I switched majors during my freshman year at SUNY Oneonta. I was thinking of transferring to film school, so I began to study Mass Communication. One of the first courses I took with my new major was Intro to Mass Communications. My professor, Jon Arakaki, opened his day-one lecture by asking us this question: Are you a media cynic or a media critic? I might not be quoting it exactly right, but the gist of it is there. The goal of the class was to encourage us to be critical thinkers when it comes to analyzing the mass media around us. It’s a question I’ve come back to a lot since then. In the age of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and conspiracy theories run amok, the question feels more important than ever.
Cynicism does have an understandable appeal. After all, most of our media is owned by five massive conglomerates. Our data is bought and sold through our use of social media. Politicians that everyone hates somehow manage to stay in office for multiple decades. Systemic racism remains entrenched like cancer despite our history books telling us that it all ended generations ago. I could go on because there are more examples than I can name, but my problem with cynicism is that it’s the easy way out. There’s no hope that anything will ever change. It’s all rigged so why not save yourself the trouble and disengage? For many in power, this is the desired outcome. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the other side of this paradigm is skepticism. This is where the critic comes in. Skepticism asks hard questions but remains open to new ideas. It has doubts that things will change but still hopes that they can. It holds space for accountability and imperfection. It is more interested in pushing the conversation forward than having an opinion about everything. Choosing to be a skeptic instead of a cynic is hard because it requires an openness to being wrong. Cynicism is what leads to the idea that there are only winners and losers. It’s choosing not to play rather than risk the sting of defeat. It is cowardice disguised as wit. Cynicism is the death of hope.
I don’t mean to imply that every action is inherently cynical or skeptical. I’m speaking more about a guiding philosophy that lingers below the surface in all of our lives. Most of us will gravitate between them depending on the subject or the given day. I’m way more cynical about some things than others, but it’s something that needs to be kept in check. Cynicism is the ouroboros; it is the serpent eating itself. Part of what I’m getting at is rejecting the whole idea of false dichotomies. Life is not just black or white; nor is it good or evil. There is black, white, good, and evil. Because we don’t only exist in extremes. Life is messy like that. It doesn’t always fit neatly within our scriptures or ideologies.
Trying to neatly explain away the complicated and unexplainable doesn’t do us any favors in the long run. That’s how we get conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are like comfort food. They go down easy and they make the world seem less chaotic. They provide simple explanations for things that by nature cannot be explained in a simple way. They operate under the assumption that any answer is better than no answer. They imply that some mastermind is in control and that we are just cogs in a machine; that everything happens for a reason.
It’s easy to see the appeal. There are plenty of bad actors in positions of power and most of us are powerless in the grand scheme of things. There are systems and inequalities in place that are fucked up by design to perpetuate existing power structures. The mistake conspiracy theories make is believing that there is a logic tying all of it together. As though it were all designed to be exactly the way it is, and if we could just crack the code it would all make sense. It makes the chaotic and nuanced ways of the world more palatable.
A major reason that I’ve been thinking about all of this is the anti-vaccine movement that’s found its way into the mainstream. I want to start by acknowledging the legitimate skepticism around mRNA technology and vaccines in general. In the United States, we have a profit-driven pharmaceutical industry that is responsible for the ongoing opioid crisis. We have a broken and inequitable healthcare system that leaves far too many uncovered. We have a history of unethical medical experimentation on Black Americans and the people of developing countries around the world. We even have good reason to believe the Chinese government has been less than honest in telling the world what they knew and when regarding the COVID-19 outbreak (as well as in reporting their case numbers since). There is a lot to be skeptical about. Your skepticism is valid.
We should be asking questions. We should be challenging science. But we need to be challenging our own conclusions, too. If you are unwilling to change your mind when presented with new information, then you are no longer seeking truth. I opted to get the vaccine because I had been assured of its safety by people I trust; people who know more about it than I do. For me, it was a much smaller risk than the virus itself. The risk of contracting COVID-19 and the massive unknown about its long-term effects far outweighed any risk the vaccine might present. Beyond that, it was a matter of not just protecting myself, but also the people I love. I was doing my small part to get us closer to herd immunity, which is still a long way off. It was worth the few hours of aches and pains I had after my second dose. Compared to the true horror stories I have read about the virus in this last year, it was a worthy trade-off.
It’s easy to grow cynical. There’s even a good cause for it. The world is a chaotic and terrifying place. Leaders continually promise and then fail to deliver on substantive change. There’s so much misinformation, violence, and entrenched bias that it feels like humanity will never rise above its worst instincts. But if we allow ourselves to believe that to be the case, then we are also accepting it as a foregone conclusion. Cynicism is accepting that things are the way they are and nothing we do can ever change that. Cynicism is giving up. So I am asking all of us: please don’t give up. Take a step back when you need it; disconnect today so you can reengage tomorrow. Be skeptical. Ask questions. Stand up for yourself, but stay humble. Demand better of our government and public health systems. Challenge others and allow yourself to be challenged. We will fail. We will get things wrong. But we will never be better if we don’t first try.
I took the title of this essay from the song “Currency of Cynics” by Epidemic.