Thursday, September 25, 2008



When I was young, I did not exactly know what “cynical” meant. Throughout that time, I was cynical; I just did not know the technical definition. Today, I am doubly cynical—and I know exactly what the word means. The more I learn, the more cynical I become. My cynicism has become my bulwark against life. It is the residue of every life experience. It is the inference I draw from things I have seen before. But “cynical” has a negative ring to it: “You’re not cynical; you’re just realistic.” Is it “realistic” to be “cynical?” Or are the two terms identical? To understand this, we need to look at the words. And more importantly, we need to know what it really means to live “in the real world.”

So what is cynicism, exactly? And why does it protect me? I always start with the dictionary. It tells me that “cynicism” means: “1. believing that people are motivated in all their actions only by selfishness; denying the sincerity of people’s motives; or 2. sarcastic, sneering etc.” There are two essential components to this definition, and they explain why I used to confuse cynicism with skepticism. First, cynicism is a belief system that targets people’s motives. It examines human behavior. It queries why people act in a given situation. Second, cynicism makes assumptions about the behavior it examines. It assumes that selfish motives largely motivate human behavior, and that when people say something, they probably do not mean it. Thus, while cynicism is similar to skepticism in the sense that it perpetually doubts whether people honestly believe the things they say, it goes beyond merely reflexive doubt. It concerns assumptions about people’s motives and sincerity, and that involves judgment.

This sounds bleak. Certainly we have met people in life who appear to have pure motives. We have met people who truly cared about our well-being. They wanted to see that we were successful, happy or materially secure. We may even have encountered people in life who gave for no other reason than to help others. They did not appear to have any motives other than to ease another’s strife. We have known generous people in our lives. Or have we?

How much more often have we encountered people who appear to wish us well, when in fact they really want us for money, one-sided caring, services or sex? How much more often have we encountered people who go about their lives in a fanatical quest to better their own economic or social positions? Sure, they ask “How are you?” in the hallway, but do you think they care how you are really doing? Your boss may seem friendly when you are performing well. But if you fail to deliver what he wants, will he care about you then? In sum, how much more often in life do we encounter people who care about nothing but themselves? Generosity, in other words, does not exist: It is merely a means to a selfish end, an expense with a view to a future payoff. Accumulated experience with people culminates in cynicism.

Cynicism arises through observation and experience. It is a belief system that derives from sensory input. Younger people tend to be less cynical because they have observed less than people who have had more time to watch human behavior. When I was a teenager, I had vague doubts about people’s sincerity, but not until I reached my late 20s did I really begin to see how selfish and insincere people truly were. My cynicism deepened for two main reasons: (1) I had my own financial obligations; and (2) I learned legal doctrine.

When I first began paying my own bills, I felt constant pressure to go out and make money. I had to; I did not want to go homeless. So I got jobs when I could. I met people at work who faced the same basic dilemma as I did: Either get a job or go homeless. But it is no easy task to get a job in the 21st Century; even really bright students may not have the “economically useful skillset” necessary to sufficiently please a prospective employer. There is not as much beer in the keg as there was once, and employers like to keep it to themselves when possible. The people I met at work understood this. They took the steps needed to get their jobs. They were thinking about themselves; they did not care about all the other people who could not get a job. They even sneered at them and blamed them for being lazy. In other words: “They got theirs.” It was not their problem whether “You got yours.”

I observed even more in the workplace. Partners and senior managers talked ceaselessly about bonuses and salaries. They talked about billing totals and returns. It was “all about them.” They fired young lawyers who did not meet their billing totals. Why? At first I did not understand. Later I found out it was because they were not bringing in enough revenue to satisfy the partners’ profit requirements. In other words, they fired people who were not making enough money for them. Every time I looked at law firm websites, they advertised how much money their partners made or how much money their firm brought in each year. They advertised how much money they won in particular cases, or how much money their clients were worth. And most significantly, the overall message was universal: “Hire us! We can make you (or save you) more money than our competitors!” Of course, they would make bigger salaries in the process. Again: it was all about them—and their money. Selfish motives dominated their behavior. They were the only motives they had.

