Just Because You're Cynical Doesn't Mean You're Wrong

You Don’t Need To Come Up With A Solution To Say That There’s A Problem

Maybe we’re cynical because things are so terrible.

“It’s not enough to point out that he’s naked, you have to tell him what he should be wearing.”

So that “Black Mirror” is pretty polarizing, huh? I haven’t seen the show myself and don’t have any plans to — I work on the fucking Internet, there’s no way to make it any scarier for me than it already is — but it has been amusing to watch people react, since it’s rare to find something about which there is so little indifference. People either adore it or, like New York’s Kathryn VanArendonk, have an aggressive dislike for it. VanArendonk has a problem with its pessimism and lack of nuance.

In part, that’s just the nature of cynicism, which notoriously punches holes in things without offering much in the way of solutions…. [T]he nature of Black Mirror’s vision of the future is that it can also feel like a cop-out. Its very simplicity — cell phones = bad! — is so misaligned with the much more complicated, multifaceted role technology plays in our world that we are almost let off the hook. We’re excused from the consequences of deep thoughtfulness about what role we give technology because Black Mirror already leapt to a conclusion. Social media is bad! I got it! It is bad! But it’s also here, in our politics and our commerce and our daily lives, doing horrible things and decent things and neutral things all at once.

Again, I haven’t seen the show, so I cannot address the specific criticisms, but I do want to take issue with the first part of the argument here, particularly because it is a line of thought I see expressed far too often these days whenever anyone makes the point that maybe the things that we are being told are all amazing benefits to humanity — and which we are supposed to be grateful to receive from the billionaires’ bounty— might not actually be all that worthwhile and could, just possibly, be detrimental to our well-being as individuals and to society at large.

If you can punch a hole in something then that thing is poorly constructed. That in itself offers a sort of solution, since it is saying, “You need to build this better.” But even if it were saying nothing of the sort, it would still be providing a valuable service, which is to show you that the narrative of constant progress (which is being pushed on you in hopes that you are so overwhelmed by its oppressive ubiquity and seeming inevitability that you stop questioning whether or not there is some sort of benefit in it beyond the financial one that goes to the powers invested in your acquiescence) is frequently a self-serving fraud. There is nothing wrong with pointing out the emptiness and falsity at the heart of almost everything we are told and sold. You are not obligated to offer a solution to every — or any — problem; that is the job of the people who are trying to force their product on you in the first place.

We live in an age where asking questions is discouraged. We are not supposed to be “haters,” because pessimism is uncool. Why would we go looking for “the real story” when “the real story” is so obviously brilliant, disruptive innovation? Why would we want to waste our energy on being anything other than positive?

Why is it so important that we all stay positive? So that everyone who is lying to us can plant their truths so deeply in the ground that by the time we realize we are being used it is too late to do anything about it, or even too late to notice. Once the narrative has been framed a certain way it is almost impossible to debate from any other standpoint: If you call out shoddy construction of a foundation you can stop the building from going up, but if you are arguing about an extension to the penthouse you are already accepting that the penthouse belongs there.

When we call something cynical we are attempting to discredit the validity of its criticism. Cynicism, with its assumption of self-interest as the main motivator of most human behavior, gets a bad rap, even though the history of the last 5000 years is almost without exception an extended essay on how if anything cynics are not skeptical enough about what makes people do what they do. Calling something cynical is a cheap way to shut down discussion: “Oh, you’re not going to come up with a solution? There must not be a problem then.”

There are a million people out there each day telling you how terrific everything is because of the way their product is changing the world. For every million there are, at most, a hundred saying, “Wait, this isn’t true,” but it’s hard to hear them over all the other voices shouting about how wonderful things are. Look around you: Do things really look wonderful? Do you feel like they’re getting better for us as individuals and as a society? Maybe we should stop and listen to the cynics. They might not be offering any answers but we are so far in the hole right now that it is nice to even be aware that there are questions.