Recently, during a discussion of current events, my own beloved father looked at me gloomily and said, “You’ve become cynical. That makes me very sad.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because if you’re cynical, it means you aren’t hopeful about people,” he said.
I was surprised, and for two reasons. The first was his use of the word ‘become’. Whether I am, as he says, cynical, or whether I am, as I would argue, realistic, I have certainly always seen the world through this lens. It is familiar by now. I have always been this way – I have never been optimistic.
(Although, in my father’s defense, it is true that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America jarred me and, perhaps, sharpened the edge on my cynicism. I had not believed my countrymen would be willing to elect a man that xenophobic – I was wrong. I don’t intend to overestimate them again.)
But I was also surprised by his juxtaposition of cynicism and hopefulness. He seemed to feel that these were necessarily opposite conditions – I don’t believe that they are.
‘Cynical’ can mean several things. My father, in this context, probably meant ‘distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’. I suppose I am that. It’s not that I don’t believe that humans lack either sincerity or integrity, or even that those qualities are rare. However, I believe that those qualities co-exist, in all humans, with cowardice, malevolence, and a facility for dishonesty, and that, therefore, those virtues are unreliable in any individual or population over time.
As I have said before (several times), I believe that all peoples, in all places, at all times, are capable of evil. That this capacity for evil, like our capacity for good, defines us as a species. That we will never outgrow it, evolve past it, or become too smart for it, and that we must be ever vigilant against it. I believe that the data, both historical and contemporary, support my conclusion. I believe that this conclusion, to put it plainly, is true.
And the truth is never cynical. No belief, no matter how rosy it may seem, if it is not premised on the truth, can be really hopeful.
The belief that we are better than our ancestors or the people of other nations, this is a self-flattering lie, a delusion which is easier to bear than hard truth. And lies are never really hopeful; they are, in fact, a surrender to a much darker cynicism than I am capable of: that it is better to believe yourself good than to acknowledge your own capacity for evil and so avoid doing it. That it is better to seem than to be.
I believe that it is far more hopeful to be a cynic who looks out for ordinary evils than an optimist who insists that evil is always freakish, because only the cynic will see the evil coming far enough away to stop it. Only someone who believes in evil will trouble themselves to learn about it, and learning is the best way we can avoid it in ourselves.
Any view of the human race which denies an essential and ineradicable part cannot be hopeful. Hope is not hope which is premised on ignorance. There can be no true hope without honesty first.
So, no, Dad, I may be cynical, but I’m not hopeless. On the contrary, Dad: I find that you have much less hope than I. People who, confronted again and again with the wickedness of their fellow men, with their small-minded hatreds, their tribalisms and rages, people who nevertheless insist on finding them essentially good, they are hopeless. People who are then always surprised when evil happens, they are hopeless. People for whom the good opinion of each other means more than actually saving each other, they are hopeless. If you must lie to yourself about man’s nature in order to accept him, that is hopeless.
I believe I have seen man in all his despicability, and I still see a way forward for him. He’s not a saintly ape, he is not basically good, but, with attention, he might learn. And, as long as that is true, he will never be completely hopeless.
I’m trying to learn, and so I’m not hopeless.
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