December 5, 2022

SOKOL | Cynicism Isn’t (Always) Wisdom

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Some of my fellow government major friends and I have a recurring joke about which of us is the most cynical. Competition is fierce: the state of global politics, it would appear, has not been breeding a strong sense of optimism.

While I can safely say that I was a cynic long before I was a government major, I’ve also started to question whether this default mindset of mine is doing much good. Does my skepticism — which I diplomatically prefer to market as realism — make me more equipped to confront the challenges of our world? Or, realistically, does it just make me sad?

To be clear, I think there is much to be cynical about. In fact, I would argue that my disillusionment is at least in part a product of our time — a time that is markedly different from the one in which our parents, for instance, grew up.

Three decades ago, for example, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama ’74 wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man. In it, he argued that the expansion of liberal democracy marked an end-point in humanity’s ideological development. The Cold War was over, the Soviet Union dissolved; an air of optimism filled the 1990s. Even if authoritarianism resurfaced, Fukuyama wrote, it would undoubtedly be triumphed by democracy.

It might be abundantly clear by now that I’m in the middle of writing my government final papers. But, I present this example not to subliminally sell you on enrolling in a political science course or to argue about the merits of Fukuyama’s work — political scientists have been doing that since it was published in 1992. 

Rather, I see it as an indication of how much times have changed. The Ithaca that Fukuyama learned in is not the same one we inhabit now. Today, it would be much harder to argue that liberal democracy has superseded above all. The optimistic fervor of the 90s has given way to something distinctly darker, not only in politics but in society at large.

As young adults, our lives have been marked by recessions, political polarization, war, climate change, unemployment, a pandemic … all of which we have the privilege of watching on screens in hand-held real time, coping with collective grief through Tweets that would take an archaeologist years to decipher — assuming, of course, that Twitter exists long enough for that. It’s harder to buy a house and get a job than it was several decades ago, much less to reckon with the broader state of the world we live in.

In short, I think there is reason to be cynical, and I don’t think you need to drown yourself in political science books to recognize that.

Yet, I also find that I have fallen into a trap of conflating my fears and cynicism towards the world with my day-to-day life. I have erroneously translated the existential anxiety of the time we live in to the way I see myself and the microcosms I inhabit: Why bother making new friends if I’m a senior, destined to leave Ithaca in a semester’s time? Why apply for a certain fellowship if I know it’s competitive and unrealistic to win? Why enjoy the sunset if it’s going to get dark at 4 p.m.?

I’m exaggerating, of course — I would never question appreciating an Ithaca sunset. But it is in these moments that I’m trying to catch myself, to feel grounded in the present moment without lamenting the past, dreading the future or fearing the world too much.

I am still resistant towards perpetual optimism, what the Internet has termed “toxic positivity” — a dismissal of negative emotions in favor of constant cheer. Pastel Instagram posts spewing platitudes about how “everything will work out” and “there are no bad days” can only go so far.

However, there has to be a middle ground: a space for acknowledging the difficulties of the world while embracing the day-to-day joys, leaving room for cynicism towards the outside while appreciating the hope that lies within.

A song called “Cynicism” by Nana Grizol came up in my Spotify recommended list about a year ago. Expecting a relatable track full of bitter skepticism against the world, I gave it a listen. I still return to it today for a melancholy reminder of the value that optimism holds.

“Cynicism isn’t wisdom, it’s a lazy way to say that you’ve been burned /

It seems, if anything, you’d be less certain after everything you ever learned.”

Lia Sokol (she/her) is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. My So-kolled Life runs every other Sunday this semester.