Skepticism vs. Cynicism

In an earlier post, I wrote about the value of Optimism vs. Pessimism. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Bright Sided, argues that not only is optimism not realistic, but it is the cause of a multitude of problems, including the 2007 economic meltdown. Ms. Ehrenreich opines that optimism is based in delusion and a false belief that we can control the world with our thoughts.

She might be right. But then again, she might not be. Definitive proof is lacking either way. But for the sake of discussion, let’s say she’s right, and we can’t control the world by thinking good thoughts. Is this reason enough to be pessimistic?

I certainly agree that viewing things realistically is important, but let’s not confuse “realistic” with “pessimistic”. Most of the time, I don’t have all the information necessary to definitively decide what’s realistic and what isn’t.

That’s where Skepticism comes in. I’m all for being skeptical, challenging ideas and testing points of view. But too often, it’s easy to slip into Cynicism. I differentiate between the two as follows:

  • Skepticism means I have doubts, questions, concerns, but the door is open to information that will help me make up my mind.
  • Cynicism means my door is closed, locked and nailed shut. I’m not questioning, I’m not looking for information, I’m not open to new ideas. My mind is made up. So there.

Cynicism is a block to improvement and progress. Cynics are the skunks at the picnic, the ones who can tell you why every idea is a bad one, every change will be disastrous and every point of view (other than theirs) is delusional and unrealistic.

Hey, perhaps Ms Ehrenreich is a cynic. The original Cynics were Greeks who believed that virtue was the greatest good, and they hung around in the streets like a pack of dogs (“Cynic” comes from the Greek word for  dog), watch the passing crowd, and ridicule anyone who seemed pompous, pretentious, materialistic or downright wicked. The most famous of the ancient Cynics was Diogenes, who reportedly took up residence in a tub to demonstrate his freedom from material wants. That really showed ’em.

Today’s cynics are found in meetings, taking potshots at the ideas of others, firm in the belief that only they have the straight scoop on what’s what.

I suppose they take some tortured joy in that belief, but for me, I’ll take Optimism with a dash of Skepticism.

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