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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Skepticism and cynicism

It is good to be skeptical; it is bad to be a cynic. Especially while one is still young.

When we are surrounded by stupidity, ignorance, sham and superstition, it is good to take all things with a pinch of salt, and not to believe anybody blindly, whether it be parents or teachers, god-men or political leaders. Using one’s reason, and finding out the facts for oneself is good: always look things up in the dictionary and atlas and encyclopedia, always listen to the voice inside that warns ‘This fellow is talking through his hat’. That is what is meant by skepticism. It lies at the heart of all true science, and any attempt at safe and sane living. As a great philosopher said, ‘If we had all listened to our parents, we should still be swinging from the trees’. And if we believed everything our teachers said (especially given the kind of teachers all around us in this country!) we’d all grow up utterly confused and dulled – which is far worse than being merely ignorant.

But to be cynical is to be unable to believe there can be anything good, anything beautiful and noble and heartening at all in human beings. It is to react knee-jerk fashion to all such suggestions with a singular fixed idea in mind: there must be some base, ulterior motive behind what someone is doing or saying. And it often goes like this: since I am incapable of a good deed or a beautiful feeling or a noble thought, anybody who claims such things must be a fraud. There is nothing called true love, no honesty in business or examinations, nothing like idealism in politics, no use for knowledge beyond making a living, nothing beyond feeding and procreation and preening in life … that’s the sort of thing I mean.

The ghastly thing about cynicism is that you make life more difficult than it need be for both yourself and others (cynics are bound to be gloomy people full of despair, and crooked to boot, even if they put on a veneer of good cheer and niceness) and that it is self-fulfilling: in a world full of cynics even the good are condemned to live unhappily, and also turn crooked by and by, unless they are driven to madness and suicide, because cynicism, in order to justify itself, cannot allow truth and goodness and beauty to live happily.

Now it is ancient wisdom that the old are cynical, and it is both the power and the duty of the young to break old moulds and rejuvenate the world with new hope, joy, love, dreams and ideals. So what I find terrifying is that all around me there are young people who are already vastly more cynical about just about everything, even their own love lives and careers, and the need and potential of philosophy for change. Just beneath the perpetual (and juvenile -) surface exultation about how fast the world is ‘progressing’ (as measured by how many ‘apps’ the latest mobile can handle), there runs a current of deep distrust, frustration, apathy, aimlessness and despair. I can sense it even among folks in their late teens, and it is already set hard by the time they are ten years older (children still, for God’s sake!) And the wonderful thing is that all these people are middle- or upper middle class, and have been brought up in sheltered cocoons by doting and extravagant parents: beyond the occasional death by accident in the family and failure in exams and office politics and quarrels with friends and lovers, these people have hardly seen any suffering at all. Whereas, I reflect, lots and lots of people have come through infinitely worse trials and tribulations and emerged triumphant, whether I think of Dickens or Charlie Chaplin or Michael Faraday or Vidyasagar or Douglas Bader or Helen Keller or more characters in great fiction than you can handle at one sitting. Or, even if they have failed and gone under, they have been ‘destroyed but not defeated’, whether you think of Gandhi or Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, of Anne Frank or Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front: so they remain glorious memories in the mind as tragic and heroic figures, capable of inspiring us to great things, not objects of ridicule and pathos. Tagore was not a cynic, nor was Louis Pasteur, nor Nurse Cavell, nor Abraham Lincoln – and these people faced trouble, danger, insult, hardship, fear, confusion and failure on a scale that most of today’s young can hardly even conceive, leave alone dare to handle!

Another awful thought: the completely brainwashed young terrorist, armed to the teeth and going on his midnight hunt for victims, whatever else you can accuse him of being, cannot be called a cynic. He believes absolutely in the supreme importance and rightness of his cause, so even if he blows himself up along with many others, there dies a happy person. The poet wrote The best lack all conviction/ the worst are full of passionate intensity. Poets can always see further and say it better than anybody else…


10 comments:

Arijit said...

