If there is a phenomenon more dehumanizing, more destructive than hate, it is this: hopelessness.
That’s been driven home to me with a vengeance the last few days, but it’s something I’ve thought about for decades. Hatred can ebb. It can burn itself out. People can be educated out of their hatred. I have seen it happen, seen the former Klansman realize his world view had been broken, seen the fervent patriot come to realize the Enemy isn’t all that different.
But that stylish sentiment that nothing we do can ever change the world, that feeling strongly about issues is embarrassing and sincerity is not to be trusted, that world-weary and separate cynicism is, I think, far more pernicious, far less amenable to cure.
Hatred is fueled by fear, and fear has a half-life. Unless stoked, it eventually goes cold. Cynical hopelessness is self-healing. In other realms, other contexts, it would be called “learned helplessness”: the conviction that trying to improve your lot will only make you feel worse in the long run.
Cynicism is a form of depression. It is scar tissue covering that part of the soul that would dare to hope, if it had a little fresh air on it. I have spent time in the last years describing radical feminism to angry misogynists in Mojave Desert bars, and deep green environmentalism to off-road vehicle riders, and getting somewhere with each group. I cannot recall the last time I persuaded a cynic of anything: the very attempt to persuade is seen as selling something.
In his 1999 book Soul of A Citizen, Paul Rogat Loeb wrote:
Cynicism salves the pain of unrealized hope. If we convince ourselves that nothing can change, we don’t have to risk acting on our dreams. But the more we accept this, the more we deny core parts of ourselves. We deny even the possibility that our choices can matter…
Cultivated or crude, cynicism is treacherous. It converts the sense of not wanting to be lied to into bitter protection against dashed hopes: if we never begin to fight for our dreams, there’s no risk that we will fail.
Loeb quotes Lewis Hyde describing cynicism as “the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage,” and observes — in a passage that predated most social media by more than a decade but which rings ever truer with each updated Facebook feed:
[T]oo many activists almost delight in rolling around in the bad news, like dogs in rancid fish. If that’s all we do, we’ll reinforce the belief that efforts to change things are doomed. We’ll foster resignation and despair.
I hear him. My job for the last 25 years has been finding and sharing that bad news. I’ve fought that resignation, that despair, sometimes less successfully than others.
And I look back at my life over those last 25 years and find ways in which the world would be worse, at least marginally, had I not done the work.
I might as well quote Loeb again. (Really, you should read the whole thing.)
As an alternative to this impotent realism, I’d like to propose a clear-eyed idealism, which recognizes that these are bad times for many people, but refuses to accept that the bad times are inevitable.
That clear-eyed idealism is a difficult path: it requires you take a fair number of jabs to your soul right where that scar tissue might once have cushioned the blow. Walking the line between blithe and jaded isn’t easy.
But it is the best, most fulfilling way to live.