The Wages of Cynicism?

I’ve come to wonder about a trend I’ve seen in baby boomers that they tend to be very cynical but then have a streak of unbelievable credulity. It’s not all baby boomers, of course; no generation of people is homogeneous. This is merely a surprisingly large number of them, in my experience, and I’m wondering if it points to a more general human tendency (rather than merely being a strange product of the times in which it came to be). In particular, I’m wondering if, in general, being extremely cynical has a tendency to produce a sort of pressure-valve of credulity in some one thing.

The thing I most notice this in is the absurd credulity that many of the baby boomers in my life have towards news, especially newspapers. News, so they will tell me, is a bastion of the people and our one safeguard of liberty and all sorts of other nonsense, and all this in the face of things like newspaper articles which one can tell are lies simply by looking up the actual sources that the article references.

To give an example of what I mean, I read an article (sent to me by one of these boomers) which justified a claim of the Obama administration begging a heard-hearted republican congress for expanding PPE stockpiles by linking to an article which actually said that Obama’s refusal to compromise on the budget triggered automatic across-the-board 5% cuts to everything (a provision in the previous budget), that no one wanted. The most charitable interpretation of this event is that Obama wanted unlimited money and with it would have increased the budget for everything. This still gets nowhere near what the original article was trying to say, and if we limit ourselves to non-silly interpretations, Obama was clearly willing to take a 5% cut to the budget for medical stockpiles so that he wouldn’t have to compromise on things which were a higher priority to him. This is, literally, the opposite of what the source was invoked to claim. Unless one invokes the insanity defense, the article was, simply, lying. It didn’t matter, though. No matter how many lies an article tells, it is still the bullwark of the people, our sole preserver of liberty, etc.

(Oh, and the putatively supporting article also mentioned that even had the medical stockpiles seen a funding increase, they would have spent the money on rare drugs, which is their top priority, because (under normal circumstances) PPE is cheap and plentiful and easy to get more of on short notice. I did start to wonder if I was the only person who actually clicked through to verify the claims about the cited source. The degree to which it destroyed the article it was linked from was shocking, even to me.)

The more general human fault that I suspect this is an example of is the difficulty in living with ignorance. As human beings we necessarily do live in ignorance; we know very little about the very large world in which we live. The only real solution to this problem is to trust God, to whom the world is small and known. Since we are fallen creatures, however, this is hard. To be uniformly cynical to flawed sources of knowledge requires that we be able to repose in trust in God. This suggests that human credulity is, approximately, a fixed quantity; however much we fail to trust in God, that much will we be credulous. The only question is whether we will concentrate that credulity narrowly, trusting a few things far too much, or whether we will spread it out and trust many things a bit too much.

And to bring this back to the baby boomers with which this started (who are, by definition, American). I suspect that this is where history shaped the particular outcome. Having grown up during the civil rights era, the Vietnam era, and to a lesser extent the Watergate era, they learned to be cynical toward leaders and more generally the people that society normally trusts (priests, elders, etc). So they contracted their credulity towards a few sources like university professors and newsmen. Thus they were generally cynical, but with a few glaring gaps of credulity.

As I said, this is by no means all of the baby boomers, and my interest is at most only partially in the baby boomers I’m describing. Far more interesting is what general human weaknesses this is an expression of, and how to avoid them, even with different expression.

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