I (an agnostic atheist) often find myself being dismissed as either “a skeptic,” “a cynic,” or both, as though those are both naughty words. In fact, not only are the two not interchangeable, but they are also not necessarily bad things to be. A skeptic is properly understood as someone who demands evidence to support claims before he or she accepts them. A cynic is probably best described as someone who is predisposed to reject claims, either before the evidence is heard or in spite of partial evidence that ought to be convincing. Furthermore, a cynic is constantly fixated on the hidden motivations of others and is quick to assume that others are bad at heart.
There is certainly reason to be skeptical in some instances. To demand evidence is to defend your mind and your opportunities from those who claim abilities or knowledge without justification. Snake oil salesmen abound in our lives; homeopaths, religious evangelists, politicians and commercial culture surround us, vying for our money, our votes or our time. If you are not skeptical of the claims with which you are presented, you are doomed.
Being a cynic, on the other hand, carries a (perhaps deserved) bad connotation. If you expect that everyone will always let you down or rip you off, you’ll likely miss opportunities and relationships you might have otherwise enjoyed and benefited from because of your prejudice. Of course, depending on how bad the real world actually is, how awful people truly are in their black hearts and how hopeless trust truly is, being so hyper-skeptical to point of cynicism might be the safest bet. This is an empirical question that neither I nor most others can hope to answer, which makes the word “cynical” a relative term. Everyone more skeptical than I gets labeled a cynic. The word is destroyed and becomes a badly veiled insult that sounds like a statement of fact about a person when, in actuality, their statement is based solely on the speaker’s opinion.
So go forth, you distrustful misanthropes, and hate each other. But don’t just bust out “cynic” unless someone is truly, unreasonably prejudiced and unwilling to cooperate. Keep an eye on those who throw that word around easily; they are often unfairly pigeonholing an innocent skeptic.
Connor Oakes savors his cynicism by using it sparingly.
For politicians, if they are to succeed, nothing is more avoided than the truth. This is because truth is volatile and unsettling. Indeed, dangerous. When politicians speak, they speak not to individual thinkers but to an unthinking, shallow mass — their words must appeal to the basest common denominator, so what’s said is as thin, cheap and sweet as a stick of cotton candy. Anything more coarse or weighty may be too truthful for our infantile public to swallow.
With that in mind and with much of the jubilation following President Obama’s endorsement of homosexual marriage subsided, we should ask ourselves if such overflowing praise was ever warranted. (In so doing, I might add, we immediately distinguish ourselves from the gullible and uncritical, and we shouldn’t shy away from admitting so.)
In politics, as in most everywhere else, the favorite epigram of Karl Marx should guide us: de omnibus dubitandum, or “everything must be doubted.” When Obama, in the midst of an upcoming election, went on air to trump his dubiously newly “evolved” stance on gay marriage, I was immediately skeptical, perhaps even cynical, for two reasons.
First, I find it implausible that Obama was ever iffy on the issue of gay rights. Second, the election is coming up and he must rally the base. (And perhaps a third: Whenever the masses are united in belief — which in this case is the belief that Obama should receive praise — I’m inclined to take the contrary position.) Everything must be doubted. But is this skepticism warranted, or are we taking on true cynicism? To doubt is not yet to suspect; to call into question is not yet to bring under suspicion — but how do you know which is appropriate all the time?
In this case, doubt in Obama’s sincerity is surely called for. Still, is his insincerity noble or unctuous? Either we are skeptical merely of his words or of his motives. The distinction between skepticism and cynicism, then, is in the daring of the doubt: Cynics go as far as to doubt the man’s virtue, not just his words. But Obama doesn’t seem to be an oily, sinister figure, so cynicism here is likely misplaced. (However, one look at what he’s doing in Honduras brings one pause.)
Brian Gallagher has on occasion been known to doubt even his own existence.
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