The Age of Cynicism

Saturday, July 25, 2015 - 6:39am

The Age of Cynicism

The age of anxiety has given way to the age of cynicism. Among my generation, cynicism is no longer a bad word: it’s being celebrated, and often it’s mistaken for intelligence.

But cynicism is not intelligence. At its very best, it is the cause of missed opportunities as many of my age close their emotional and intellectual pores to new experiences. At its worst, cynicism can be a dangerous, world-breaking state of mind. A healthy amount of skepticism can be smart, but, just as Voltaire once painted a picture of Dr. Pangloss in his novella Candide as a foolish, wide-eyed, stubborn optimist, we are now seeing an explosion of the exact opposite personality type. Like the character of Martin from Voltaire’s same novella, this doomed and distrustful world-view is equally foolish, equally stubborn, and, at its nadir, much more hazardous.

I recently went to an art opening in my Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea where I was grateful to see so many young faces in attendance. The artworks, all recently created by a diverse group of young artists, overwhelmingly veered in the direction of the bitterly, unrelentingly ironic. The young attendees were really into this. It was resonating with them.

This particular exhibition was not a unique recent experience. There seems to be a consensus on the art scene as well as in so many of the recent novels and poetry collections that I’ve read: irony is intelligent; it’s better to be wry and distrustful than to be open and trusting; warmth, love, and loyalty are passé. Video games need to be unrealistically violent in order to be considered “realistic.” Movies need to go further and further in search of shock and awe.

Of course there’s room for all of this in the world. Pasolini’s Salò remains one of my favorite films and Orwell’s 1984 is an important novel, but the themes of these works can be more fully understood only with an understanding of their contrapuntal themes. It’s hard to understand dystopia without being able to trust the many affirming flames that are ignited in the world on a daily basis. The landscapes of the darkest works of art pale in darkness to a world of perfection where there is nowhere to go and nothing to know.

But there’s the rub. We have to be willing to open ourselves up and to believe in something bigger than ourselves in order to go somewhere. We need to be convinced that there are things worth knowing so that we can cultivate the spirit, energy, and drive needed to follow that journey. We have to be willing to listen to, and be inspired by, the teachings of our elders and the learning of a thousand generations of humanity. We have to trust, even though we are the internet generation with much of the knowledge of the world at our fingertips, that we are not so clever that we can snub our collective noses at the great anthology of human experience. That takes intelligence, yes, but also trust, belief and sometimes even blind faith.

Instead, I belong to a generation that seems to be deeply hurt. I remember how much my parents disliked the word “hate” so much so that they refuse to use the word to this very day. If they ever caught me using it they'd warn me: “Mohammed, that’s a very strong word.” Today that seems like a strange thought. It’s completely normal in a social setting for someone, having had very limited interaction with another person, to turn around and say “I hate that person” without anyone batting an eyelid.

Conversely, saying “I love that person” would result in eye-rolls at the very least and even serious concern. The idea is that you have to know someone for a very long time to love them — trust in loving the energy of another human being; their aura and their silent company is seen as a sentimental artifact of the past. But hate, the most destructive emotion in the world, is welcome to be expressed immediately.

At its very worst, cynicism can engender what Robert Frost articulated in The Death of the Hired Man: the predicament of having “nothing to look backward to with pride / And nothing to look forward to with hope.”

This can breed, at its most extreme, the nihilistic and violent worldview that is attracting so many young people to gun violence in Europe, church, and school shootings in the United States, and a whole crop of youngsters from all over the world to join dangerous cults such as DAESH (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. And, indeed, organizations like DAESH have wantonly attacked the common heritage of mankind by attacking our past (the destruction of the Mosul Museum, the attacks on Palmyra…) as well as our future. Their apocalyptic worldview has nothing to do with Islam, but they refer to this most uncynical faith as a way to justify their nihilistic view of the future. In their own words: “We love death as the rest of you love life.”

Apparently it hasn't occurred to them that if the original Muslims wanted to destroy the ancient sites of Iraq, Syria, and beyond then they would've done so themselves when they entered these lands. But they didn’t because the Prophet and his followers were Muslims, the practitioners of a religion whose first command is to “read” so that we may be “taught what we did not know before.”

This optimistic worldview leads not only to the preservation of the culture and antiquities of the pre-Islamic Arab world but also to the preservation, translation, and proliferation of the culture of the world at large. By translating, preserving, and annotating the works of classical Greece and Rome, the Muslim scholars of old were betting on the future. This optimism reached a physical manifestation in structures like Baghdad’s famed House of Wisdom.

