Despite growing up in a happy home and hardly ever wanting for anything, cynicism has always come easily to me.
Part of this attitude stems from my father, who is a cynic. I remember being too young to sit in the front seat of his car, arguing against the back of his head with the kind of naivety that comes from being a coddled ten-year-old. He tore down my poorly constructed case for the fairness of the world as he distractedly waited for a light to turn. “There are children who starve to death because their parents cannot afford to buy them food. Do you think they ever did anything to deserve that? Don’t be stupid. The world is unfair, even if it has been good to you.”
As I grew older, our conversations involved the hypocrisy of authority figures, the selfish intentions of men and how little difference most individual people make. The architecture of the world and its institutions incentivizes egoism, he taught me, and nothing is freely given, at least, not without an agenda. If a stranger tries to give you candy, he wants something from you.
The other part of my cynicism was fed by the news. Globalization means we get information from all over the world instantaneously, a veritable flood of depressing headlines assaulting us daily. Every article or piece of information makes problems seem more unsolvable and selfishness seem more intractable from human nature. Assertions without context, declarations that a problem could be easily solved if one simply did this or that; these seem foolish to the well-informed.
Huddled safely within my home, any atrocity that happens in the world is quickly made known to me by the beep of my phone. The swiftness of information transmission and the sensationalization of news to grab attention, it is no wonder that youths have become increasingly disillusioned with the world. It is easy to feel powerless, even if we have not experienced these things personally.
The impact of global information sharing affects more than one generation. But historically, youth has always been linked with idealism. From war protests during the Vietnam War to anti-violence demonstrations by students of the University of Paris in the 1200s; the idealism of youth has always driven such activism, which makes cynicism in youth so troubling.
In a moment of overdramatic (and somewhat pretentious) venting, I once claimed that “to know the world is to despair at it”.
But that is not true. The world is better than it was fifty years ago. Poverty has declined, there are fewer deaths from preventable causes and more people enjoy basic human rights. I don’t believe that we will ever have a utopia, but I do believe that we can make the world a significantly better place fifty years from now.
It is entirely justified to doubt that such progress can be easily made. If it were, someone else would have already done it. And that is exactly it. It is because we collectively hope for a better world that positive change does not come about easily. The world may have selfish, Machiavellian people, but it also has selfless, deeply empathetic go-getters.
Cynicism manifests in many ways. It is perhaps best encapsulated by the varying reactions to climate change. Those that believe our environment is doomed regardless, so there is no point changing our consumption. Those that treat every law that attempts to help the environment with mockery and believe that its failure is inevitable. Those who feel that anything they can do is merely a drop in the ocean and simply stop trying. It is these reactions by my peers that cemented in me how awful cynicism can be. It is not truth or a lack of faith; it is apathy. The only thing blaring in my head then was a phrase by Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
In the story of Don Quixote, the hero returns home defeated; his idealism and chivalry became the cause of his suffering, his disappointment and the cruelty he had to endure. It is a healthy dose of skepticism that can keep us from having expectations that end in disappointment. The solution to cynicism is to stay globally connected. In spite of its terrors, there is goodness in the world that can be known as long as we stay informed. During the Boston Marathon bombings, some participants finished and ran the rest of the way to a hospital to donate blood to victims. Some in Germany welcomed refugees with banners while others shunned them. An eighteen-year-old is organizing the world’s largest ocean cleanup. As long as we continue to seek out knowledge and understand complexities, we realize that people are capable of good things and positive change, while not easy, is within reach.
“Don’t be stupid,” was my father’s advice.
It is stupid to sit in the spectrum of cynicism and idealism and choose either end. Reality rarely falls into extremes and we need to continually seek the world, both its repulsiveness and beauty, in order to understand it. Cynicism is giving up on understanding, giving up on taking control of what happens to you. Young people have a special place in the world because they tend to be the drivers of change. It is important that we work to understand reality, to stay connected to the world, rather than perpetually sit in the backseat and let someone else drive the car.
This is an edited version of the writer’s entry to the International New York Times Asia-Pacific Writing Competition 2016, which won the University Category. You can find out more about this year’s competition here. Submissions close 29 September 2017.
Image by Ryan Quek