Sir,
After reading your blog post, I made up my mind to deal with cynicism. So I Google searched on how to defeat cynicism and be a positive thinker. The article is as follows:
1. Recognize the problem
As with all problems the first step is in the recognizing. Some people go their whole lives not realizing that they are horrible people with miserly outlooks and cynical views of the world. Thank yourself lucky that you have had the good fortune to recognize the problem and do something about it. This is the first step.
It might take a while for you to you up to it. That’s fine. When you finally see it just sit back and think to yourself, “Wow. I can be cynical sometimes.” That is all you have to do for now.
2. Recognize each cynical thought recognize that you are a negative thinker. It might even take one of your friends or family members to wake
Once you have realized that you can be a cynic the task is to start realizing it more often. Think of this as a bit of a mindfulness meditation. The idea is to become attuned to your own mind and thoughts and start to become aware of every cynical thought that you have.
Let’s say, for example, you meet someone at a party and they start telling you about their life. Perhaps they are a real overachiever and are sitting there talking to you about all of their fantastic accomplishments. Now, the cynic in you will probably start to say internal things like “I don’t believe this guy” and “I wish he would shut up”. Try to become aware of those thoughts. Don’t do anything with them just yet. Merely becoming aware of them is enough. This is mindfulness.
3. Use logic to debate the cynicism
Logic is a wonderful thing. Logic allows you to overcome destructive emotions and other negative things in your life. Why? Because 99% of the time the reason for your depression, anxiety, hatred or other negative feeling is illogical. If you debate the negative feeling using logic you will often find that the negative feeling gets weaker.
Cynicism, in my opinion, is usually illogical. People who are cynics seem to think the worst about a certain person or situation not because they have evidence for doing so, but because they are in the habit of thinking cynically. For example, assuming that all Muslims are extremist terrorists is a cynical thought that is not based in any shred of logic. Just because a couple of unstable idiots blew up the World Trade Center in the name of Jihad, it does not mean all Muslims are like that.
So the task is now to use logic to debate your cynicism. When you see a cynical thought arising in your mind I want to to ask yourself where it is coming from, why you are thinking like that and whether it is going to help you be happy. That is the main thing – ask yourself whether this cynical thought is going to make you happy. Ask yourself whether living a cynical life has made you happy so far. Ask yourself whether being cynic causes other people to like and respect you.
When you use logic in this way you will almost always find that cynicism doesn’t pay. It isn’t helping you or anyone else to by cynical. Try it and see how you go.

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

You are so very right when you say mostly apparent trivial issues assume so much importance in our lives that we tend to turn cynic and in turn defeat the whole purpose of living. We end up wasting time sulking rather than moving ahead. I must admit I suffer from that syndrome too but I hope I can cure it. In my defence , I would say at times urban work life in a city like Delhi does pose challenge to keep a sane head because there are certain incidents that you end up seeing which make your life full of fear and hatred but that is a different discussion altogether. I feel we should keep faith on established systems and be sincere to our purpose. It is important because in most cases many other people depend emotionally on each one of us and our cynicism affects them. Further, if we are consistently cynical then we don’t even think of alternative/different options to solve a potential issue. I think a great way to cure cynicism is to be informed.

Imagine if Galileo Galilei was a cynic then what would have happened to today’s modern scientists.

By the way, I will be interested to know which philosopher said, ‘If we had all listened to our parents, we should still be swinging from the trees’? It is such a great and apt quote.

Regards

Tanmoy

Rakendu said...

Sir,
I remember, once you had suggested me a book titled "To have or to be" by Eric Fromm.

Though this book was published in the year 1976, I can't help but admit this book's aptness in contemporary societal state. Most of the young folks around me have a cellphone, have money, have bikes, have time, have a girlfriend (or two) and HAVE every other thing they need. Therefore, they do not look beyond the amenities provided to them and ponder about LIFE and its issues. They lose the urge to look up and learn things on their own, because they are taught by their teachers and parents to parrot from a very tender age.

Their ability to think freely fades away too early. When these creatures grow up, they prevent their children and students from think freely. And the dog keeps on chasing it's own tail.

The present education system is one of the few evils that needs to be undone.

I think text books need to be replaced by story books. Let wisdom supercede knowledge because without wisdom, knowledge doesn't help. Most people sleep through their moral science classes, or they are considered as "FREE PERIODS" by teachers and students alike.

A philosopher once quoted-"When thinking gives way, skepticism vanishes."

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Somebody whined recently 'Why do you always talk of great men?' My answer is that I don't want to waste my life talking about the inconsequential. Also, that a man is defined by the sort of men he admires.

Try Stephen Spender's poem to see if you can get what I mean at http://bit.ly/dtWm5G

Oh, Tanmoy, my quote is from Russell, who else?... and Rakendu, I am happier than I can say that you remember a book like To Have or to be. Thank you.

Shilpi said...

Thank you for this essay, Suvro da. This is something that has bothered me to no satisfactory ends.