During my travels today, it's a strange phenomenon that from the United States and Canada to Europe, Arab Gulf countries, and Australia, I’ve seen an extremely prosperous young generation adopt such negativity and doubt. Both inner and outer doubt.

This youthful group has seen an affluence and abundance that could not have been imagined 70 years ago, but they can’t seem to capture the forward-looking optimism and grit of their grandparents. After all, optimism takes courage. The main ingredients in trust are daring and audacity — not blindness. Yes, if we open our emotional pores, we can be hurt. If we allow ourselves to love, we can suffer heartbreak. If we set out to write a great symphony or build a great monument, we can fail, falter, and fall.

It takes courage, yes, but we should be prepared to jump into the ocean of life. We should be prepared to suffer all the heartbreak, hurt, and failure in the world in order to experience the ups and downs of what it means to be human and to be alive. We can protect ourselves from hurt but then we risk never knowing the ecstasy of love.

On balance, it’s worth it. Life is worth it. For the sake of life, we should be prepared to pick up the pieces, no matter how small, wherever we see destruction. We should be prepared to build new houses of wisdom, better and stronger houses of wisdom. We should be prepared to work hard and suffer in order to recreate ourselves and each other.

We can shy away from the invention of great symphonies, the construction of great cities, the dedication to scientific innovation and the exploration of our universe because we are afraid. We can shy away from curing the most terrible illnesses and saving the most endangered ecosystems for fear of failing but then, by failing to try, we have robbed ourselves not only of any possibility of successful results but we have also robbed ourselves of the journey. “For us, there is only the trying.” said T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets, “The rest is not our business.”

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Mohammed Fairouz

is a composer whose opera and symphonies have been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and The Kennedy Center. His 11 albums include Native Informant, In The Shadow of No Towers, Poems and Prayers, and, most recently, Follow, Poet.

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I am afraid it is not only Millennials who are increasingly cynical and distrusting. At 60 something I find it increasingly difficult to hold a state of hope, curiosity and adventure when I look around at what we modern humans are generating.In a world increasingly addicted to domination and control, trust is a dangerous stance. So dangerous that it can end in sudden death at the hands of the powerful. Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you are having will not last.

Thanks for setting down these important thoughts. Everyone should be reminded, so I'm sharing on FB.

Ah, yes--cynicism. Great as a comedic tool. As a philosophy, it is called
despair. Skepticism is useful (perhaps essential) for critical analysis.
The world provides us with plenty of evidence for cynicism---which is why it is useful not to be a captive of the world.
Life is an adventure. If it bores you, there are exit plans......

DYSTOPIAN Cynicism like Nihilism are philosophical cop outs and the best philosophers knew that! TWH stardate 07252015 LL&Prosper (Y)

I don't belong to this generation of young 20 and 30 year olds. But I can see in today's world many many people that are only motivated by self-interest (look at the world of business and politics) , and yes that produces cynicism and pessimism in others: cynicism about the future. I see it more in Europe then in the States though. I would not say one is wrong to be cynical, I would say that it is sad that one has to cynical in today's world.

Your whole post is why one 'has' to be cynical. Because everyone else is cynical. If you changed your outlook you would realise the path the cynics are taking is not the only path. Those self-interested people are cynics themselves, and the cynics they produce become self-interested themselves, and so on. Cynicism breeds more cynicism. It's up to you to say you don't want to buy into it. The only way the future is going to be better is if us young people, instead of seeing the cynics and becoming cynical, decide 'I'm not going to be like that, I'm going to change things'. If enough people think like that, then things will change.

Lovely! Especially the end part about having trust.

Thank you for your article. I think it is a very important topic.

I don't see cynicism as a negative thing in and of itself, but normal and healthy. I think what you are talking about is a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

I am 62 years old, an artist who attended two Universities to study, during very different periods of time. I was a young 22 year old art student in the early 70s, and then a mature art student in 2008. I saw both unique perspectives.

Returning to University as a mature student, I met students who were astute, intelligent, insightful and wise beyond there years and it left me feeling hopeful. Those students that were not so much, came from very privileged backgrounds that fostered a sense of selfish entitlement.

The world generally and it is no different in the art world, now often referred to as the 'art market', has become divided into two socioeconomic camps.

