Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cynicism, Skepticism and Free Thought

Cynical? Realistic? Positive? Naive?
Though individual experiences and attitudes inevitably vary between individuals, it is thought that around the age of 45, our cynicism starts to grow. This creates great material for satire, but is it a positive or negative development?? 'Cynical' is a word which creates a trigger that screams of negativity as soon as you hear it, but upon further investigation it may be that in the right hands, which would be the hands of an open-minded and well-researched person prepared to research topics to build on information fed to him/her through the regular channels, a skeptical attitude borne out by a sufficient number of facts is a healthy thing. It can allow development of ideas without over-caution and the creation of self-censorship in the mind. It makes us question things and maybe even take action.

'Cynical' means believing that humans are 'motivated by base desires or 'selfishness' and being 'skeptical of the integrity, sincerity and motives of others'. More strongly, a cynic can be 'bitterly or jadedly distrustful, contemptuous and/or mocking'. If a cynic is jaded, they are 'wearied, exhausted, callous and/or insensitive', which seems to show a link between someone who has taken their knocks in life and with bitterness decided that 'life is shit and then you die.' The cynic isn't always fun to be around and if he's relatively famous might appear on television shows such as the BBC's 'Grumpy Old Men'. The cynic 'moans' and drags people down to their level of 'gloominess.' 

So, we have a picture in our mind of the stereotypical, world-weary middle-aged cynic. But the other side of the argument is very telling. For example, a cynic needs to have it proved that someone in a position of power isn't self-serving and manipulative. Of course, 'guilty until proven innocent' is considered very base and unfair in terms of the law, but with the steady and constant stream of verifiable stories of corruption and scandal among those in powerful positions, along with the now well-recognised psychological effects of giving vast power to certain people, an optimist seems to be willingly sweeping aside skeptical doubts without having to go to the bother of checking if they are well-grounded. I think that what we are really looking at is the issue of whether having a certain instinctive individual belief has come about through action and information-gathering or a lazy and perhaps fearful retreat to a fixed view. A lazy cynic and a lazy optimist are equally bad, as is a lazy sheep.

Any basic research about what appears to happen in the world simply cannot rule out the crucial factor of vested interests and the corruptibility of humans in power. This is not a slur on the human race by any means. At worst, it is a slur on a certain human instinct, and the good cynic/skeptic/realist with a decent handle on human nature is likely to also acknowledge the basic decency and generosity of humans. Very few people you meet are going to or want to do you harm. The toxic cynic of course may not believe in anyone at all, but what of the possible toxicity of the optimist? Their upbeat language could be chocolate-flavoured poison because it gives the impression that the system that runs the world isn't the problem, rather that it is something wrong with certain people's brain chemistry. Cynics, or non-believers, of the man-made global warming theory might concur with the similarity of blaming humans and their nature, quite a theme in mainstream-media output. So, humans cause global warming rather than the sun, a lot of humans react to a perfectly sane world by having negative, irrational thoughts due to something wrong in their brain, and of course some concoct wild 'conspiracy theories' due to their need for excitement in their lives. Ditto the global financial crisis, which started in 2007, which was largely blamed on citizens wanting something for nothing and over-indulging their credit options

The reality is that the afore-mentioned 'good cynic' uses a negative attitude as a means, a searchlight, not a lazy end, to cut through the crap and seek the truth. And they actually live a lighter life in the sense of a committed, non-participation in things which analysis tells you are absurd or even immoral. The utter folly of consumerism coupled with the known cynical and merciless treatment of humans and animals to produce certain items makes such non-participation an act of integrity. And it's nicer to have less pressure on yourself to follow all the things we are supposed to follow. The Olympic Games, and sport in general, undoubtedly reveal a dark side when analysed. The good cynic has probably taken more time than the optimist to think of how cruel it is for the poor of a city to see the apparently precious coffers being spent relentlessly on what is, deep down, an unimportant spectacle outside the world of P.R, which the public at large don't question thanks to the sacred 'feelgood factor' these events create. On the subject of the 'feelgood factor', society and the mainstream media seem to have a label, a tag or an angle that can be placed on a person who questions and which people tend to follow. So a questioner of the whole idea of the Olympics is a 'killjoy'. If you happen to be in your 30s or older, you are 'getting old' or 'growing cynical'. If you are very fortunate, you might even be called a 'nihilist' (definitions of nihilism include 'an extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence', 'a belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated' and 'a belief that traditional morals, ideas, beliefs etc...have no worth or value'. Note the subtle difference between the first 2 definitions and the 3rd, which focuses on traditional values rather than all values. Substitute 'traditional' for 'mainstream conservative' and change 'have no worth or value' for 'should always be questioned and never be blindly believed to be true' and you have a healthy skeptic. 

As far as things not having any meaning, there are a couple of things to say here. Anyone reading this can take 'The 10-Minute test', which takes a lot less than 10 minutes to actually do. Do it right now, this minute, here we go. Ask yourself- If you suddenly found out you had 10 minutes to live, how many of the things that are bothering you and holding you back now would mean anything at all? In particular, how many of the small gripes that are irking you about those close to you or in your acquaintance, and the small or large grudges that you are holding against people or the world in general, would retain their significance at the very end of your life? I fully understand that serious illness, extreme suffering and premature death are exceptions to this rule, but mercifully few of us have to encounter these with any kind of regularity. For the majority, life seems to be mundane and rather humdrum, giving us time to stress ourselves out about all manner of things that our creative minds care to invent or give significance to. These kind of thoughts have no real meaning. In addition, we live on a planet with a surface area of 510,072,000 square kilometres which is home to nearly 7,000,000,000 people and anything between 10 and 30 million different species of animals. it may seem like a small world if you travel to Australia and happen to encounter the person who was your best friend at school back in England, but would you want to clean it?! This is of course the tip of the iceberg. When you look at space, the numbers and proportions become staggering. Rather than give you all the numbers, i will let the following 1 and a half minute video illustrate the point very succinctly.

To say something is 'insignificant', 'worthless' or 'meaningless' is purely contextual as to whether it;s good or bad, and bear in mind that this kind of language manipulation is willingly or otherwise used to persuade and to invade our free will on a daily basis.
As life gets harder, faster and statistically worse for our mental health and happiness, which is itself a strange development as we 'evolve' and grow as a species and presumably as a society, the need for optimism and happiness seems to grow also. The daily grind of quiet misery means that we need smiles and positivity, even if it's just positive language without substance. But the good cynic, skeptic, non-believer, non-participant etc.. is perhaps more valuable and vital than ever, if he can prove that he's done his research and arrived at what appears a pessimistic conclusion through a positive quest for the truth, not a bitter need to spread his own negative psychology onto others.

In conclusion, spread love and happiness to your fellow man but also…question everything!!!!

An audio version of this post is available here


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