Timberlake: What it means to be a cynic

Ian Timberlake

I am a cynic.

If you were to do a quick search on Wikipedia, you would find that I fit its definition, both classic and contemporary, to a tee. I can’t escape it.

I was not once troubled by it; it was easy to embrace — though I’m not sure if it’s because of a confirmation bias or an ironic result of being a cynic.

The classical ethics of a cynic according to the academic Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy are as follows: “Cynic conception of ethics is that virtue is a life lived in accord with nature. Nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life, which is characterized by reason, self-sufficiency and freedom. Social conventions, however, can hinder the good life by compromising freedom and setting up a code of conduct that is opposed to nature and reason.”

The primary social conventions that were rejected by cynics were money, power and fame. Three things that even today are considered strong definitions of masculinity and success in general.

Social conventions of money, power and fame, are very closely tied to the idea of selfishness. Which leads to the more modern idea that cynics believe society is, in general, selfish, controlling and unethical.

I’m very quick to ridicule people in positions of power, who often have money and are quite self-serving, as in do whatever it takes to stay in that position of power and authority. These include but are not limited to politicians, big businesses, not-for-profit organizations, union leaders, disruptors of freedom, and those who lack a desire for knowledge and don’t respect intelligence.

The prevalence of the above is what gets me labeled, and self-labeled, as a cynic. It’s not that I believe all those in positions of authority are self-serving; it’s that a majority of society is inherently self-serving in an attempt to achieve a false perception of what it takes to be successful — money, power and fame.

The more modern understanding of a cynic is quite negative and taken to be a synonym for pessimism. Here’s why:

I take people’s motifs to be in conflict with what they say and what they actually do — “people” meaning people as a whole or a society. I think people claim (and very well believe) they are following a proper code of ethics but in reality are highly self-serving when opportunity arises.

Not necessarily to our discredit, though, the loins of humanity are rooted in self-preservation — Just as the loins of any organism are.

Self-preservation is important, paramount even, but there’s a difference between being self-preserving and undercutting. Surely the human species is at a point in its existence where it doesn’t need to bring others down in an effort to survive. I’m not going to hurt other’s well-being for my own gain. I’m going to do work on my end to raise myself up.

Cynics have a very high expectation of others, and I won’t let you into my life unless you deserve it. If that upsets you, I don’t know why it should. I expect people in society to at least be as good as I am. Why? Because I don’t find it particularly hard to be helpful to people, to get by without undercutting, without needing power, have a desire to be intelligent and driven towards wisdom, and to doubt those in positions of authority, be it business, politics or religion.

If you have read my columns, regularly or not, for the last year and half and agreed with a lot them, chances are you have a level of cynicism. All of my writings have a cynical undertone — point out hypocrisy, ignorance and unethical, unintelligible social “values” that shouldn’t be valued at all.

The other side of a cynic is someone who understands that humans aren’t as great as we lead ourselves to believe. Not that we haven’t done great things and continue to do great things, but that in the grand scheme of the universe, we are just a speck on a “mote of dust” floating around one ball of fire, in a vast and “empty” galaxy populated with 300 billion other balls of fire, amid a universe with an approximate half trillion galaxies and all we seem to care about is name-brand clothing, intervening deities, and going to war over ideologies, land and resources.

An overwhelming majority of people think cynicism correlates with finding no value in everything or with pessimism, when in fact a cynic is somebody who takes an active stand in pointing out areas of society that provide a false perception of what it means to be good and right, and to break what we believe to be deluding and ruining society.

Or as the late comedian George Carlin (a cynic himself) would put it: “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.”