On Skepticism and Cynicism
When presented with new information on any topic, addressing it with skepticism is extremely healthy. Looking for other reliable sources, sound reasoning, and a bit of self-reflection and dealing with possible consequences of accepting this new information and a reasoned, rational approach to how likely the information is to be true yields greater clarity, and a more robust understanding and ability to predict likelihoods. By contrast, cynicism is undisciplined skepticism. It is a distrust in everything and a staunch adherence to preconceived beliefs about the nature of reality. It is a “this is the way it is and there is nothing that can be done about it” approach that leads only to apathy. Skepticism is noble in its never ending search for greater accuracy, while cynicism is nefarious in its inexorable march toward inaction.
When applied to politics and civic engagement, cynicism enables the most advantaged to form the world to their favor. From an American perspective, it is plain to see how often stories get twisted so as to obscure the truth. When discussing topics like climate change, the state of our endless foreign wars, failure of confidence in our election system, or any number of other vitally important policy positions, the argument is often made “well these things are very complicated,” or “but what can we do about it,” “you’ll just make yourself upset if you keep dwelling on things you can’t change,” etc. Arguments that point out that a topic is difficult (to understand, to have agency over, make arguments in favor/against). That, in and of itself is a cynical argument and a call to inaction, a call to “just shut up and be content with X entertainment.” As though there should be a mass aversion to difficult topics or advocating for change on a larger scale than just my household, or my job, or my community. As though one shouldn’t expect to have a voice in the national conversation. This is cynicism at work, an admission that sources of information can be untrustworthy and if doubt can be cast on any source, better to throw one’s hands up than voice an opinion or hypothesize any other solution to a problem, or risk being doubted by others, or worse, outright ridiculed.
Somehow this same propensity toward cynicism, while wrapped in the veneer of skepticism, promotes this sense of powerlessness and often buys into media narratives that offer a sort of narcissistic high-ground, while simultaneously arguing for inaction. Don’t forget propaganda is completely legal and likely in widespread use in the USA. “Saddam was a bad guy, maybe it was better that we invaded Iraq,” “Qaddafi was a bad guy, maybe it’s better that we invaded Libya,” “Assad is a bad guy maybe it’s better we’re invading Syria.” Skepticism would dictate that maybe the reality on the ground differs from what our news tells us not necessarily to the complete opposite but to a more nuanced view of world events, one that doesn’t coax us to sit back and unquestioningly say “well, I guess we had to,” while simultaneously declaring that “war is bad and we should find a way to have a more peaceful world … I guess after that Assad guy is out though.”
Skepticism shares a propensity toward distrust with cynicism but rather than despair and/or withdraw, skepticism requires convincing evidence of a claim be brought forward before considering the claim likely rather than unlikely. By the same token, unsupported claims repeated over and over again by powerful sources that are meant to be trustworthy and informative begin to shape a true skeptics perspective. Isn’t it weird that David Sirota can tweet out “What’s the best indisputable evidence that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election?” and receive a whole host of responses none of them pointing to hard evidence even after the media has been decrying Russian interference on nearly a daily basis for an entire year.
[David Sirota on Twitter: “What’s the best indisputable evidence that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election? I’m legit asking, and not snarking.”](https://twitter.com/davidsirota/status/884178298984583168)
If that’s not enough to promote a healthy skepticism in the “Russia did it” story than I’m not sure what is. The point here is that a skeptic will take that lack of trust in a story and start digging further, what is the motivation for the hyper focus on this by the media other than distaste of Trump? A cynic would merely roll his/her eyes and declare it the norm for media to sensationalize and spin stories and that we should all go about our days. My issue is that a lie repeated over and over again begins to be accepted as truth and a cynical approach to news is vulnerable to manipulation by repeated story lines like this. Eventually one might take the, “hmm, they keep talking about this and they have access to intelligence agencies I don’t, maybe they know something they just can’t say to the public.” this is dangerous reasoning. It’s what got us embroiled in Iraq and what will likely keep us embroiled in Syria, and will eventually get us involved in Venezuela.
Cynicism undermines individuals critical thinking in favor of apathy and defeatism, it is the quiet expression of fear. Fear one might feel uncomfortable outwardly expressing but a passive acceptance of a worldwide police state and jingoistic rhetoric that the cynic will accept and leave unchallenged. Unlike Cynicism, Skepticism relies on hope, the flip side of fear (which a cynic might declare is just as vacuous as fear). the Skeptic’s hope is an unwillingness to accept that which others advocate absent compelling evidence, this sets in motion a search for further evidence, further perspectives, further learning. In the face of a dubious claim, a skeptic will always seek to ask relevant questions and seek out acceptable answers and better understanding, where a cynic, while expressing doubt both in the content and in the messenger, will advocate for nothing — and is defeated without a battle.