Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cynical. I think I mean Mildly Cynical.

My facebook status from yesterday: 

ifrancine ij iharris:   
I commented on someone's 'mild cynic' recently and they thought I was being insulting. So I wrote to them: " I think a healthy cynicism is necessary. I believe you can stay optimistic in the face of pessimism, but I dislike rosey views and I dislike 'nice'ness and I dislike people who will do anything, sacrifice anyone, walk away fron anything, deny any form of difficult truth for teh sake of keeping everything 'kosher,' 'upbeat' or 'positive.' I mean I really dislike these people. Lol. I avoid them fervently.
So in order not to be this way - to be a real thinker, to be discriminating, to be honest - doesn't it require a certain amount of cynicism, of skepticism, of approach to any subject, any notion, any 'fact' with a discerning lens? The question for me is always 'What do I make of this?' not 'Does this make me feel good?'
This is maddening to some. And to those folks ... Ah well. We nod and wave in passing.
Mentioning your 'cynical' eye as part of your thought process is my sincere form of flattery.' 
... and then I wanted to share my declaration with the world (of facebook).

... in particular this response from my friend, Nick

Nick Gaudio Ah, hell. Another try:

That people are self-interested is...well, an obvious point. However, cynicism seems to me an outright dismissal of all human interaction as self-interested and "base", flagging all Other Parties as potential threats regardless 
of fact or nuance or circumstance; whereas "discernment" or "shrewdness" allows for a broader scope of understanding of what self-interest can be or mean. 

Why are we having this conversation?
A cynic would say: "You're both trying to appear intelligent," (or something like that) condemning us to simplistic/animalistic impulses; people speak to publicly define self-worth in the Petri Dish of competitive Darwinism, whatever. Look how smart we are, opposite sex! Base urges, etc.
A shrewd person would say: "You're both probably trying to come to some understanding of some greater truth." Of course, that motivation is still in the arena of self-interest, but it smacks of a type of nobility that I hope, at least, is partially true. We're trying to make ourselves feel more assured about a unknown universe and there is some nobility in that. 

Not only that, but to constantly monitor the motivation of Other Parties is an implicit statement that one must -- out of necessity -- constantly monitor all Other Parties (for fear, I suppose, of one's own self-interested being infringed upon). What else is that but unproductive misanthropy? 

Let's say I have three sons and one steals money from my wallet. If I constantly monitor the other two sons, who have not ever (to my knowledge) stolen money, I'm wasting my time. To monitor, however, the thief-son is productive and shrewd. To monitor the other sons as if they are potential thieves is cynical. 

I'm in a bit of a hurry now, so this might not make much sense. I apologize but work calls, you know.
The gist of the whole conversation can be seen in my previous post, or by clicking here:

Dear Nick Gaudio,

Your points are fine. I really love that you (and others like Metta) hold integrity to the intended meaning of our language. You are absolutely right, and I can concede this – that I may use, and have been using, the word incorrectly.

I’ve had this argument before, actually. And so I wonder why I hold to this word, why it means anything to me at all, because if it had no meaning – I would entirely concede. I can be tied to my own “rightness,” but not to the point of nonsense.

Perhaps I have opened a box, unintentionally. And to navigate this conversation … I have to be careful, and intentional.

I did not intend to have a conversation on my beliefs about the human species. I only meant to suggest to my friend that his questioning nature (about life and about people -- and it’s our attitude about people's motivations that are central to the debate, here, I think) was a good thing.

Then, Gaudio, you offered the word “skeptical” or “shrewd” as possible replacements for what I mean to say.

So….I’ve been thinking about that. Do I mean skeptical? Shrewd?

Of connotations, I will say shrewd (to my mind) has more to do with rhetoric and debate and argumentation – and, unfortunately, business and The Market. Certainly part of what I mean, but not the totality.

Discerning. Yes, but this definition is not inherently about people and their motivations.

Let me say here, that I think the reason the definition must involve our considerations of others’ motivations, is because I am thinking chiefly about the information we are given, the truths we are offered, and about our ability to parse through that information to consider why we’re being told things, not just how, or even whether or not it appears logical.

