Cynicism: The Battle Cry of the Wimp

Cynics fly the white flag of surrender thinking it's a rebel flag.

Cynicism is the bravado of the faint-hearted, the strut of the weak-kneed, the battle cry of a feeble voice. This negative mentality, while self-defeating for its practitioners, seems to be gathering like storm clouds in the West. Barack Obama delicately brought this dysfunction to our attention when he noted at a campaign stop that “it’s fashionable right now for people to be cynical.”

Fashionable, indeed! A cynical view of the world has become a form of conviviality, like social drinking, that’s perceived as cool by many students, professionals, and sophisticates when they get together to talk or party. It’s cowardly, not cool. Cynics fly the white flag of surrender thinking it’s a rebel flag.

Cynicism is a cleverly disguised expression of passivity and hopelessness. It’s the art of being disgusted by hypocrisy and corruption without being moved to action. We can see its self-defeating effects in our faltering will to solve public and social problems, as well as in the loss of confidence in leaders and public and private institutions. Should America decline in self-defeat, we’ll have our cynical selves to thank. We can stop being cynical, though, by understanding its roots in our psyche.

Cynics tend not to see their inner weakness with any objectivity. They think they’re sophisticated realists entitled to take refuge in mockery, sarcasm, biting wit, and a know-it-all attitude. Yet the personality they present to the world is a defense against recognition of passive elements in their psyche. As part of their defense, they take morbid satisfaction in their unconscious denial of inner weakness.

Cynics feel power in their aggressive contempt toward others and their scorn for the state of the world. Their display of (phony) aggression feels so good because it covers up frightened weaklings who are overwhelmed by life’s complexity and challenges. The greater the person or institution they’re attacking, the juicier the illusion of their power and superiority. Such cynicism can quickly become malicious.

Their wit is seen as bold and daring and their perceptions as a mark of superiority. Cynicism tends to become more toxic over time, however, because people who employ it are forced to intensify its feeling and expression in order to maintain its effectiveness as a defense. Sometimes this causes them to overstep the mark and become overbearing, though they can be adept at backtracking, claiming they’re only joking and need not be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, cynics do scramble to sign up allies who agree with their negative perceptions. This provides them with more deniability for their emotional entanglement in passivity and fear. Allies can provide the cynic with the group rapture of collective denial. They now have more “evidence” for their inner defense: “Look, my negative attitude to life is justified because lots of people agree with my point of view.” They have even more “evidence” when they cite doom-and-gloom headlines about the economy, the environment, political dysfunction, and financial-industry lawlessness.

A cynical outlook also tends to deepen the underlying passivity. Once “we decide that we’re powerless, our passivity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a habit of mind that’s harder and harder to shake,” writes Paul Rogat Loeb in Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010).

In an excerpt from his book, Loeb writes:

Cynical resignation salves the pain of unrealized hope. If we convince ourselves that little can change, we don’t have to risk acting on our dreams. If we never fight for what we believe in and aspire to, we’ll never be disappointed. We can challenge destructive or duplicitous leaders with contrary information and counter-examples, stories about how the powers-that-be have misled us. But what can possibly challenge an all-encompassing worldview that, in the guise of sophistication, promotes the bleakest possible perspective on the human condition—the notion that our world has become so irredeemably corrupt that whatever we do, we cannot change this?

Loeb makes good points—yet he probably shouldn’t be expressing the idea, even if intended ironically, that “cynical resignation salves pain” or that “we’ll never be disappointed” if we don’t fight for what we believe in. Cynical resignation is a product of inner passivity which itself is a measure of self-doubt and a defensive, wary default position in our psyche. Inner passivity becomes very painful when it blocks our human mandate to grow, evolve, and fulfill our destiny. When inner passivity gets the best of us, it can activate our death drive and produce depression, despair, and a collapse of self-regulation.

As well, we’ll be painfully disappointed if we don’t fight for what we believe in. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing, Helen Keller once said. That “nothing” is the agony of acute disappointment in ourself. Cynics are in danger, particularly late in life, of being crushed by the truth of their failure to have practiced integrity and courage.

A remedy for overcoming cynicism involves a learning process through which we begin to see the phony nature of that form of aggression. Cynicism is not true aggression. Rather, it’s a coping mechanism (or psychological defense) intended to portray a semblance of aggression for the purpose of covering up self-doubt, fear, and inner passivity. It also helps us when we see that the negative aggression we direct toward others is a reflection (and reaction to) the negative aggression our inner passivity absorbs from our inner critic (superego).

All of us, cynics and non-cynics alike, are entangled to some degree in inner conflicts involving fear, self-doubt, inner aggression, and inner passivity. This is no cause for shame or embarrassment. It’s not our fault—it’s human nature at this point of evolution. We just have to be smart and brave enough to uncover this repressed content. In the light of self-knowledge, our intelligence then goes to work resolving the conflicts and creating more harmony with life.