Birth of the Kynic

I am not the world’s most positive person.

Perhaps it is a function of my nervous constitution, or the fact that I live in (mostly unfounded) fear of an ever-increasing list of things: heights, clowns, large groups of people in neon spandex chanting absurd rhymes. It might have been a function of watching too much Daria or reading the Great Illustrated versions of Dickens (bleak house, indeed) during my formative years. Whatever the source of my general apprehension, I know that today I am known to take a cynical outlook toward most issues. It is a tendency that has been always been present, but I have become more fully aware of – and defensive toward – as I found myself navigating Dartmouth. Some might argue that such a purview is exceedingly immature and that my contempt for “inspirational” quotes, or apathy toward animal shelter videos, are just petulant attempt to play Peter Pan. I think however, that we could all use a little more hate in our lives.

I could very easily come up with a list of things that I hate that most people probably love. For instance, I think Upworthy’s emo-politics are fucking stupid and I’d rather do a host of embarrassing and uncomfortable things before I shared another of their silly tearjerker videos. I sneer at anyone who has a tattoo of an insipid phrase like “live. laugh. love.” – especially if it’s in a foreign language that the person in question cannot read. But most of all, it really boils my blood when people fall back on naïve truisms to just “stay positive” and look on the bright side since things are “obviously going to better.”

Here’s why: Hating something is an indication that you’re human. Hating something, or at least having a cynical take on something, is an indication that one has taken the time and expended the energy to actually feel something. When we refuse to confront very real, very valid emotions – pain, anger, frustration – for the sake of being positive, we only do ourselves a disservice. The world is undoubtedly a beautiful place, and there are wonderful people out there, but to live is to necessarily confront unpleasant emotions and to witness uncomfortable things. Some people will see more than their fair share of pain in their lives, and some won’t. I think that in the end, when we attempt to strike a balance between optimism and cynicism, it’s important to think beyond ourselves. By shying away from the error of solipsism – by realizing that the world is scary for both ourselves and other people – only then can we begin to enact real change.

How could this sort of change be viable? The first step is a matter of semantics: A true cynic is one who is distant from reality, one who claims to know the truth, but is in fact lying. A kynic, on the other hand is, according to Slavoj Zizek - citing Peter Sloterdjik-, is one who uses sarcasm and irony to “confront the pathetic phrases of the ruling official ideology – its solemn, grave tonality – with everyday banality.”

In other words, the most pragmatic tool of rebellion against oppressive acts by the ruling institution involves subverting their very tactics. Kynicism differs from its cynical counterpart and comes closer to a view that I align myself with simply because it is not wholly divorced from reality. 

It is the mindset I’ve adopted at Dartmouth, which, for all intents and purposes, is a complete exercise in fantasy. Though I’m hardly the first to point out its problems, it is still oftentimes bewildering to me that others have a dogmatic, nationalistic loyalty to a place that is hardly representative of the Real world. It’s more alike to most college campuses than we care to admit, and full of the same debauchery, traditions, and problems that many other colleges face. In light of the events that have brought Dartmouth into the public sphere – from hazing to sexual assault and a bevy of other issues, I think the most pragmatic stance is one that takes a helping of realistic attitudes toward the school – both as an academic institution and incubator for future leaders. 

A jingoistic denial of Dartmouth’s shortcomings is hopelessly naïve and akin to the very notion of ideology that Zizek decries; likewise, a solely cynical take falls into the same trap. Dartmouth is home to some of the most brilliant professors and students, who continue to amaze me every day. It’s therefore disappointing to see some of them as such stalwarts of tradition who always casting the school in the most positive light imaginable. Pointing out the more ridiculous aspects of the institution, whether it’s the inane habits of “secret societies” or the ridiculous time-suck that is rush, especially in a sarcastic way, points to larger issues such as classism and sexism that pervade the campus. Complaining about flair is never the point, only a means: the use of sarcasm and irony – both stemming from an internal notion of being the subject of injustice – would necessarily be the catalysts for substantive change: “If satire fulfills a diagnostic purpose by alerting audiences (through humor) to social injustices, then direct criticism, when done right, is its necessary, prescriptive complement.”

 Kynicism is never the solution to a major social problem, but it is a start. If any sort of active engagement with the community is to be accomplished, it must start from an honest appraisal of the situation, and the feelings of real people.

At twenty-one, I am unqualified to claim that I have figured out an unwavering code of ethics and morals by which I lead my every day life. However, there are certain ideals I stand by (without committing to dogma), certain things I will fight for, and certain things I will never shut up about. All of the things I preach – promoting racial and gender equality, questioning authority figures, lauding the importance of theory – I practice, and I’m committed to a philosophy that is often negative, sarcastic, and ironic in order to achieve that. Hate something. Get angry, and stay angry if you want things to change, but keep an open mind in doing so – and then go change them. Above all, avoid the pitfalls of ideology and dogmatism if you’re ever interested in moving forward.