A sense of hopelessness is proportional to an increased division, the gap between rich and poor. It is a affront on generousity, abundant joy, and gratitude.

Each individual has to find a way to rise above the hopelessness.
There is always hope for the hopeless.

I am a 60 something who losing her idealism of the 1960's and 70's has gradually become a cynic. I have despaired of the sickness this has wrought on my state of being and tried to figure out how to get out from under. I very much appreciate your writing. It is a matter of fact description of cynicism and provides an alternative view. And as you point out an alternative to cynicism is necessary to life.

If I were to edit your work in the tiniest bit I'd drop the multiple use of "should" in the last paragraphs. To me, "should" is often the language of moralism. While moralism has its place it can easily become judgmental and off putting. Nonetheless I read through the article and took a lot away from it that is positive. Thank you for helping an aging cynic to better world view and life.

Thank you Mohammed. I will ponder your reflections and share them with others. I hope we continue to be blessed with your contributions and your art.

I hope this is the dark days before the dawn. We are having difficult discussions that were not possible before the internet. We can no longer hide from injustice, cruelty and hate. It is not someone else's problem. And at the same time we have turned away from a higher meaning and spirituality. We have lost the AWE in life, the love in every moment and the beauty in every human being.
thank you for doing your part to help people open their eyes.

I believe in what you said here. We are in the darker part of the night, just before down. Thank you.

We're not allowed to be earnest any more. Its so uncool. Well then, to hell with cool. Cheers for your reflection.

I don't have much to say, except that I came across this article by chance at the exact right moment in my life. Thank you for writing this, and you make wise and insightful points. God bless all of you. If we could all try to be a little more optimistic in this incredibly cynical--even nihilistic--world, it would be a much kinder place. Thank you for inspiring me to do my part.

Young man, you have written a lot here. There is a lot of reason for cynicism and you cite it very well. As an older person, it is my belief that youth is the answer. For the perfect mix of cynicism and hope, I refer you to the easiest, best read on the subject...Kurt Vonnegut's short story, Harrison Bergeron. Keep the faith and keep writing.

Steve Fraser on the "Age of Acquiescence"

"...did a society like our own long ago grow accustomed to all the fundamentals of capitalism, not merely as a way of con-ducting economic affairs, but as a way of being in the world? Did we come to treat those fundamentals as part of the natural order of things, beyond real challenge, like the weather? What were the mechanisms at work in our own distinctive political economy, in the quotidian experiences of work and family life, in the interior of our imaginations, that produced a sensibility of irony and even cynical disengagement rather than a morally charged universe of utopian yearnings and dystopian forebodings?"

Hell of a thing, the resentment of Millennials. The resentment of an advertizing demographic.

As if this wasn't the world that lay in wait. Optimistically, even.

As the kidz say, "Cry More".

"The idea is that you have to know someone for a very long time to love them — trust in loving the energy of another human being; their aura and their silent company is seen as a sentimental artifact of the past. But hate, the most destructive emotion in the world, is welcome to be expressed immediately."

What a great observation!I will definitely keep this in mind.

That insight is the crux of it all - beginning new relationships with love and generosity, along with constant nurturing of those relationships with a grateful and compassionate heart, are the keys to an optimistic life ethic. Vigilant commitment to that approach will quickly prove that the innate goodness of others far outweighs any threat that others pose to our well-being.

We don't talk about kindness much either. To be truly kind to ourselves. To look closely at another, see their pain, and offer our help. To try to understand our neighbour and even our "enemy." I have seen both hostile and cynical people soften and begin to open when met with kindness. In being kind, we realize our connection with others and with all of existence. A simple kindness can reveal the innate goodness, the Buddha nature, the divine in others and in oneself. It becomes harder to be unkind once we see these things. It is both courageous and optimistic to be kind.

I have thought a lot about why so much art produced today is cynicle and so many books and movies use dystopia as a theme. One idea that keeps coming back to me is the absence of truth telling which has become the normal state of affairs today. It is very important for young people to see adults acting with integrity. This pervasive lack of truth telling is everywhere, but one of the most dangerous places is the state of our planet. Young people can see clearly that there is a problem with the way we have lived on this earth. They (along with over 90% of scientists) find it obvious that major changes will be necessary or we will be down a self destructing path that we cannot reverse. And yet- our leaders cannot even admit that there is a problem? And it is not just the extreme denyers that are to blame. No one is telling the whole truth about what it will really take to reverse this dangerous trend. No one is laying out the truth about strategy and sacrifice and discomfort that will need to be a part of any real reversal of global warming. So young people respond: "you are not going to tell us the truth? Then we will imagin the truth ourselves."

