Recently I spent two days in meetings with an emerging coalition of partners who want to facilitate change in the way communities function. Many of the participants expressed a deep passion for substantial, structural transformation; words like movement, culture change, and manifesto buzzed around the room. It got me thinking about the way this energy might be received by the communities themselves, by the media, and in the world at large.

That, in turn, got me thinking about cynicism.

Cynicism is, in many respects, the default mindset of our age. Distrust of government is dangerously high. The 2008 financial meltdown turned many people against once-respected institutions. Big [Name of Industry Here] is the epithet we use to refer to faceless businesses that, from most appearances, are out to screw us.

It’s hard to argue with this response to power. Many of our current systems and institutions richly deserve our cynicism (or at least our outrage). But after so many disenfranchising experiences with them, we often use cynicism as a starting point for any discussion.

That presents a problem. Today’s cynicism is very good at grumbling against, but it has nothing to point to. With no alternative vision in mind, and a first response that seeks out the evil motives or rapacious self-interest behind any lofty idea—or simply proclaims that “it’ll never work in the real world”—this type of cynicism offers no avenue for change.

The word cynic, of course, comes from the Cynics of ancient Greece and their system of ethics. From what I read (note particularly this interesting article from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), it is easy to see the connection: the Greek Cynics scathingly criticized, even mocked, the societal conventions and systems of privilege of their time. But they also touted a framework of thought through which, they believed, people could achieve freedom: living in accord with nature, practicing self-sufficiency, being frank and free with one’s speech.

In the language of The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc. (a consultancy with which I’m affiliated), the Cynics had a FROMàTO vision. They clearly saw the insufficient state of affairs they were moving FROM—and the purpose of life they were moving TO.

In so many cases, today’s cynicism has no TO.

That is a corrosive stance in such a vastly imperfect world as ours, in which so many of our systems and problems desperately need a TO. It’s not enough to complain about the current polarization in Congress, or business self-interest run amok, or the corruption that keeps much of the world in extreme poverty—although these things deserve serious attention and, often, loud condemnation. It is not enough to respond to every new idea with “get real” or “that’ll never work.” These cynical responses shut down dialogue on big, potentially useful ideas before they have a chance to be heard (and therefore to develop).

I’m a big fan of realism. As we dream about the ideal, realists keep the dialogue grounded in the possible. But today’s pervasive cynicism doesn’t even have the benefit of being real: it dismisses the possibility of change even where change could actually occur.

It’s so difficult not to be cynical sometimes. But cynicism as a worldview—without the TO—gets us nowhere. Outrage, protest, dialogue, deliberation: all these things can move us ahead. We owe it to ourselves to prefer those strategies over the powerless cynicism of our age.


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