My academic experiences refined my observations about what motivates human behavior. Law school essentially teaches doctrines involving property; “justice and right” are purely incidental to practical rules that ensure the profitable transfer and movement of goods, land and services through the economy. I came to this understanding only after reading thousands of cases and statutes, most of which involved parties bickering over who should win money or how much they should win. In contracts class, we read about who made a promise to pay whom, and for how much. In business organizations, we read about disappointed business owners determined to get the most money out of their investments, or directors who exploited shareholders for personal gain. In estates, we read about warring relatives determined to get the most money from their dead parents. In torts, we read about injured people determined to get the most money from their injuries—and the machinations of those determined to give them least amount possible. In income tax, we read about people determined to reduce or eliminate the tax liability they owed. In sales, we read about people who did not receive as much money from their goods as they bargained for. In secured transactions, we read about people wrestling over who should be paid first when another person goes bankrupt. In property, we learned about who gets the land or trinket, and for what reason. In every case, we read about people determined to get what they want. They did not care about anyone but themselves. In fact, they bitterly contested every attempt by someone else to get what they wanted. In law, selfish motives form the basis for advocacy. In any legal case, each side vigorously asserts its own interests. It is ritualized, State-supervised selfishness.

But selfishness does not just inform commercial behavior and legal disputes. True, commercial life implies selfishness, but selfish motives exist in every human activity. Sexuality is a prime example. If people do not interact with each other in order to achieve financial gain, they interact with each other for some other gratification. When a single man talks to a single woman in whom he has a sexual interest, do you think he really cares about what she has to say? No: His motives are purely selfish. He wants to have sex. He wants a positive bodily sensation. He will say whatever is necessary to achieve his goal, just as the hopeful employee says whatever is necessary to get the job. Whenever I see two people talk to each other in a non-commercial setting, I immediately wonder: “What does he really want? What does she really want?” When they talk about sports, the weather, or what they did last weekend, I doubt their sincerity. “Just say what you really want from her!” This is cynicism: We question people’s motives. We doubt their sincerity. We assume they are advancing their own interests.

After I fully embraced cynicism as a “worldview,” I began to question myself. After all, cynicism reflects complacency. Cynicism depends on assumptions about human behavior, and it is usually foolish to rely on assumptions. I reproached myself for immediately judging situations. I did not like making assumptions because I thought I was being lazy. For a while, I genuinely tried to approach situations with an open mind, reserving my cynical judgment until I had some real proof that selfishness was motivating the action. Yet in case after case, my observations confirmed my initial cynical appraisal: Why did the hospital call me? To make sure it received its payment. Why did the lady next door talk to me? So that perhaps I could help her with a legal problem for free. Why does my agent seem so happy to talk to me? Because she makes $100 for every hour I work, while I only get $35. Why does the salesman ask how my family is doing? So I will buy from him and give him a commission. In each case, I honestly tried to believe that selfishness was not motivating the behavior. But every time, I received firm proof that these people were simply using me as a means to enrich themselves in one way or another. Put simply, I now feel safe making assumptions when they are cynical assumptions. When I approach interactions with people—especially with commercial overtones—I presume that they will resort to any methods necessary to achieve their financial ends. I also believe nothing they say unless it involves the benefits they hope to extract from me. If they act do not act from pure selfishness, they pleasantly surprise me. If they do, they confirm my assumption. It works quite well. And I never get disappointed.

Cynicism is a reasonable intellectual system in a free market system. Capitalism requires that people selfishly advance their own material interests. Selfish incentives provide the motivation to work hard and to produce. The prospect of massive financial gain—and becoming “better” than your neighbor—inspires innovation, inventiveness and clever solutions. In our system, everyone wants to make money. It is the overriding, universal goal. To reach that goal, you need to think about yourself. If you are thinking about yourself and your financial success, obviously selfishness motivates you. So cynicism provides a perfect analytical tool for dissecting every action in a free market economy. For example, if a corporation donates $1 million to a children’s hospital, we say: “They are not giving money because their motive is to help children. They are giving the money so they can write it off their tax bill. Or they are giving the money in order to advertise later that they are a ‘generous, community-minded business,’ leading sympathetic investors to give them more money for more profitable endeavors.” Yes, this is a cynical reading. But in a system where a dollar spent must ultimately yield more than a dollar, it is eminently reasonable.

