Cynicism (contemporary)

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"Cynical" redirects here. For the classical philosophy, see Cynicism (philosophy). For other uses, see Cynic.

Cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others' motives believing that humans are selfish by nature, ruled by emotion, and heavily influenced by the same primitive, barbaric instincts that helped humans survive in the wild before agriculture and civilization became established.[1] A cynic may have a general lack of faith or hope in the human species or people motivated by ambition, desire, greed, gratification, materialism, goals, and opinions that a cynic perceives as vain, unobtainable, or ultimately meaningless and therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment. It is a form of jaded prudence, and other times, realistic criticism or skepticism. The term originally derives from the ancient Greek philosophers, the Cynics, who rejected all conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, dress, or decency, instead advocating the pursuit of virtue in accordance with a simple and idealistic way of life.

By the 19th century, emphasis on the ascetic ideals and the critique of current civilization based on how it might fall short of an ideal civilization or negativistic aspects of Cynic philosophy led the modern understanding of cynicism to mean a disposition of disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.[citation needed] Modern cynicism is a distrust toward professed ethical and social values, especially when there are high expectations concerning society, institutions, and authorities that are unfulfilled. It can manifest itself as a result of frustration, disillusionment, and distrust perceived as owing to organizations, authorities, and other aspects of society.


The classical Greek and Roman Cynics regarded virtue as the only necessity for happiness. They sought to free themselves from conventions; become self-sufficient; and live only in accordance with nature. They rejected any conventional notions of happiness involving money, power, or fame, in the pursuit of virtuous, and thus happy, lives.[2] In rejecting conventional social values, they would criticise the types of behaviours, such as greed, which they viewed as causing suffering. Emphasis on this aspect of their teachings led, in the late 18th and early 19th century,[3] to the modern understanding of cynicism as "an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others."[4][not in citation given] This modern definition of cynicism is in marked contrast to the ancient philosophy, which emphasized "virtue and moral freedom in liberation from desire".[5] More than just critics, early Cynics were public advocates of cosmopolitanism, freedom of speech, a woman's right to select her spouse, and constitutional law.


Modern cynicism has been defined as an attitude of distrust toward claimed ethical and social values and a rejection of the need to be socially involved.[6] It is pessimistic in regards to the capacity of human beings to make correct ethical choices, and one antonym is naiveté.[7]

Modern cynicism is sometimes regarded as a product of mass society, especially in those circumstances where the individual believes there is a conflict between society's stated motives and goals and actual motives and goals.[8][9]

Political cynicism has reached new highs, and "healthy skepticism may have given way to corrosive cynicism."[10] Cynicism regarding government or politics can logically lead to political withdrawal and effective political helplessness. Former secretary of the U.S. Department of Education William J. Bennett, warned that America could "crumble from within; that we would become cynical and withdraw."[11] In 2003 Hillary Clinton warned: "The worst thing that can happen in a democracy -- as well as in an individual's life -- is to become cynical about the future and lose hope. That is the end. And we cannot let that happen."[12] In 1969 historian and aesthetician Sir Kenneth Clark wrote: "It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs."[13] A 2004 experiment and paper called The Effects of Strategic News on Political Cynicism, Issue Evaluations, and Policy Support: A Two-Wave Experiment found that the way the news media presents the news can cause political cynicism. The experiment also demonstrated; "a negative relation between efficacy and cynicism suggesting that efficacious citizens were less likely to be cynical about politics."
It was found that straight dry, "issues-based" news did not cause political cynicism, but that "Strategic News" and "game news" did. The latter two types of news presentation emphasize:
    ..."the horse race, strategy, and tactics of politics,"..."news coverage of candidate motivations and personalities, focus on disagreement between parties, candidates or voters, and the presence and emphasis on polls in the news," or "positioning the electorate as spectators and candidates as performers," respectively.[14]

