This article originally was posted on May 10, 2013 under the title “Corralling, Conquering, and Cultivating Cynicism.” To say that this was edited for the series on ethics would be too kind… it has been butchered, disassembled, and put back together again. Cynicism is one of the basic foundations of how we think and is sometimes a pathway to the truth. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “I think there ought to be a club in which preachers and journalists could come together and have the sentimentalism of the one matched with the cynicism of the other. That ought to bring them pretty close to the truth.”
The origin of words is a fascinating subject. Cynicism as a philosophy is one of the ancient Greek teachings founded by Antisthenes that saw virtue as the only thing necessary for happiness. By rejecting all desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame they sought happiness in a simple life. They believed that through reasoning, humans should be able to live in such a way that was totally natural and unencumbered. The paradox in the modern day interpretation of cynicism is found in that definition. Ethical Cynicism was a virtuous state and was corrupted into the modern form because of the idea of cynics being contemptuous toward social norms. A true cynic will question the validity of anything derived from rote ritualism, conventional wisdom, and often generally accepted morality, a.k.a other people’s ethics. The problems arise when cynicism is uncontrolled and emotional rather than logical and aimed at a concept that is stuck in a rut. Internalizing cynicism creates a negativity that can be personally counterproductive.
- Capturing the essence of cynicism without negativity – When ordinarily civil people use profanity it raises attention to the words that they are saying. A good healthy “shit” or “damn” at the conference table may raise eyebrows, but it is like painting the air with a yellow highlighter to show the important part of a message. On the other hand, anybody who drops the F’ bomb with every other word will not be able to highlight their ideas by using it to punctuate a meaningful thought. That response comes from another moral ethic. Likewise, cynicism coming from someone with the reputation for being just a total curmudgeon that is negative about everything will not find cynical references making any difference. A negaholic is not a good spokesperson for cynicism because they will never be taken seriously. Projecting negativism on those operating from a different ethical base builds a wall against change when the intent is to facilitate change.
- Conquering cynicism by making it a personal tool – Uncontrolled cynicism can become a demon that can not only be fearful to those around the cynic, but also spreads like a cancer internally. To effectively use cynicism to challenge established practices for the good, it is necessary to pick and choose the proper battles. Armed with the knowledge that the current norms are archaic and going nowhere, cynicism can be the spear to prod others into believing in change and also the shield to protect from being sucked back into the abyss of conformity. Considering cynicism as one of the tools to implement change means recognizing that there are other tools that may also be more appropriate at times. It is possible to smash a board in half with a hammer, but a saw may have been a better choice.
- Cultivating cynicism as an art form – Cynicism challenges the basic beliefs of many people, so it takes practice to exercise this methodology so that it can be taken seriously and can be used in implementing change. Change for the sake of change is not progress. In order to seriously challenge a concept or practice, the practitioner of cynicism must be knowledgeable in that area. Criticism without cause is not as effective as reasoning that the conventional way of doing something can be improved. The best critics of the recruiting process are cynical recruiters and recruiting managers. Changes to traditional Kumbaya-singing-campfire-sitting-smores-toasting human resources practices are best led by cynical HR generalists. Facing the fact that the virtue is a relative commodity gives our voices freedom to speak.
The world does not need for everybody to subscribe to the ethics of being cynical. Cynics don’t band very well with other cynics in the wild and this makes total sense. After all, when all the non-conformists begin to join together they become conformists and their impact fades away.
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