On Sunday I published an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about the dangers of becoming cynical in this period of intense negative campaigning. The level of public discourse has gotten so low, so mean-spirited, that it is turning off people who might otherwise want to participate in the public sphere. Traveling to various cities, I am more aware than ever of the waves of negative advertising washing over the country. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s embrace of anonymous influence, we often don’t know who is paying for the mud that’s being tossed around, and the result is a general decline of confidence that anything important and meaningful is to be found in the public sphere. The Wesleyan Media Project, led by Professor Erika Fowler, has been offering important data on how money is being spent by independent groups this fall. The massive amount of money washing over the political system turns many of us off from wanting to engage with the electoral process. Should we describe this decline of confidence as the growth of cynicism, or just as an intelligent reaction to our contemporary context?
Cynics are no fools, and one might even describe cynicism as the effort to protect oneself from appearing foolish. One of the hallmarks of contemporary cynicism (with ancient roots) is the rejection of conventional standards. The cynic delights in rejecting the criteria of those with power and privilege, and this rejection is often mixed with contempt. Cynics “know” that the established order is wrong — corrupt, unnatural and unjust — and their knowledge can give them a sense of superiority. We reject the established ways of the world because we know better.
But cynicism about politics and the public sphere doesn’t lead to efforts to change the way things are. Instead, it leads to a withdrawal from public life, a withdrawal that is justified by the cynic’s belief in his or her own superiority. We cynics know better, and we know that participation in public life is for those who just don’t understand the ways things really work.
Another dimension of cynicism is the belief in one’s own self-sufficiency. Cynics don’t have to engage in the public sphere because they have developed a way of life that doesn’t require engagement. They have nothing to gain from interacting with others who don’t share their views, and they find reinforcement from other cynics who also reject this kind of interaction. A community based on rejection reinforces its members’ contempt for the dominant culture and their proud alienation from it. They feel they don’t need to engage because their cynicism gives them a sense of self-righteous autonomy.
Cynicism may be particularly prevalent among young people, and psychologists even have a specific measure for adolescent cynicism, Acyn2, on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. As an educator, I find this youthful attitude to be particularly worrisome, because above all it protects students from learning. Behind the façade of the knowing rejection of the status quo, behind the defense of the self-sufficient community, is the fearful refusal to engage with new possibilities. Cynics have already made up their minds, and people who have made up their minds believe they have nothing to learn.
When you participate in the public sphere, you have to open yourself up to the views of others, and real engagement means being open to change. That’s why political participation should be part of every student’s education. Participation is a public experiment through which you discover things about the world, about yourself and about the possibilities for change. Public engagement is challenging because you may be surprised that the people or systems about which you’ve already reached conclusions are more complex than you’d ever imagined — more complex and more important for shaping the future.
In this age of degraded political discourse and anonymously funded attack ads, it’s easy to see the reasons for the cynical withdrawal from public life. But we must turn back the tide of cynicism; we must show our jaded, withdrawn young people that they are not self-sufficient, and that if they don’t engage in shaping their future, somebody else will do it for them. When students turn themselves off to engagement and participation, they are cutting themselves off from learning. They are also depriving our public sphere of their energy and ideas. There is comfort in belonging to a community of cynics, but there is much more stimulation and rewarding work to be found by engaging with others in trying to make the public sphere a more meaningful environment for all of us.
One step in that process is to get out and vote next week. Voting, of course, is just one dimension of political engagement, but it is a crucial one. Two years ago groups of Wes students worked to help get people to the polls, and I hope to see them out there again. Those who participate in the system know it isn’t perfect, but they also know that if they don’t play a role in these elections, someone else will be only too happy to do it for them.