As distinct from depression, cynicism can appear more active; in his bestselling Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), Peter Sloterdijk defined modern cynics as "borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and yet retain the ability to work, whatever might happen ... indeed, this is the essential point in modern cynicism: the ability of its bearers to work - in spite of anything that might happen."[15] One active aspect of cynicism involves the desire to expose hypocrisy and to point out the gulf between society's ideals and its practices.[16] George Bernard Shaw allegedly expressed this succinctly: "The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who don't have it".[17]

Social cynicism results from excessively high expectations concerning society, institutions and authorities: unfulfilled expectations leads to disillusionment, which releases feelings of disappointment and betrayal.[18]

In organizations, cynicism manifests itself as a general or specific attitude, characterized by frustration, hopelessness, disillusionment and distrust in regard to economic or governmental organizations, managers and/or other aspects of work.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Navia, Luis E. (1996). Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study. Contributions in philosophy 58. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 1. ISBN 9780313300158. Retrieved 2013-11-26. "For the cynic, accordingly, hypocrisy and deceitfulness, primitive selfishness and unbounded egoism, and gross materialism and disguised ruthlessness are the hidden characteristics of all human behavior." 
  2. ^ Julie Piering (2006-04-18). "Cynics". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  3. ^ David Mazella, (2007), The Making of Modern Cynicism, University of Virginia Press. ISBN 0-8139-2615-7
  4. ^ Cynicism, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fourth Edition. 2006. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  5. ^ Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, page 231. Simon and Schuster
  6. ^ Luis E. Navia, 1999, The Adventure of Philosophy, page 141.
  7. ^ Synonym for cynicism (n) – antonym for cynicism (n) – Thesaurus – MSN Encarta. Retrieved 2010-05-14. 
  8. ^ "Cynicism promotes and is a product of mass society. It makes economic, political, and cultural domination invisible, and casts serious doubts on cultural and political alternatives." Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, 1991, The Cynical Society: The Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture in American Life, page 30. University of Chicago Press
  9. ^ "cynicism appears in the space left empty by mass culture's retreat from politics itself. Political engagement has no option, apparently, but to be cynical..." Timothy Bewes, (1997), Cynicism and Postmodernity, page 3. Verso
  10. ^ abstract: News Frames, Political Cynicism, and Media Cynicism, J. N. CAPPELLA, K. H. JAMIESON, 1996 The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science The media framing of political news is implicated in "activating, if not creating, cynicism about campaigns, policy, and governance."
  11. ^ National Review Online, SEPTEMBER 5, 2013, We Are Not Helpless William J. Bennett, warned that America could politically "become cynical and withdraw," and "be defeated...from within, from weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed and in the end helplessness....We cannot become cynical.”
  12. ^ Esquire, Oct 1, 2003 Hillary Clinton Profile on political cynicism.
  13. ^ Kenneth Clark, Ch. 13: Heroic Materialism, Civilisation (1969)
  14. ^ Claes de Vreese, 2004, (Cited by 98) The Effects of Strategic News on Political Cynicism, Issue Evaluations, and Policy Support: A Two-Wave Experiment, The Amsterdam School of Communications Research, - An experimentally manipulated television news story about the enlargement of the European Union was produced in a strategy version and an issue-framed version, which were embedded in an experimental bulletin of a national news program. Results showed that exposure to "strategic news" fueled political cynicism and activated negative associations with the political issue.
  15. ^ Peter Sloterdijk, (1987), Critique of Cynical Reason, page 5
  16. ^ Mary Midgley, The problem of humbug, in Matthew Kieran, (1998), Media Ethics, page 37, Routledge.
  17. ^ Attributed in Schreier, Benjamin (2009). The Power of Negative Thinking: Cynicism and the History of Modern American Literature. University of Virginia Press. p. 187. ISBN 9780813928203. Retrieved 2013-11-26. 
  18. ^ Donald L. Kanter and Philip H. Mirvis, (1989). The Cynical Americans - Living and Working in an Age of Discontent and Disillusion. San Francisco
  19. ^ Andersson, L. M.; Bateman, T. S. (1997). "Cynicism in the workplace: Some causes and effects". Journal of Organizational Behavior 18: 449–469. doi:10.1002/(sici)1099-1379(199709)18:5<449::aid-job808>;2-o. 

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