However, it is here where I must be careful, because I also recognize that I struggle with social “trust”. In fact, I’ve been thinking lately about that word – trust. What it means, ontologically. If it’s possible. If it has anything to do with anyone else ultimately, or if it is chiefly about our desire for guarantees (a different, but related, conversation).

Skeptical: Ok – but isn’t this just a softer version of cynical? Both definitions suggest the tentative approach, the hesitation, the doubt – has to do with the motivations of others. So you know, maybe what I see in the cynical part, that I admire, is the humor (not just sarcasm) that can bloom from it. Doubt humanity is on your side?? Well turn that frown upside down. There’s always stand-up. The Louis C.K. of it all – the Maria Bamford mixtape.

Now, if you argue that this shit is too heavy, too disparaging. Well yes, at times, yes it is. I love Doug Stanhope. I wouldn’t really want to live with him. I also (in all honesty) worry about him. I really worry about him and sometimes I just … hope he’s ok.

I think people think that about me sometimes.

Not only do I believe that humanity is on trial, I believe that most of us believe this. I don’t know what The Trial is. I don’t know that it matters, really. We are a nervous species. We are eternally damned to trying to figure out if we’re GoodEnough people while balancing it with varying degrees of the WhatWeCanGetAwayWith-edness, the WhatWeShouldBeDoing-ness, the WhatWe’reSupposedToBeDoinged-ness. The latter part of these equations depend on the person (and to what degree they are entertained), but, I think, are always set against the morality part.

Moral vs. Pleasure.
Moral vs. Purpose.
Moral vs. Intention.
Moral vs. Truth.

We are a nervous species.

The evidence of this is in our culture itself, our marketing principles, our faith(s), our legal system. The notion that your proverbial three sons ought to be innocent until proven guilty is nothing more than a notion. The reality of your proposed analogy is that human nature suggests the moment that one son steals something, the parent of that son will ask the question about all her children – Are all my children stealing? It is not to say that the next logical step then, is to punish all those children – this would be cruel, paranoid, and pathological. However, the next logical set of questions for her is not just What I should do about this son? but How do I make sure none of my sons steal? That child’s actions will undoubtedly affect the way said parent goes about setting parameters for all her children. And such, I imagine, is the nature of parenting, you try to deal with what you instill in your children as you think to do it. You try not to be reactionary (just dole out punishment when kids do bad shit), but to establish some mode of preemptory guide. I don’t want my other two sons thinking this is acceptable behavior … so you go about responding to one in order to consider the whole factor of the family’s behavior.

And I believe that the reason we are nervous, is because we prove, time and again, that we are capable of awful behavior. Sometimes it’s out of stupidity. More often our awful behavior is out of selfish motivation. And even beyond that – we prove time and again that for all the beauty we are capable of, our moments of awful – have devastating consequences. So that you can go through your whole life doing wonderful things, and in one moment, one very horrible instant – ruin more than everything you’ve worked your whole life at making beautiful.

That’s possible.

The reverse – is really not true. You can’t be a horrendous person your whole life and in one moment, with one good deed, “undo” a reign of terror.

Bombs take moments. Construction – Weeks. Months. Years.

Now having said that I believe all this – I have inherently, I suppose proven all of your points. Though I love people, need them desperately, am ravaged by, amazed by, inspired by and moved by people – I also live with this belief. And you’re right. It colors how I think. Some days – it weighs heavily on me. And maybe, after all, I’m wrong. Maybe this is the half empty, half full scenario.


I believe it.

And I also believe.

That unless we are honest to ourselves, about the damage that we are capable of doing. About the nature of our selfish hearts, about our tendency (and here, maybe is where I depart into your dreaded cynical category, and enter the most debatable, contentious part of my thoughts on this) to be self-involving, self-referencing, self-motivated, then we have no real way to have honest discourse about what we are willing to do as compromise, what we owe ourselves as a functioning society, what we owe each other in the face of current reality, what we owe each other because of our inherent tendency toward self-motivation.

