Responding to Cynicism

5 mins read
Photo by Rose Erkul on Unsplash

I tweeted this:

Ken asked this:

Spoiler: The antidote to cynicism is to hold on to your principles. So the way to respond to a cynical comment is by making a principled comment.

First, a bit about cynicism and how it destroys democracy.

Here Clint Watts explains that one goal of active measures is to “undermine democracy, to make Americans lose confidence in democratic institutions…”

This actually isn’t hard to do. See this quotation from Levitsky & Ziblatt (authors of How Democracies Die):

Democracy is messy, so it’s easy to turn people against it. People who want their way right now will never be happy in a democracy. That unfortunately includes a lot of people.

From Yale Prof. Timothy Snyder: Russian oligarchs don’t deny that their government is corrupt. The Russian people can see that. Instead the oligarchs say that all governments are corrupt, and that it’s just as bad in western democracies. (Then the Russian oligarchs work to corrupt western democracies so that what they say is true.)

The idea that all governments and politicians are corrupt leads to tribalism. “He’s a liar, but he’s OUR liar.” Cynicism (all people are corrupt) leads directly to nihilism. People disengage because it doesn’t matter who wins or who is in charge.

Cynicism leads people to willingly destroy what’s left of democracy in the hopes that what replaces it will be better. (Instead destruction of institutions creates a power vacuum)

The Fox-Trump-GOP promotes cynicism. Mulvaney’s “Get over it” was the ultimate in cynicism.

If all politicians are corrupt cheaters, going after Trump for his corrupt cheating becomes purely political. Politics degenerates into “us v. them politics,” which gives the would-be autocrat a built-in fully manufactured crisis. (See this post on real versus manufactured crises.)

You can see why it’s important that Democrats not fight like Republicans. If they do that, who is left to take the high road? Both sides fighting dirty is the quickest way to cynicism by making it actually true that “all politicians are the same,” so it doesn’t matter who you vote for.

I’ve seen good people become cynical when they realize that our democratic institutions are imperfect. Of course they are imperfect. They’re made up of human beings. Moreover, America and our institutions are emerging from a patriarchy.

As a criminal defense [appellate] lawyer, I spent much of my legal career fighting for criminal justice reform. Trust me: I see the problems in the institutions.

The solution is to work for reform and improvement. The work never ends.

Sometimes cynicism arises from entitlement. People born after the Civil Rights and women’s rights movement inherited (for the first time in American history) an expanding liberal democracy.

Sometimes people who inherit something think they’re entitled and don’t have to work for it. If you find yourself paralyzed by shock and outrage, it may be because you bought into a myth that goes like this: history is a river and you don’t have to paddle. The river will carry you forward to a more inclusive democracy. (Ideas inspired by Timothy Snyder and expanded in my Susan. B. Anthony post here.)

Wrong! We have to paddle.

The antidote to cynicism is to hold onto your principles and remember that there are people who have them. That’s why I suggest answering a cynical comment with a principled comment, like this:

“All politicians are corrupt.”

“I know lots of principled people. You don’t know ANY? People with principles also go into politics, too. You just have to distinguish those who have principles from those who don’t.”

Or respond by talking about the principles underlying the institutions, and how people are working to reform them.

A few years ago I sat next to a very liberal young man who assured me the entire government is corrupt.

I talked about the principles and ideals underlying such institutions as an independent judiciary and prosecutorial discretion. I invited him to think about the countries without these institutions.

Flawed democratic institutions are better than no democratic institutions.

[View as a Twitter thread]

Originally posted on Musing about Law, Books, and Politics.
Re-posted with permission.


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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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