Cynicism provides an excellent framework for understanding human behavior in our world. But it carries a negative connotation. It conjures bitterness, resignation and despair. It is dismissive to call someone a cynic. It implies that the person cannot succeed in life and can do nothing but blame the world for his own shortcomings.
Nonetheless, these negative overtones do not accompany the word “realist.” If a person is a “realist,” he simply faces facts soberly with a “real world” understanding. The dictionary tells us that a “realist” is a “person concerned with real things rather than those that are imaginary or visionary.” It goes on to say that a realist is “practical rather than visionary.” In common parlance, we respect people who are “realistic,” while we dismiss people who are “cynical.” “Realists” broach legitimate concerns about actions; “cynics” make unfair assumptions. Still, how different are they? I find it interesting that a “realist” is “practical” and concerns himself with the “real world.” Cynics may not be as practical as realists, but both observe the “real world” and generally expect the worst from it.

What exactly is the “real world” in which the practical “realist” lives? And what does it mean to be “practical?” In an earlier essay, I suggested that the phrase “real world” typically issues from older people to younger people in order to warn them of the harsh environment they will encounter in a ruthlessly commercial world. In the “real world,” dreams will not pay your rent. You must either earn money to pay your rent or you will be homeless. It does not matter how creative or imaginative you are. “Realists” understand the “real world.” They understand that commercial life is harsh. They know that people are out there to enrich themselves and plan their actions accordingly. They do not enter commercial transactions with bright eyes; they assume that their counterparts will cheat them if they can. After all, in the “real world,” people do what they need to do to survive. When faced with an appetizing offer, the realist says: “Let’s be realistic. It is too good to be true; no one gives you a free lunch.” The realist prepares himself for unfair, selfish treatment because “that’s the way the real world is.” This is “practical, not visionary.” The realist knows that people are selfish. He “faces the facts” and adapts to avoid disappointment.

Does this sound familiar? Is there really any difference between the realist and the cynic? The realist guardedly approaches “real life” because selfish people will likely resort to anything to get what they want. Similarly, the cynic assumes that people will act selfishly, so this puts him on guard. Does the realist assume that selfishness motivates them? Does he doubt their sincerity, as a cynic does? I think he does. Perhaps his assumptions are not as resigned or bitter as the cynic’s, but they are still assumptions. Both cynics and realists have doubts about what motivates human behavior and they approach problems knowing that people are generally only looking out for themselves. Like a cynic, a realist does not enter into a relationship expecting only good things; he is aware that the other person might be using him for selfish ends. To be “realistic” is to acknowledge certain assumptions about human behavior, then plan one’s actions accordingly to avoid disappointment. Cynics do the same thing, though in a more reflective, critical way.

Reflection and criticism separate realists from cynics. Realists simply accept that the “real world” is harsh and unforgiving. They simply accept that self-interest motivates people as they make their way through life. They “practically” adapt their behavior to coincide with the assumptions they have made about the world. Cynics, on the other hand, express dismay about the “real world.” They recognize the same assumptions as realists, but they lament the fact that people have only selfish motives. This is why the dictionary says that cynics are also “sarcastic” and “sneering.” A cynic resigns himself to the fact that people will only act for their own gain, but he takes pleasure in expressing disapproval for that selfishness. After all, a cynic always points out the disparity between what a principled person would do in a given situation and what a selfish person would do in the those circumstances. Principles do not concern realists, nor do realists worry about the gap between principles and “real life.”

My cynicism manifests itself through satire. My life experiences and studies have largely vindicated my assumption that people generally have selfish motives and rarely say what they actually mean. Still, I am not bitter, and I do not think a cynic must be bitter. Rather, I put my trust in principles. My belief in principles may render me a “visionary” or “imaginary,” but they sustain me. Principles often conflict with the “harsh commercial realities” of “the real world,” but I do not merely accept “the real world.” I am “realistic” in the sense that I do not expect a free lunch in the “real world,” but I am not a “realist” to the extent that realists resign themselves engaging in self-centered commercial wrangling. I criticize through my cynicism. I point out the folly and hypocrisy that self-interest can spawn. I point out the inconsistency between larger principles and the way people—especially people in power—actually behave. Whenever I bring my cynicism to bear in a situation, I am aware that there could be a principled approach, but the actors resort to a self-interested one instead. This inconsistency creates satire. I am “realistic” about what to expect from the “real world.” But I am “cynical” in my zest for criticizing it. Satire gives air to that zest. If I cannot change the “real world,” at least I can understand it, deconstruct it and mock it. Cynicism lets me do that—and enjoy it at the same time.

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