By Kermit Hovey
Recent headlines continue a painful litany: “Over 178,000 Confirmed Covid-19 Deaths in the U.S.”; “First Time Unemployment Claims Again Top 1 Million”; “Wildfires Are an Annual California Nightmare Now”; “Residents Flee Gulf Coast as Possible Tandem Hurricanes Approach”; “Video Shows Police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Shooting Black Man in Back.”
Covid-19 rampages across the land out of all proportion to the expectations for a country so financially wealthy, scientifically and technologically advanced, and democratically committed. Our national economy creaks, sways, and for too many collapses under the strain of mismanagement. We reap both the whirlwind and the firestorm of climate change as supercharged hurricanes pummel our coasts, derechos flatten our heartland, and wildfires abetted by scorching temperatures incinerate our West. The ignored and hidden skeletons of systemic racism and racial injustice come to light. Long-maintained facades and institutional band-aids get ripped away by demagoguery, disease, and demonstrations.
What is the problem of our age? I don’t know if that question has an answer. There are so many to choose from, so many written about, so many complained about.
However one of the biggest has to be the cynicism that develops in people’s hearts and minds upon hearing over and over again our era’s litany of problems. Of course, it is not just hearing an ongoing, never-ending string of complaints and concerns. As bad, if not worse, is hearing the ongoing litany of blame, misattribution, misstatement, outright lies, and distortion. In such a climate we hear accusations of bad behavior that if true might well warrant our embrace of cynicism. And in the same moment we experience the very complaining, blaming, and shaming itself as stoking our cynicism.
After all, Merriam-Webster relevantly defines cynicism as either an attitude of contemptuous distrust of human nature and motives or a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest. Listening to our Facebook-controlled echo chambers and Twitter-amplified outrage fests certainly leads one to expect the worst of our fellow humans, especially those who are “other.”
Not surprisingly, imparting cynicism is a well-used strategy of the greatest beneficiaries of an unjust status quo. Those who benefit and profit from “the way things are” actively fuel the fire of cynicism. If cynicism’s flames consume the gritty hope and sober optimism of too many of us, nothing changes. We give up because we are left with “Why bother?” and “What’s the point?” Those who benefit from the status quo continue to flourish. Those oppressed, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised by it continue to suffer.
As social critic Alex Steffen notes,
It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over: as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful — cynicism is obedience.
But in contrast to cynicism, I don’t advocate a glib optimism, a Pollyannaish pretense that all is wonderful, or a Panglossian self-delusion that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Real problems confront us and demand our attention. Real people reject the reality defining those problems and the opportunities opening to their solutions.
We need to live out the steely resolve of the Stockdale Paradox. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, relayed this principle in the words of P.O.W. survivor and former V.P. candidate Admiral James Stockdale,
You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
I often turn to and am inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” These words of his, in the context of his life, implicitly embrace the Stockdale Paradox.
However, they must inspire gritty hope, not naive optimism. They express that progress and triumph are possible. Yet for that to be, we have to confront the brutal facts of our reality, just as Rev. King did his. We must embrace them in the spirit of hope that a better future is possible. To succeed, we can’t relax with a naive optimism that a better future is inevitable.
Rev. King’s words and our challenging problems necessitate diligent effort on our part. We can follow his example of hard work for justice in the face of brutal, implacable, and hateful reality. We can follow the path of that arc to clear the injustice that blocks, clutters, and impedes it. We can lay hands on that arc and bend it toward justice together.
Yet, as with so many challenges to sustaining a just and livable society, cynicism is obedience to a broken status quo. Whatever the sphere of justice — whether environmental or racial, economic or pandemic — we must all consider how each decision, statement, and action moves us and that arc further toward justice… or not. We all need to act on this shared responsibility.
In particular in this election season, we need to remember that democracy is not a noun. It is a verb. We must act to repair a broken status quo. One way is to reclaim the democracy we claim to live in and make it come alive.
Talk to your friends and family about your shared values and shared concerns. Encourage one another to dig below the headlines and tweets to learn about the candidates. Make sure you support the candidates who not only acknowledge your concerns but best address them in word and deed. Tell somebody your plan to vote. Take the first step of that plan.
Maybe even volunteer to campaign for one or more of your candidates. But whatever you do, don’t forget to take all the steps it takes to vote — and encourage others to do so also.
When the election is all done, don’t go home and figure you have nothing to do for another four years. Keep your elected officials honest, engaged, and aware you want them to follow through on their promises.
Remember that while the role of humans in the litany of problems we confront tempts us to cynicism, cynicism is obedience. Such obedience acquiesces to an unjust status quo that will be all too happy to see us give up. We can’t. With hope, a better future is possible. Together, with diligent democratic action, we can help turn the possible into the real and current problems into history.
An earlier version of this post appeared in the September 3, 2020, edition of the Middleton Times Tribune.
In Wisconsin, visit myvote.wi.gov to find out about virtually all things electoral: find info such as your registration status and polling place, register to vote, request an absentee ballot, track your absentee ballot, and more. In Dane County if you need help meeting the voter ID requirement, visit the Dane County Voter ID Coalition website at voteridwisconsin.org.