The Disease of Reflexive Cynicism

Jef Safi (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Jef Safi (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fuller Pendleton writing at This Civilization in Ruins:

Reflexive thinking seems to pervade the landscape.  The causes are unclear, but its existence is undeniable.  We jump to conclusions, we utilize stereotypes, and all other manner of mental shorthand in order to come to decisions about people, things, and potential courses of action.  With more information than what can be reasonably processed in the amount of time we have to make many decisions, we have to use mental processes to sort between what is noise and what is a signal, pointing us towards a correct path.

When mental shortcuts used to evaluate the motivations and intentions of others tend in one person to cause them to be taken advantage of due to what is perceived to be their innocence or inability/unwillingness to question much of the motivations of others, we call that person “naïve.”  We evaluate it to be a kind of intellectual immaturity to trust the benevolent intentions of others, or to overestimate our own ability to proceed along a path we’ve set upon.  And surely, too much innocence or naïveté can make us vulnerable to scams, shams, cons, lies, and deceptions of all sorts.  But it’s only one way that reflexive thinking can get us into trouble.

Another way our mental shortcuts can get us into trouble is when we start from a position of not just disbelief, but positive belief that we are being deceived in all or most cases.  There is much to be skeptical about in the world, but it’s a trend that goes beyond skepticism and into an almost religious and unquestioned belief in the hatefulness of the universe and the perfidy of other people.  This reflexive cynicism is just as likely to lead to false answers as blind or innocent naïveté, and it may have consequences more profound and distressing.

This may seem like a strange point for the author of this blog to be making, but don’t misunderstand.  Cynicism is an affliction I suffer from, but I don’t treat it as a coherent philosophy or epistemology.  Many people seem to mistake skeptical inquiry with cynicism, which gets people into all kinds of trouble when they endeavor to make sense of the world around them.  Yes, politicians lie.  Yes, everyone lies.  So it’s healthy to keep a little of that cynicism in your pocket to help you consider all of the potential options when presented with someone making any kind of claim.  What isn’t healthy is to use cynicism to dismiss facts out of hand.  This results in an untenable situation where any utterance which could be self-serving is assumed to be without any critical inquiry.

History is rife with mendacious prevaricators, living down to our worst assumptions about human nature.  However, assumptions can not replace actual inquiry.  And in a world as complex as ours, it behooves us to take the time to sit down and really question claims.  Thoughtlessly dismissing something through cynicism can be as harmful as naïvely accepting something without consideration.  It isn’t enough to just say politicians (or lawyers, or whoever else you please) lie.  That doesn’t tell you anything about what, of any given set of possible circumstances, is true.

And it may be with good reason that many do end up reflexively cynical.  In the US school system (with which I’m pretty familiar), we get lied to for twelve years on a whole range of subjects.

Read more here.