Cory Booker on Cynicism

Being Cynical is easy. Being Cynical is also dangerous and damaging. Toward the end of his book United Senator Cory Booker reflects on the cynical state of politics and society today, and what it means for individuals and for the nation to be as cynical as we are today. Booker writes, “cynicism about America’s current state of affairs is ultimately a form of surrender; a toxic state of mind that perpetuates the notion that we don’t have the power to make a difference, that things will never change.” When we don’t take action to be involved in our city, when our knowledge of politics (or anything else) is only cursory, and when we fall into a habit of not looking beyond our own perspective, we begin to think everyone is like us, and we accept the easy cynical story. Booker, in United, challenges inaction, challenges cynicism, and challenges the idea that only bad people are involved in how government and society operates.

 

I study Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and it has forced me to focus on the realities of government, which is that there are a limited number of resources available for society, and somehow we must decide who gets what, when, and how. Any time you think about the way the world operates and begin to consider the world, the word ‘should’ undoubtedly pops up, indicating that you are making a judgement statement about your beliefs of the world. I don’t use belief in the religious sense of the word, your opinion and worldview could be shaped and reformed by objective empirical data to a large degree, but ‘should’ indicates political preference, ideology, and what you think would work best for an individual or collection of individuals in a situation. The important thing about the word “should” is that there is almost never 100% clear evidence that the suggestion following it is the only answer. When dealing with limited resources we must make political decisions, meaning that we must write down our “should” and our perspectives influence how we decide what is the most important.

 

Cynicism fails to recognize what is happening when the word “should” is introduced into discussion. It assumes there is an easy answer, and assumes that resources are not constrained and that we do not have to make difficult decisions that undoubtably give some people more resources or access to resources than others. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we are looking at a shell of any given situation and seeing what we want to see. We look for the negative and criticize what is in front of us. Being cynical is not about finding the errors and problems in a given situation and looking for a solution. Instead it is about propping ourselves up and placing ourselves on the right side of a moral divide, in much the same way that we use outrage to feel better about ourselves.

 

Booker is critical of cynicism, arguing that it takes our power away from us when we need to take more action on our own. Rather than recognize that we can band together to improve the world, cynicism looks at the status quo and assumes that we cannot make a difference. It is the result of what Tyler Cowen calls the “Complacent Class” that does not want to put in the effort and focus needed to make a change in the world. Cynicism allows “should” statements to exist in isolation within the brain, never challenged by new facts, and never actually introduced to the world. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we accept complacency when the world needs action and initiative. Cynicism is self-perpetuating, and fighting it off is a struggle, but if we want to grow individually, and if we want to see the world improve, we must understand that our world view will always be incomplete, that other people will have different motivations and will make mistakes, and that it is only by our actions that we can change the world for the better, even if our actions will be infinitesimally small in the course of history.

Placing Blame

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had a very interesting way of looking at other people and thinking about those around us. He held others in high regard, and looked at their actions in a very open way. Compared to the way we often think of others today, Aurelius was very generous and forgiving, and he worked hard to see the good in others rather than the negative. When it came to finding fault in others he wrote, “With respect to that which happens conformably to nature, we ought to blame neither gods, for they do nothing wrong either voluntarily or involuntarily, nor men, for they do nothing wrong except involuntarily. Consequently we should blame nobody.”

 

I really enjoy this quote because it softens the way we look at others and their actions or decisions. In our society today we are overrun with cynicism and oftentimes the first thing we look for in another person is their faults. When we enter into business agreements, receive some sort of advice, or are given an opportunity, it is hard to keep from thinking about possible ulterior motives of the other individual. When we see negative situations arise from the mistakes of another person we are very quick to blame their moral character and to assume they acted with intent to do bad.  Aurelius would encourage us to slow down in our judgments about others, and to step back to consider the situation, how we would act if we were the other person, and what could have been influencing the individual who is in the wrong.

 

In my post from July 21st, 2016, I wrote about Aurelius’ thoughts on where our mental focus should be in regards to others. He encourages us to see the positive and negative in the actions and lives of those around us, but so that we may then turn inward to reflect on whether or not we have the same shortcomings in our own life. By pausing to reflect in this way we do not blame others, but we learn from them to improve our own lives. The section above shows that the faults of others is not a result of their direct failure, but on everything that has occurred to shape them into the person they are now. In one way or another, their current actions seem defensible to them. Understanding where their thought process went wrong and how they came to discount the negative will help us improve our lives and better understand those around us who seem to be headed down the wrong path. With this new perspective, we may be able to better assist others and work toward positive change as opposed to simply living cynically and criticizing the people and institutions around us.