So. For example. If we could be honest about national health care coverage, we could discuss it without the bullshit rhetoric. Nobody really cares about the people we don’t know and their liver diseases. But we owe it to ourselves as a functioning society to ensure that all of our citizens are, minimally, healthy. The debt, to my mind, has to do with the debt we pay for having the privilege to indulge (in a ‘free’ nation) our self-motivated spirits.

And then sometimes I feel like our bullshit thoughts about political systems stems from the fact that we are unable as a species to admit that we are largely self-involved (and in this context) selfish beings. If we could admit that – if we had that healthy dose of skepticism (to use your word here), maybe we could move on to the next conversation, instead of pretending like there’s some moral high ground that most people will take in most situations when the cameras are turned off and nobody is listening in.

Because the reality is – that shit is entirely unpredictable.

All the rest of it is bullshit.

This to me, has something to do with the kind of cynical I mean to address in my comment. I am somewhat …. curious, I guess, why folks have not noted that I modified the term itself. I did not call my friend cynical. I did not praise unmediated, rampant cynicism in his intellectual rigor. I used the term “mild” for a reason. I said “mild cynic” for a reason. I mean to suggest that it is one part of a complex, nuanced human spirit. The other part, I was trying to say, has hope, is discerning (which is about facts and reason, less so than it is about human intention), is skeptical (and maybe the difference for me is a colder, more remote shrewdness), can be mildly cynical (appreciates the darkness, the duende, the death of our eventual selfishness, the humor in it, the bleak but beautiful, the eventual wind down, the Eternalblahblahblah, the Oh But Aren’t We All a Little Damned, the morbidity of our daily actions because we are not coming out of this shit ok, and this is why – cause we’re kinda’ fucked up).  That’s not skeptical. That’s … that’s cynical. I’m a little cynical.

I see that.

That’s how I think about things. And then – then I take my bike and ride real fast downhill by the river and laugh at the fucking autumn leaves.

Gaudio, you do, too. That’s why I love you.

It’s what we do in the face of it all that I think we all mean to have hope about, here. So maybe there’s a different word for what I mean. But I don’t know that word, exactly. I’ll keep hearing suggestions.

Right now, I’m saying “mildly cynical”.


Jamaal May said...

I think the key is definitely where you ended: the word "mild." That modifier is important because the main thing that separates cynicism from skepticism is the level of certainty. A skeptic is "not easily convinced" while a cynic straight up believes the worse about people. Also, one (cynicism) is a world view, while the other (skepticism) is an approach to moving through the world. Skepticism is how you handle information for further consideration (which goes towards what Gaudio was getting at). Cynicism is doing just as little with information as the "positive police" are. But when you say "mild" you really are making a new construction. Because by definition, cynicism isn't mild because it begins with a set belief. To nerd out about words for a sec, I think putting a dash between mild and cynic would yoke them better and do more to turn the volume down on cynicism. Also, the failure of people to acknowledge the modifier is probably due to the inherent weakness of modifiers. We spend so much time telling young writers to cut modifiers that I think it's easy to forget that there's a reason that became default (and often overused) advice. Because nouns always carry more power. And a noun with a definition that relates to a held position is going to be even more difficult to undercut with any adjective. For example, if you say someone is mildly racist, they may seem less threatening but you still consider them a person with incorrect views on race. So while I totally get the spirit of the compound word you constructed, I'd say don't be shocked if people can't think of a "mild-cynic" as anything but someone who holds the view that people are 100% only self-interested. Rather one who's not that loud and angry about it. Finally, re: Doug Stanhope, You should listen to his WTF podcast interview with Marc Maron. He's actually a really happy dude. In part because he gets all that shit out in his act. We're multifaceted and it's good to have somewhere to put the dark. That's probably why some of us can writer darker poems when we're in a good place in our lives.

francine said...

Thanks for this, Jamaal. Really good stuff in this interview. Maron is pretty awesome, too. What I've heard of him, he always asks the important stuff.