Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The naiveté of cynicism

Given the current political climate in Canada, it's perhaps unsurprising that there have been a lot of songs sung in praise of cynicism these days. From the teeming masses to Rick Salutin (who seems to have assumed the position of the Globe and Mail's patron saint of cynicism), everybody's been pretty quick to agree that politicians are simply a corrupt lot, and it's therefore unfortunate but unsurprising that the Liberals have been caught doing naughty, naughty things with taxpayers' money. As someone who has little time for cynicism (see tagline above), my first reaction to the pervasiveness of this attitude was despair, and my second one was anger. But then a realization set in that melted all that away. You see, cynicism, for all the respect it gets from an awful lot of pretty smart people, is actually pretty ... naive.

I mean, think about it: Idealists get a bad rap for not being able to critically examine evidence and draw hard conclusions based on it. But this kind of universally-applied scornful negativity demonstrates at least as strong an inability to think critically or draw any kinds of nuanced conclusions. The assumption that politicians are all inherently bad because some politicians have done some bad things is a hugely flawed way of perceiving the human condition. Politicians are human beings, and as such they're possessed of the same flaws and the same merits as any of the rest of us. This implies that like the rest of us, they'll be doing good things some of the time, and some other part of the time they'll be either screwing up or screwing people over. But apart from clinical psychopaths, no one is as self-serving as a true cynic wants to make them out to be. And I'll even take it one step further than that: those who choose to demonize or dismiss entire groups rather than asking hard philosophical and psychological questions about what makes us all do bad things sometimes don't even deserve to call themselves thinking people.

While I certainly agree with Justin Trudeau that the Liberals need a good long time-out, I have no illusions that replacing them with the Conservatives or even the NDP would give Canada a government that would do the right and ethical thing all the time. On the other hand, I also don't believe the fact that politicians are human beings implies that voting or campaign work is a complete waste of time. We may not be able to divide the world into the black and white of "good guys" and "bad guys," but there are certainly better policies and worse policies, acceptable behaviours and unacceptable ones. And if, while we're working to elect the people who genuinely want to serve the public and whose ideas and ideals we can respect, we simultaneously take a long, hard look at the things about our system that make it easier for fallible human beings to take advantage of it, then real improvements suddenly look a whole lot more likely. Dismissing politics as a whole by saying that no decent candidates really exist and that true systematic reform is impossible isn't merely cynical; it's sloppy thinking. And while sloppy thinking may well make for the occasional amusing political cartoon, newspaper column or blog post, it's certainly not the foundation we want to be building the future of the country on.

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