Why is cynicism so prevalent?

January, 2020
Louis Butt, Blog Correspondent

Climate disasters, endless Middle Eastern conflicts, nationalist uprisings, xenophobia, and government surveillance. Most societies today are combatting at least one of these predicaments. The increased speed at which information travels has made people aware of problems that should not be persisting in a progressive social order. Aside from being a unifier of sorts and an aid to the consolidation of voices, mass communication may have contributed to widespread cynicism, making us distrustful of the principles and norms around us.

Consider whistleblower Edward Snowden and the debate surrounding his divulgence of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) undisclosed surveillance tactics. Some view him as a hero who divulged information that the populace deserved to be aware of, whereas others see him as a traitor and threat to US national security. Regardless of what side of the debate one stands on, Snowden’s act only contributes to the current prevalence of cynicism as it pushes the public perception of government towards one of overlordship. He himself is likely unaware of the consequences of his act, which has caused damage that national security agencies are still working on repairing, or so argued former US ambassador Susan Rice on Real Time with Bill Maher in October. Libertarians will dismiss this as being invalid to the ethical principles at hand.

The leaking of government secrets is nothing new – it is a pivotal factor of Cold War-era national security policies – nor is it the cause of popular cynicism today. The point is that mass communication has allowed for such an act to be exposed to the general public, therefore advancing suspicions in the institutions that administer many aspects of our lives.

American author David Foster Wallace described cynicism as an effective tool to expose and clarify the duplicities society is exposed to. He believed it came with the permeating postmodernist ideology which refutes the acceptance of universal truths. Cynicism is a resulting characteristic from such an approach to the arts. An eyeroll to the concept of absolute objectivity, it is most often used as a comedic tool. Consider the rise of satire in the face of political drama. Trevor Noah, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert are just a few names among a cluster of comedians that discuss current events in their programmes. As Brexit, the US Democratic elections, or the frequent consequences of Trump’s inaptitude dominate the headlines for an irritating amount of time, the use of comedy effectively slices through the dense array of information to entertainingly provide an understanding to these issues. The public’s apathy coming from the feed of unending developments is thus replaced by comedy, which delivers laughter while conveying information.

Wallace critiques postmodern cynicism because it highlights our wrongs without correcting them. In his view, the use of irony and comedy is a shield without a sword. While this may be true, one must consider how cynicism often offers a varying view from the mainstream narrative, which may in turn enlighten people. Mass communication, whether through funny tweets or self-deprecating memes, is thus mutually causal with our cynicism, hence the spread of self-aware – or “woke” – comedy.

Other art forms continue to espouse such characteristics. Take Quentin Tarantino, who wrote and directed the film Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood to critical acclaim this year. The nearly three-hour film has its two protagonists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) going through their daily routines in 1960s Hollywood with sparse surges in action for most of the film – until the last twenty minutes. The movie is an homage to Hollywood in the time of Westerns, an era which boomers likely remember fondly, before CGI, 3D glasses, or multiethnic casts. What Tarantino manages to display most effectively throughout the picture, however, is the nothingness from which the film industry was composed. Cheap backlots, huge billboards advertising who knows what, and clumsy television stunts make the viewer wonder what there ever was to marvel at. But to finish the film with a cynical view of those hollow times would not do its director justice. Once upon a Time serves to demonstrate that although the past is flawed in many ways, it is always fun to espouse. Why make a story complicated when nostalgia and sentimentalism can carry it? In things void of deeper meaning, there is a splendour even devout cynics can appreciate.

Tarantino’s work is both postmodernist culture’s quintessence and antithesis. Though the film twists actual events, replacing Sharon Tate’s cruel death with a satisfyingly gory fight scene which sees the death of three Manson Family cultists, it is sincere with the problems of its era. The audience is made to feel sentimental of Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) as he sees the doors of opportunity close around him – until he burns a would-be murderer to a crisp. Tate, an innocent, glowy-eyed beauty amongst the one-dimensional facades of Hollywood, is saved by an unemployed stunt double who may or may not have killed his wife. These horrific things that happened (or didn’t happen) off-camera are displayed honestly by Tarantino in a nostalgic tone. As much as cynicism is displayed through woke comedy, Once Upon a Time is comfortably and entertainingly asleep.

Why make a story complicated when nostalgia and sentimentalism can carry it? In things void of deeper meaning, there is a splendour even devout cynics can appreciate.

Taking this as a call to loosen up amid a culture of outrage could be beneficial, but there is real progress to be made in the conclusion of our struggles. The incessant feed of various forms of backlash and reactionary viewpoints might be causing the snarky tones ever so present these days, but dialogues are more inclusive and accessible than ever, which should be appreciated. Should we, therefore, try to be more sincere as a means to grow? Current culture points towards society already doing that. Rap music, once notorious for its counterculture, aggressive lyrics and misogynistic tendencies, is currently spearheaded by a Canadian whose vigour lies in his willingness to dish out his personal, often romantic troubles on wax. In addition, mental health is a leading topic in social discussions and occupying an unprecedented awareness level in communities, showing an openness and clear belief that there is substance in openness and emotion.

Cynicism will always have its place. It is natural when pondering the overreaching difficulties which affect our world. As long as it dismisses the need for deeper critical analysis, however, society may only become more polarised. In turn, the beauty of the past cannot be espoused as cynics neglect its moral value. Either way, at least we’ll have a good laugh.

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