “none”. Not many freethinkers represent us in elected government offices.
We regularly hear the same excuses for not organizing as freethinkers.
Some say that any organization of freethinkers is destined to disintegrate into a religion – a lack of confidence in other freethinkers’ authenticity. Others are “against labels,” implying that they don’t trust their peers not to make a shared descriptor embarrassing.
The results of non-organizing are predictable. Freethinkers who don’t organize get less enjoyment from their community, virtually no political representation, not much of a voice in policy-making, and fewer personal growth or leadership development opportunities. To be a cynic is to disenfranchise oneself.
Refuse to Conform
Freethinkers don’t have to conform to the popular cynicism.
We can boldly pursue the improvement of our communities, the empowerment of secular people, and new organizational techniques.
We can work together to improve our planet in the areas of ethics, education, government, and culture.
We can confidently contribute to the dignity of humanity.
In our era of popular cynicism, we can find hope and inspiration in each other.