You're bringing in that more significant difference between the sceptic and the cynic, aren't you? Because the cynic believes no longer in true love, courage, honesty or anything that relates to life outside the immediate whereas the sceptic checks the facts, uses caution, yet draws out new paths too. But where should one be placed when it comes to feelings and thoughts that come in/arise and can't be checked or verified? It would be gullible and insane to believe in everything that arises in our minds but it would be thick-headed not to believe anything - but what would be the sensible way to balance belief and caution? It would be good to know what your thoughts are because I've realised after repeated encounters that your thoughts clear out the doubts/confusion in my head.

I'll keep my question limited to just that one for now.

For that last point: the same occured to me in the strangest of places. It was while reading Angels and Demons. The insane cardinal completely believed - and right till the end that he was following God's orders; that he was hearing the voice of God. It was frightful. And he was so happy and so utterly convinced that he was an instrument of God....

For your comment: why would people not want you to talk about great men? I don't get that.
My earnest thanks for the link to that magnificent poem.

I'd request for more essays of this sort and the previous sort - I'm thankful that I get to read these and other old ones - but I'm sadly surprised by the paucity of comments for both. It's ridiculous that your post on Tendulkar received more comments.

Love and regards,
Shilpi

Suvro Chatterjee said...

There is no rule of thumb, Shilpi, so we cannot stop thinking and weighing and agonizing over every separate situation. The line is rather fine, and hazy. In fact, I might confess that I wrote this essay to remind myself of an important distinction.

As for responses, what would you have? Educated people of my age are not interested in anything that taxes the brain (assuming they have any), anything beyond cars and parties and jewellery and cricket and their kids' exam scores and 'smart' mobiles and stuff like that! ... when they are not busy at work, that is, and let's face it, most kinds of work kill off what little grey matter we were born with anyway.

I shall, of course, persevere. Some people here and there have got to keep the flame burning. When humankind stops thinking (and I don't mean thinking as in writing software or making business deals), things are in a very bad way. I do find it encouraging that so many people visit my blog, even though I insist on writing 'heavy' stuff again and again. As for the dearth of comments, most people can think of nothing to say! A lot of them have honestly confessed as much face to face...

devdas said...

Hello Suvro-da,
I think what is lacking and makes the root cause of such cynicism is nothing but lack of "respect".
I think it has been summarized nicely in this article based on the speech by Gopalkrishna Gandhi:
http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article574492.ece

Life sans respect is nothing else but sans life itself.
best regards to all,
debasish das.

Amit parag said...

In the contemporary sense, cynics might just be classified as those who are mediocre themselves and thereby fail to recognize anyone better than themselves. Now these cynics indulgent heavily in useless arguments( for instance, endlessly debating whether Ronaldo is a better player than Kaka and how their skills are flawed, or sometimes when they are provoked to discuss some better and more serious things, they start shouting that Gandhi was a fool to not to use violence and the physical strength of the millions he had at his command), and what is worse is that no one can vanquish them in any debate; as a rule these cynics avoid people who speak differently and they are bent on speaking ill of that person who is kind of different( better educated, more enlightened sort). These cynics due to this innate nature( I am inclined to call this behavior as something innate) never do things worth doing.

Now there is another category of cynics, but they go around with a better name- realist. The irony is that cynics mentioned in the earlier paragraph also go by the name of realist. Now these realists are those who have seen the decadence of human mind, in general, for nearly their entire lifetimes and so lose their hope in men. It remains the marks of a very strong mind and character which knows that not keeping faith in humans can be the gravest error made and throughout human history there always has been one man who stood up for the right and ( the likes of Jesus, Lincoln and many more). But since even good men are not all of the same strong character, I am disposed to be softer towards them. Summing up, I will conclude that it is not good to be a cynic however old one might be.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Good to see a few people thinking about older posts sometimes.

Debasish, I am not too sure about this respect thing. I think a great deal of cynicism among young people in this country at least stems from the fact that they are forced to show respect to all sorts of people (parents, elderly relatives and neighbours, teachers, bosses, netas, babajis...) who, they discover, are petty and dishonourable men, not really deserving of respect at all. My reading of Gopal Gandhi's speech says as much: I think he is hinting that a lot of us have to exert ourselves to win the respect that we think is ours by rights, if we do not want our young to drown in cynicism!

Amit, many thanks. Yes, one must try ever harder to fight cynicism as one grows old, and sometimes one feels that one cannot cope any more. I, for one, feel bone weary: I have been called a fool or a madman or simply 'unsocial' for clinging desperately to certain norms to which we all pay lip-service but forget the moment they seem inconvenient...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I'd have liked some more discussion on this subject, especially over my observation that under the surface glitter of things, most people - including healthy, well-off, educated people - are deeply unhappy, and much of that malaise can be laid at the door of a certain cynicism which they think they must adopt in order to appear 'smart' in the eyes of their peers...