Dave: Everybody cheats. I just didn’t know.
Dad: Well, now you know.
[From Breaking Away.]
Have you become more skeptical as you’ve aged, or less?
There’s an awful lot of utter nonsense being purveyed by the extended media, these days. By “extended,” I mean to subsume all providers of information, not just the ones we fondly call the “legacy media.” Often a single false assertion will come from many sources concurrently, which tends to reassure those who encounter it…until the rug is yanked out from under them. It’s not always possible to dismiss a falsehood when it’s being emitted by a great many mouths. The problem worsens when a number of those sources have acquired a reputation for reliability.
Everyone is wrong from time to time. In previous eras, people learned how to detect mistakes, how to respond to them, and what to expect from the mistaken one. We also learned the proper attitude toward those who refused to admit their errors. That particular bundle of skills is no longer as common as it was. Given the legion of “experts” the media routinely parade before us, it’s understandable that the general level of skepticism should be on the rise.
One consequence of today’s barrages of misinformation is the conversion of skepticism into something much graver. One who has become widely and reflexively skeptical – that is, he’s been conditioned to doubt anything he’s told, regardless of the source – will often embrace cynicism: the presumption of low motives in everyone other than himself and a few close friends. Upon encountering an institution or individual with a proposition, his default expectation is that the proposition is dubious and the proposer is a fraud. “What snake oil are you trying to sell me?” is his reaction, whether or not it’s spoken.
But cynicism is nearly always a mistake in and of itself. The great majority of men are good, in the conventional understanding of that word. Their incorrect assertions are honest mistakes rather than attempts to deceive. While there are exceptional individuals wholly encysted by liars and thieves, such that honesty is vanishingly rare around them, for most of us cynicism is a negative thing.
Yet cynicism is swelling among us. We, the posterity of men who built a magnificent society founded on the default assumption that those around them are trustworthy, are steadily embracing the opposite attitude. It may even be the majority position today. And that is a terrible thing.
Hub: “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”
[From Secondhand Lions]
The dismissal of that credo is commonplace today. The cynicism expressed by the previous quote is, if not yet unanimous, coming to dominance. It’s consciously prevalent in certain situations. One such is women’s assumptions about men who approach them in social situations. Another is the cynicism we tend to feel toward solicitors from organizations that want money…which is just about every organization on Earth.
I won’t deceive you: I’m afflicted by that second attitude. Cold callers always get a cold shoulder from me. I don’t know anyone who reacts differently. But now and then it’s a mistake. Hence, a brief vignette.
Not long ago, I was positively impressed by an email news organ’s mention of an unusual charity. It’s a Christian listening / counseling service called The Hope Line. Its counselors man a bank of phones and take calls from people who are depressed, disheartened, or otherwise unhappy. The caller is encouraged to speak his mind and heart, and the Hope Line counselor attempts to help with Christian encouragement and advice. (It’s not quite a “suicide help line,” though I’m sure it’s functioned that way from time to time.) Inasmuch as hope is one of the three theological virtues, that a Christian charity exists to dispense it to those who need it is more than merely appropriate.
To shorten this somewhat, upon learning of The Hope Line, I sent a modest donation and a few words of praise for their mission. Shortly thereafter I got an email thanking me, which I expected; it’s customary for charities to do that much. What I didn’t expect came a few weeks later.
My domestic phone rang. As my answering machine had recently gone to its reward, I answered it. The caller was a young woman from The Hope Line, and identified herself as such. What came next is the point of this tale: I reflexively assumed she was calling to solicit a further donation and I said so.
But that wasn’t the reason for her call. She was calling simply to repeat the thanks expressed in the aforementioned email, and to ask if there was anything she or her fellows could do for me.
I was stunned. (Pleasantly so; I didn’t need CPR.) Not many cold callers are calling to ask what they can do for you, though many posture that way. The young lady and I had a long and exceedingly pleasant conversation that covered all manner of things. The experience left me smiling the whole day long. But it also seeded me with a dark thought.
My cynicism about cold callers, while justified more often than not, had erred in that particular case. I started to wonder how often it might have been erroneous in the past, especially during the period when I used my answering machine to buffer all incoming calls and disdained to answer or reply to the great majority of them. Perhaps the percentages would favor cynicism more often than not, but the assumption that a cold caller merely wants money had been incorrect that once. Therefore, it could have been incorrect on other occasions.
Cynicism – about anything – suggests a deficit of hope.
“There’s only one way to improve society. Present it with a single improved unit: yourself.” – Albert Jay Nock.
I’ve written more than once about our loss of trust in one another. Even if the contrary assumption is more likely to be correct, it’s still a sign of something foreboding. We’ve lost faith in one another, which is a short step from losing faith in ourselves.
The assumption of trustworthiness is founded on a deeper assumption: specifically, that nearly all of us adhere to a common ethical code. In America, that code was the Ten Commandments of the Book of Exodus. When we assumed that we all held to that code, we trusted one another. How could someone who sincerely believes that “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness” possibly misuse us in common social or commercial interplay?
Pervasive skepticism and consequent dour cynicism, brought on by the barrages of falsehoods and propaganda, sneaked in under that code and undermined it. It’s near to nullifying it.
There is no Last Graf but this: do as Albert Jay Nock has advised us. Be better: less cynical, less manipulative, and less defensive. Sometimes a fraudster will get through; that’s to be expected. But to “pre-classify” others as fraudsters, even if it protects us, costs us dearly in other ways. The cost has begun to loom larger than the benefit.