It’s easy to get sucked into cynical explanations for the behavior of other human beings these days. Cynicism is the armor many people wear to ward off a challenging and complicated modern reality. Most people I know are at least somewhat cynical, and lots of people are shackled and disabled by the critique they have about our human species.
A beloved member of my family recently let out a stream of cynicism that surprised me. He is a lovely person, quiet, generous, and intelligent. He’s a good husband and father who also serves others in his professional human service job.
But he spewed out a series of cynical explanations for reality the other day that I hadn’t heard from him before. I argued with him for a while but quickly gave up when he obviously wasn’t listening, but simply ramping up his argument, laughing at what he must consider my naivete or my optimistic view that we humans are evolving.
His cynical explanation: a significant proportion of people seem to prefer living off the dole these days. They don’t want to work, but prefer welfare. They pretend to be disabled so they can live off the government. Our current federal government can’t be trusted because it is enabling the weak and the dishonest. The current administration is corrupt intellectually and morally. The next President will fit right into a government that will continue the dishonesty and waste. No one in power can be trusted.
Wait a minute, you might be thinking: isn’t that a pretty good explanation for reality?
No, it isn’t.
We have been examining here the possibilities of deep learning, learning that transforms how we think and behave. We have probed the learning handicaps of self-pity, routines, and fear. We are ferreting out all of the dead-ends that discourage our learning and make it impossible to achieve a poised consciousness.
Cynicism is another dead-end. Cynics can’t learn and can’t change the way they think and behave.
Cynicism is a bad explanation of reality that blocks learning completely.
What is cynicism and where does it come from?
Cynicism is doubting the motives of other people.
Since humans are such flawed creatures, it’s easy for us to slip into the trap of cynicism in our assessment of their motives. It is true that men and women frequently disguise their real intentions. Our motives can be legitimately questioned at times because we are often insincere or because we gloss over our bad behavior by claiming that we are intending to do good when, actually, we are self-serving. So, of course, we sometimes make a correct assessment of the motives of others.
But cynics doubt other people’s motives a priori. Cynics have a profound mistrust of other people, but especially people who hold power of position or wealth. Leaders cannot win the approval or trust of cynics no matter what they do or how they behave.
That’s because cynicism is a form of self-protection, a default position we take with people we disapprove of or with people we feel we can’t influence. Naturally, those in power over us become the targets of our cynicism: it’s our way of protecting ourselves from their influence. Our protective strategy doesn’t work, however, because the objects of our cynicism merely retreat from our judgments and develop the hides of elephants. Their self-defense just makes their critics even more cynical. Cynicism becomes an endless cycle of rationalization, an ever deeper argument that the motives of others are usually suspect.
Sometimes the cynic’s target isn’t people in power, but entire classes of people whose motives they question. A 55 year-old bachelor friend who endured a painful divorce a decade ago isn’t trying to find a mate because he mistrusts the motives of divorced women and won’t open himself to a possible relationship.
Citizens in many communities are cynical about the police, doubting that police want to protect them, but instead are motivated by the need to dominate, hurt, and abuse. You can argue that this cynicism is warranted, that it is a good explanation for reality. But it isn’t . The reality is much more complex than the a priori position of cynicism—you can’t believe the police.
Cynicism comes from a position of weakness and fear that separates the cynic from other people.
Cynics lack integrity
I once had an unusual vantage point to see how cynics lack integrity. The organization I led won one of 25 national research projects from the federal government. The five-year grant required that we hire an ethnographer who would regularly interview all the stakeholders in the project, including the project staff. Every three months, the ethnographer, a professor of sociology, provided the agency management team and me with an extensive written analysis of how stakeholders were perceiving the strengths and weaknesses of the project as it unfolded.
My leadership team and I were stunned after reading the first quarterly ethnography report: Our project line staff, we read, were critical of upper management, claiming weak communication and other problems of project leadership.
We had spent years developing strong communication systems and policies that encourage an open, high trust level environment for employees. No one was ever fired or disciplined for giving leaders feedback and suggestions. We sought input, intentionally, at every opportunity.
But, gee, we thought, maybe we haven’t been the enlightened leaders we sought to be.
So we took the criticisms to the staff who had been interviewed by the ethnographer and asked how leaders could improve on the issues they had identified. They had only a few minor suggestions to offer. The management team recommitted to improving on the leadership issues identified by the staff, nevertheless.
To our chagrin, the next quarterly report repeated the same complaints about poor communication with project management. We went back to the project staff, pretty humble by now, to seek input and to develop written plans for leadership improvement. Again, complaining project staff had little to offer. Nevertheless, we made an even stronger commitment to make sure that all project staff felt fully informed and also fully valued.
This pattern continued for all of the years of the project. Some of the staff continued to say one thing in the interviews with the ethnographer and a very different thing to project and upper managers when asked the same questions.
Over those years, I saw that many of our employees were cynics: no matter how safe and nurturing the workplace, no matter how enlightened and how conscientious their leaders were, they doubted the motives of people in power.
Later, as a coach to leaders in government, business, and non-profit organizations, I saw that cynicism is pervasive in the American workforce. Winning the trust of employees is very difficult, even when organizational leaders are committed to it.
Cynics feel that their flawed and incomplete explanations about other people elevate themselves to a position of moral and intellectual superiority. Their critique of other people is sharply contemptuous and separates them from others in an irreconcilable way
Their cynicism about the motives of other people masks a lack of integrity I find in all cynics.
How to avoid cynicism
1. Don’t get sucked in by the cynics in your life. Cynicism is so pervasive that we cannot avoid its energy and commitment as a life view. It may sound clever, sophisticated, urbane—even funny— but it is false, all self-protection by the cynic. We have to be alert not to slide into participation with cynical conversations and exchanges. It usually doesn’t pay to argue with cynics or to try to enlighten them: they are impervious to facts or logic. They think that your optimism is misinformed. Move gently away.
2. Take the long evolutionary view. Sometimes cynicism wins temporary victories. The cynics are right for brief historical periods. Things do actually go to hell for a time because people are corrupt, stupid or murderous. But even if things go to hell for decades, eventually humankind will learn and evolve. Doubting human motives may help forge a correct diagnosis for short periods, but in the long haul, we see that our species is designed to learn, to grow, to evolve.
3. Don’t hook your personal fate to your fellow humans. This is a hard one, but essential if we are to live a life of poised consciousness. We are a fragile species, and most of us believe that we must hook our fates to the fates of other people. Of course we will relate to other people. We will work with other people. We will sweat and strain in relationships like everybody else. But if we hook our fate to the fates of our fellow human beings, we will be more likely to be cynical, and we will be much less likely to learn and to emerge into our full potential. What if you were Japanese or German before and during WWII. Want to hook your fate to your fellow citizens? What if you were a white citizen of the South before and during the Civil War. Want to hook your fate to the fate of your fellow citizens? Is there any group of people whose unknown and uncertain fate draw your unequivocal life commitment?
This subtle strategy takes great clarity and courage, but we must separate ourselves from the fate of others if we are to find our own loving path, free of cynicism, hatred, violence, and even safety.
A poised response to human folly
There is a great deal of cynicism abroad today that argues vehemently with human evolution. Cynicism is an explanation of human life that is completely pessimistic—i.e., wrong.
The antidote to cynicism is poise, a state of consciousness that readies us for anything. Poised, we live in awe, avoiding all of the cynical self-protections constantly in use by our fellow humans.
Instead, we are poised—present in the wondrous moment, joyfully connected to our personal fate in an emerging universe, grateful at all times about the riches of our lives, creative as we welcome our challenges, and lighthearted because we’re on a loving path.