In a time of rampant uncertainty and social tension at a scale unparalleled in all of history, it is certainly excusable to ask where it all went wrong. More importantly, is there any chance at finding a way forward where people can proceed to live at least somewhat harmoniously? As it happens, the leading thinkers on the matter of how humans function socially tend to converge on a common answer: trust. Rather, to put it more deftly, the lack thereof – which is commonly referred to as cynicism – is posited by social philosophers as well as students of human behaviour more broadly as being the lead cause for the breakdown of social relations. This begs a couple of questions: is this a uniquely modern issue? And, perhaps more pressingly, what can be done at the scale of everyday life to help knit society back together?
Firstly, it seems that it might be a good idea to start by understanding more clearly what cynicism is. Luckily, there are many highly qualified psychologists and philosophers who have gone to a great length of effort to understand what cynicism is not just as a general concept but as a fundamental attitude towards the world. In the words of Wits Professor Samantha Vice, perhaps the foremost voice on cynicism in the country and a seasoned researcher in the fields of ethics and social philosophy, cynicism is “an attitude towards the world that assumes from the start that people only act in self-interested ways and that real altruism is impossible. It is suspicious and skeptical about people’s motivations and about the possibility of a shared project to improve the world. This assumption then colours the way a person perceives and interprets the world, providing evidence that supports itself.”
Having had a look at what cynicism is, do UP students feel as if the present age is one which is threatened by cynicism? According to one UP student, it seems as if many people around him have detached from the real world and one another since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, choosing instead to seek these connections such as TikTok and Instagram. On this issue, this student states that even “[his] parents are now addicted to their phones” whereas, before the lockdowns, they were not. Such a detachment is also perfectly understandable in light of the work of psychologists such as Dr Gabor Mate and Dr Nicole LePera whose work focuses (in different ways) on the effects of trauma on attachment. But how does this lend itself to a possible increase in cynicism? Considering that modern people spend far more time online than they did a decade ago, while much of what is shared online has some connection to the political landscape, allowing for society in general to “have growing evidence of the criminality of those in power globally” – in the words of Professor Vice – it is not difficult to see why modern people have lost much of the trust which once existed for institutions as well as each other.
But has cynicism increased in recent years? Having stated in a 2011 journal article titled Cynicism and Morality that the people of the time “condemn [cynicism] as a character failing and a trend that is undermining political and social life,” while being “often impressed by the apparent realism and honesty of the cynic,” Professor Vice now thinks that this ambivalence – which can be thought of as a kind of moral uncertainty – has lessened, but for the worse. What she means by this is that “We seem even more in favour of cynicism now because as political scandals grow daily… there seems more reason to be cynical.” This means that, at least according to social philosophers and ethicists of the likes of Professor Vice, there has been an increase in cynicism as a communal attitude in society since 2011.
The next question which begs for an answer is this: is such an attitude a threat to society? Professor Vice gives a resounding yes, stating that the reason for this is that “[Cynicism] breads even more distrust, which feeds on itself.” Interestingly, this seems also to have been picked up on by UP students, specifically in the context of the dating world. According to one UP student, it seems that young people in the dating world have become increasingly superficial in terms of what they look for but also less honest. Unfortunately, according to Professor Vice, this “means that deep and lasting relationships, which depend on trust, are difficult to develop.”
So, is there a way out? Is there something that can be done by UP students and people in modern society more generally to try and help knit society back together? On this point, Professor Vice is resolute in expressing her view that “we need to make a choice to see what is good, and not let the bad obscure it. The bad always seems bigger than the good, but perhaps that is because we are paying it so much attention.” It seems then that the way forward relies on the simplest thing, but perhaps also the most challenging thing to do at this juncture in history, to “fall for something” as Dr Eric R. Weinstein, a highly successful investment firm manager and polymath Harvard graduate would say – and to simply be open to the beauty which modern life seems to have blinded many of us to.