The politics of cynicism

twitter threads

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust.” Without trust we approach everything with cynicism. But it is not possible to have society if we approach everything cynically.

(A thread.)

Let’s take Twitter arguments as an example. For real learning to take place we have to be able to have arguments where we take each other’s ideas seriously and really engage with them, even if they make us feel uncomfortable. However, certain conditions have to be in place.

If we feel that the other side is using the norms of civility” to simply make us feel uncomfortable and/or grandstand on their own position without engaging with ours, then it really isn’t possible for such learning to take place.

Because so many people do exactly this on Twitter (some are even paid to do it), we end up reading everything on Twitter in the most cynical manner possible. Our exchanges become purely performative, for like minded readers, not our interlocutors.

But cynicism is not limited to Twitter. It is everywhere now. Cancel culture” is a myth purposely promoted to pressure institutions to give more space to right wing ideas, but cynicism is not.

In fact, this very example about cancel culture” explains why such cynicism is well founded. Simply by engaging in debates about cancel culture we legitimate the terms of a rigged debate that legitimates its own premise. (That cancel culture” exists.)

Cynicism itself is not at fault for the current situation, it is a response to it. When leftist professors cross picket lines, or institutions give lip service diversity but fail to make substantive changes, it breeds cynicism. And it should.

And yet, and yet … I can’t help but feel that this is a kind of Catch-22 situation. To move past cynicism we need to make substantive changes to rebuilt trust, … but to make such changes itself requires a degree of trust.

This is where the appeal of revolutionary politics comes from. People want the problem to be solved by some kind of transcendental deus-ex-machina in which trust is imposed from above. But revolutionary movements are just as prone to cynicism as anyone else.

So what’s the solution? The only one I know of is to do the slow, hard work of building trust at the local level through organizing. I don’t want to go into too much detail about what such organizing should look like,

but it shouldn’t disproportionately fall on the disenfranchised and minorities to do the hard work of rebuilding trust. And yet we need to build wider alliances, such groups are not powerful enough on their own.

All of which is to say that even if cancel culture” is a right wing myth, the pervasiveness of cynicism does pose significant obstacles for progressive politics and should be taken seriously by those who seek change. Moreover, these problems are unique to left politics.

While not all right wing politics are a politics of cynicism, to the extent that people have a view of the world influenced (for instance) by Ayn Rand, cynicism is not a problem for their politics. Power matters, trust does not. There is no perceived need to learn anything new.

This explains why progressives are uniquely susceptible to both circular firing squads in which we attack our own, or to external misinformation campaigns implying that so-and-so is really sponsored by the CIA, etc.

Again, here we can see the appeal of a revolutionary politics in which the ends justify the means. It absolves the left of the hard work of building a movement based on trust, allowing us to be as cynical as our opponents. But this is a false dream.

We cannot succeed without trust, for no single revolutionary event will solve the problem of needing to learn from each other, and such learning cannot take place in a culture of cynicism.