If you spend less time watching corporate sponsored "news" and staring at your mobile devices AND shopping then you will be less cynical.
Although the irony here is that the above sounds cynical.

I am a 67 year old cynic. I am proud to be a cynic. That doesn't negate the wise and beautiful sentiments of your piece. I do hold hope. I do appreaciate beauty. I continue to give and to be creative. But I feel cynicism keeps me and my view of the world honest. It gives me a sense of humor. How can one not be cynical afer listening to a few politicians who spout one philosphy and live another. How can the parent of child who is gay not support gay rights and still say they love their child? How can religions and govenment be intollerant of gays, women's rights, abuse of children and indifferent to the human condition and poverty? How can you not be cynical. Perhaps when someone like Pope Francis comes along I feel less cynical. When the Pope and FDR during WW 2 ignored the concentration camps in Germany how can I not feel cynical? All this being true we also should jump into the ocean of life but understand the tides, the depths, and where the sharks lurk. Embrace all of life the whole messy catastrophe that it is.

Victor, I love this response. Thank you so much.
And of course, thank you to the author of this article for such a beautiful piece of writing.

Amen. I'm 26, so I'm a part of the generation that the author is singling out, but I think cynicism is an integral tool in unpacking a lot of the madness of modern life. I agree that a lot of my generation aren't very happy, but I don't agree that's purely down to a lack of optimism, but a confusion on what happiness actually is. The "is this it?" that comes with privilege. Our ideals of genuine fulfilment have been hijacked by savvy marketers. We are continually bombarded with easy routes for instant gratification rather than meaningful exploration of our selves. It's a cliche, but so many of us have lost our sense of spirituality. For me, cynicism is key to unpacking this stuff, critically breaking down the values we all buy into in order to find real truth. For so many of my peers, simply unlearning the message that they are somehow special has been the dominant struggle of their twenties.

I also agree with the poster above who thinks the author is talking about hopelessness rather than cynicism. I'm not at all cynical about the pursuit of truth, wisdom and love. But I agree with Victor: "we also should jump into the ocean of life but understand the tides, the depths, and where the sharks lurk." The path of almost blind optimism the author writes about reminds me a whole lot of when I used to go to church and blind faith was encouraged. Everyone is different, but I'm the type of person who can't find truth without critical analysis. This includes being skeptical. I don't think that this shuts me off to hope and beauty and taking blind, bold risks. If anything, it helps in screening out the bullshit to focus on what's actually meaningful.

That's not being a cynic. Being idealistic does not mean ignoring all of that. Being a cynic means being bitter, deciding 'that's just the way things are' and succumbing to it.
Idealists don't go around thinking everything is sunshine all the time. They just decide to hold true to their ideals instead of giving up hope and refusing to believe anything or try anything new. When asked to do something good, an idealist says 'yes' while a cynic says 'what's the point?'

Keep writing!

magnificent, thoughtful piece of writing; thank you!

Please tell me the name of the music clip you just played at 7:50 (ish,) am Sunday 8/9/2015 on On Being on WVTF in Roanoke.

Brother, your words speak to me this morning and everyday. I feel, at once, understood in my own concern about the presence and one might say, celebration of cynicism and, also, inspired to remember that my own hopefulness is the very reason we are here. With gratitude, rOSIE

Great piece thanks. Made my yesterday. Then today I ran into this podcast in which David Foster Wallace speaks chillingly with Terry Gross about the psychological sum of rampant cynicism and irony in the modern era.

[Fresh Air] David Foster Wallace / Jason Segel => via @Podcast_Addict

If a picture could paint a thousand words, this article nicely touched upon cynicism. I agree how we use the technology has caused discourse in the world and may have lessened important basic values. I like the reflection of "protecting our ecosystems". If we could reach out and reteach our children and reshape, remodel And detangled all this mess might it heal this generation and rid evil.

What an important piece you have written. Thank you. Over the last year, I have disengaged from longtime friends and colleagues in a way I never would have imagined. I simply cannot bear to be around so much cynicism and skepticism. I agree with you: optimism is a courageous act. Thank you for reminding and for inspiring.

Cynics seek what is right, moral, Just, and Merciful; however, cynics reside in a epoch of Power. The awareness that Power has superseded virtue is enough to induce profound and lasting grief.