 

Perhaps it is a function of my nervous constitution, or the fact that I live in (mostly unfounded) fear of an ever-increasing list of things: heights, clowns, large groups of people in neon spandex chanting absurd rhymes. It might have been a function of watching too much Daria or reading the Great Illustrated versions of Dickens (bleak house, indeed) during my formative years. Whatever the source of my general apprehension, I know that today I am known to take a cynical outlook toward most issues. It is a tendency that has been always been present, but I have become more fully aware of – and defensive toward – as I found myself navigating Dartmouth. Some might argue that such a purview is exceedingly immature and that my contempt for “inspirational” quotes, or apathy toward animal shelter videos, are just petulant attempt to play Peter Pan. I think however, that we could all use a little more hate in our lives.

I could very easily come up with a list of things that I hate that most people probably love. For instance, I think Upworthy’s emo-politics are fucking stupid and I’d rather do a host of embarrassing and uncomfortable things before I shared another of their silly tearjerker videos. I sneer at anyone who has a tattoo of an insipid phrase like “live. love. laugh.” – especially if it’s in a foreign language that the person in question cannot read. But most of all, it really boils my blood when people fall back on naïve truisms to just “stay positive” and look on the bright side since things are “obviously going to better.”

Here’s why: Hating something is an indication that you’re human. Hating something, or at least having a cynical take on something, is an indication that one has taken the time and expended the energy to actually feel something. When we refuse to confront very real, very valid emotions – pain, anger, frustration – for the sake of being positive, we only do ourselves a disservice. The world is a undoubtedly a beautiful place, and there are wonderful people out there, but to live is to necessarily confront unpleasant emotions and to witness uncomfortable things. Some people will see more than their fair share of pain in their lives, and some won’t. I think that in the end, when we attempt to strike a balance between optimism and cynicism, it’s important to think beyond ourselves. By shying away from the error of solipsism – by realizing that the world is scary for both ourselves and other people – only then can we begin to enact real change.

How could this sort of change be viable? The first step is a matter of semantics: A true cynic is one who is distant from reality, one who claims to know the truth, but is in fact lying. A kynic, on the other hand is, according to Peter Sloterdjik, is one who uses sarcasm and irony to “confront the pathetic phrases of the ruling official ideology – its solemn, grave tonality – with everyday banality.”[1] In other words, the most pragmatic tool of rebellion against oppressive acts by the ruling institution involves subverting their very tactics. Kynicism differs from its cynical counterpart and comes closer to a view that I align myself with simply because it is not wholly divorced from reality.

It is the mindset I’ve adopted at Dartmouth, which, for all intents and purposes, is a complete exercise in fantasy. Though I’m hardly the first to point out its problems, it is still oftentimes bewildering to me that others have a dogmatic, nationalistic loyalty to a place that is hardly representative of the Real world. It’s more alike than most college campuses than we care to admit, full of the same debauchery, traditions, and problems that many other colleges face. In light of the events that have brought Dartmouth into the public sphere – from hazing to sexual assault and a bevy of other issues, I think the most pragmatic stance is one that takes a helping of realistic attitudes toward the school – both as an academic institution and incubator for future leaders.

A jingoistic denial of Dartmouth’s shortcomings is hopelessly naïve and akin to the very notion of ideology that Zizek decries; likewise, a solely cynical take falls into the same trap. Dartmouth is home to some of the most brilliant professors and students, who continue to amaze me every day. It’s therefore disappointing to see some of them as such stalwarts of tradition who always casting the school in the most positive light imaginable. Pointing out the more ridiculous aspects of the institution, whether it’s the inane habits of “secret societies” or the ridiculous time-suck that is rush, especially in a sarcastic way, points to larger issues such as classism and sexism that pervade the campus. Complaining about flair is never the point, only a means: the use of sarcasm and irony – both stemming from an internal notion of being the subject of injustice – would necessarily be the catalysts for substantive change: “If satire fulfills a diagnostic purpose by alerting audiences (through humor) to social injustices, then direct criticism, when done right, is its necessary, prescriptive complement.”[2] Kynicism is never the solution to a major social problem, but it is a start. If any sort of active engagement with the community is to be accomplished, it must start from an honest appraisal of the situation, and the feelings of real people.

At twenty-one, I am unqualified to claim that I have figured out a unwavering code of ethics and morals by which I lead my every day life. However, there are certain ideals I stand by (without committing to dogma), certain things I will fight for, and certain things I will never shut up about. All of the things I preach – racial and gender equality, question authority figures, the importance of theory – I practice, and I’m committed to a philosophy that is often negative, sarcastic, and ironic in order to achieve that. Hate something. Get angry, and stay angry if you want things to change, but keep an open mind in doing so. Above all, avoid the pitfalls of ideology and dogmatism if you’re ever interested in moving forward.

[1] Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. (London; New York: Verso, 1989) pp. 28-30. Accessed online at http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/cynzizek.html. October 13, 2013.

[2] Permut, Stephanie. “The Parody of Parity” http://realtalkwfu.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/guest-writer-the-parody-of-parity/