The Best Essay I Read This Month: “The Habits of Highly Cynical People” by Rebecca Solnit

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There are many benefits of cynicism. But there’s also a certain kind of knee-jerk, armchair cynicism that lets those who subscribe to it reduce complex political and social events to doomed exercises in futility, and to pretend to know the totality of their worth. That kind of thinking is the subject of Rebecca Solnit’s “Easy Chair” column, “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” in this month’s Harper’s Magazine.

Solnit muses that the full effect of the Arab Spring might not have yet come to pass—we can’t ever be certain. Some people, though, seem to be very certain about this or that, immediately after it happens.

Non-pundits, too, use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures. The mind-set behind these statements is what I call naïve cynicism. It bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.

Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.

Naïve cynicism, Solnit goes on to say, is so hasty to brand everything in the world as black or white—so eager to give the impression that it cannot be taken in—that the full depth and nuance of any situation viewed through this lens is immediately lost. Naïve cynicism, then, discourages people from caring, from trying; it is that voice that says there’s no point in getting your hopes up, you’ll just be disappointed, no matter the context. Naïve cynicism would stifle the passion and emotion that led to the Arab Spring, as it dismisses the unknown impact the uprising may yet still have.

Solnit draws a parallel to Occupy Wall Street—a movement now defunct and broadly dismissed, but the aftermath of which isn’t really quantifiable, much as naïve cynics would prefer to insist it added up to zero. This holds for true for the Easter Rising in Ireland 100 years ago, and for contemporary forces like Black Lives Matter.

The inability to assess what OWS accomplished comes in part from the assumption that historical events either produce straightforward, quantifiable, immediate results, or they fail to matter. It’s as though we’re talking about bowling: either that ball knocked over those pins in that lane or it didn’t. But historical forces are not bowling balls. If bowling had to be the metaphor, it would be some kind of metaphysical game shrouded in mists and unfolding over decades. The ball might knock over a pin and then another one in fifteen years and possibly have a strike in some other lane that most of us had forgotten even existed.

Solnit’s choice to flit—while still rendering context and depth—from one historical movement to another rather than concentrating her energies on just one is really the best way of demonstrating how pervasive naïve cynicism is, and how damaging. She transitions from political upheaval to climate change activism—here is a challenge that exists both in the past and the future, that gives the opportunity to affect meaningful change, here, now. A group of scientists tells us the next few decades represent a crucial window in which we have a chance to minimize the fallout of global warming. But naïve cynics, of course, don’t see the realm of opportunity in this, only an outlet for declaring our ineffectuality as a species:

There’s nothing that’s going to stop the consequences of what we have already done/not done.’ This was another way of saying, I’m pitting my own casual assessment over peer-reviewed science; I’m not reading carefully; I’m making a thwacking sound with my false omniscience.

Such comments represent a reflex response that can be used to meet wildly different stimuli. Naïve cynicism remains obdurate in the face of varied events, some of which are positive, some negative, some mixed, and quite a lot of them unfinished.

As with Occupy Wall Street, Solnit now pivots to the facts, the peer-reviewed science, the successful efforts we’ve made on behalf of our planet. She talks about grassroots change, about legislative change, about a shift in the public consciousness that will serve the Earth well. This could easily be misread as an optimistic take in that she doesn’t give any time to the opposing argument—but it’s not. Rather, she’s simply supporting her earlier statement about respecting the science over one’s own casual opinion. She doesn’t need to qualify this tenor of optimism because the science supports it. It’s the platform of a naïve cynic, the certainty that it’s too late for us no matter what we do, that would fly in the face of the facts. Her writing is steady, serious, and purposeful in a way that mirrors its content, but can also be light and occasionally funny when the sentence calls for it.

Naïve cynics say activism—as with the protests of the Keystone XL pipeline—doesn’t matter because it can’t accomplish anything of consequence, and its error is first in assuming that activism fails if it doesn’t achieve an outright victory, but mostly that it should be so adamant about reaching any conclusion at all. Activism may often lose the battle, but it helps us win the war. Who’s to say what changes activists have made in the public discourse long after the issue that sparked a movement has resolved? Stuff like that can’t be measured. It’s only the naïve cynics who insists, over and over, that it can. Solnit uses this piece to refuse that line of thinking, drawing examples from both our history and our present to show us how counter-productive to progress it is. Her writing is logical and fluid, but it’s her familiarity with the history she invokes and her ability to connect the dots between current events that makes the essay a successful one.

What is the alternative to naïve cynicism? An active response to what arises, a recognition that we often don’t know what is going to happen ahead of time, and an acceptance that whatever takes place will usually be a mixture of blessings and curses. Such an attitude is bolstered by historical memory, by accounts of indirect consequences, unanticipated cataclysms and victories, cumulative effects, and long timelines. Naïve cynicism loves itself more than the world; it defends itself in lieu of the world. I’m interested in the people who love the world more, and in what they have to tell us, which varies from day to day, subject to subject. Because what we do begins with what we believe we can do. It begins with being open to the possibilities and interested in the complexities.

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Read a great essay this month? Tweet me @kastaliamedrano. Not kidding, please do that. I can’t read all the journals and the whole literary nonfiction Internet on my own.