Thank you, dear soul, brave soul, Mohammed. I am grateful for your articulation of many things that I may not have the gift to speak so plainly. But yes, let's be that Crazy Lover, who believes in us so much more than our own self-doubt and self-destruction. It does take courage to keep the essence, the beauty of life alive and well in our hearts, and to extend that energy freely into the air we breathe, the lives we touch, the earth and all that is. It would be really crazy not to. I am working on it. Thank you, thank you.

I don't have anything profound to say - only thank you for a beautiful and inspiring post.

I'm so glad to be in your tribe, Mohammed, and I hope and pray that the next generations, including my fiercely tender-hearted millennial step kids and my treasure of a grandson, remain determined to seek out messages like this one rather than the fodder for cynicism and distrust that shows up with no effort at all right at their--and all of our--doorsteps. You made my Sunday with this one.

Thank you, Mohammed. I am challenged and inspired. I'm lucky to have two mentors in my life who live hope courageously. I hope to live the same for others who are as cynical as I have been.

I only just recently read this July blog posting. I am old enough to recall the anxiety and cynicism of the 60s and 70s. (Remember "don't trust anyone over 30"?) I think each generation has valid issues which one could become cynical or disenchanted about. But that is each person's choice, and one can always choose a different response. Cynicism can be the result of Disrespect for those in authority, especially when those in charge have not earned that respect by acting with integrity. Cynicism can also grow from Disappointment, from a worldview that expects everything to be perfect, a false expectation fed by model-perfect, enhanced and photo-shopped images of what we and our homes and lives "should" and "could" be. When this naïve view slams into the reality fed to us minute by minute by inescapable news and information sources reporting a barrage of all the daily bad, disappointment happens. Cynicism also can emerge from Dissatisfaction, a response to our economic system that must constantly create in us a desire for more in order to survive. Makers and sellers and marketers need buyers. Buyers have to be convinced to be dissatisfied, to need. But what cynicism is not is positive--it breeds apathy or anger. It is not to be confused with critical thinking, which produces analysis and action. Cynicism also is not inevitable. Disrespect, disappointment and dissatisfaction do not have to produce defeat. Mohammed is so right--we have to be "willing to believe in something bigger than ourselves in order to go somewhere." Cynicism is a choice and we can choose a different response. We can put down our cell phones or stop our complaining and look into someone's eyes and listen. Life is indeed "worth it." We CAN choose life, and be the change we want to see in the world. Thank you, Mohammed.

Inspiring words for a world that desperately needs them!
Thank you!

This young man must be an "old soul" because his thoughts on the subject are reminiscent of an ethic much older than his generation's. There is much wisdom in his gives me hope!

To say "cynicism can be a dangerous, world-breaking state of mind" may be accurate; but to critique this is a support of things-as-they-are, since only through world-breaking is world-making possible. I totally disagree about the distinction between this generation's use of "hate" versus "love"; we (our generation) treat both words flippantly, as is correspondent to their actual value. We say "Omg I love that artist" every bit as flippantly as we say "Omg I hate that artist" (incidentally, the Valley Girl figure is a brilliant manifestation of the linguistic cynic); we are just as cynical of "hate" as we are of "love." These linguistic categories cannot actually communicate human feeling/consciousness/being but rather can only approximate approximations ad infinitum (a process described by Derrida as différance), so we treat them flippantly because to treat them flippantly is to undermine the pretense that they possess actual value. Cynicism is valuable precisely because it breaks us from naive limitations on perspective. Love is bullshit. Hate is bullshit. But accepting the significant limitations inherent to language and thought vis-à-vis cynicism eventually frees the imagination to participate in other-world-making.

I feel that a lot of your arguments are based on generalisations.

"Conversely, saying “I love that person” would result in eye-rolls at the very least and even serious concern [...] But hate, the most destructive emotion in the world, is welcome to be expressed immediately [...] It’s better to be wry and distrustful than to be open and trusting; warmth, love, and loyalty are passé. Video games need to be unrealistically violent in order to be considered 'realistic'."

You're assuming the actions and motivations of an entire generation, which is a tall order. You can't use this as the premise of your piece, because the human race is extremely varied and it's likely that your "observation" about the world is inaccurate. Furthermore, the motivations that you're assuming are negative ones, eg. "wry and distrustful". You don't seem to be willing to trust younger generations. Thus, I feel like you're the one who is cynical.