Cynical, Moi

I worry about being cynical, not least because few people like cynics. There is that line from the Damien Dempsey song, it goes ‘You preach nil, you’re so cynical / Jesus, wake up and live’. I like Damien Dempsey, but when I heard that line, I thought, Jesus, what a shit lyric! He has to sing ‘cyni-kill’ in order to make it rhyme!

Cynicism stops me from writing more posts. It feels like bad manners.

At a sherry reception one evening soon after I started college I got talking to a philosopher, sharing a few polite jokes. After a couple of minutes, he remarked, surveying the gathered students engaged in discussions, that he never failed to be impressed at the fresh-faced optimism and openness of undergraduates that each new year brought.

Why’s that then, I asked, do they all turn into narrow-minded and jaded bigots after a few terms?

He frowned for an instant, and I realised I hadn’t been tuned into him at all. I thought he might have laughed in conspiracy. Instead it was as if I’d farted and he was trying hard to show that he hadn’t noticed. No, he said, smiling again, not at all. I just think that there’s something really pleasant about the first moments of student life. There’s so much vitality in these people, you can see they have such an interest in learning.

The words ‘present company excepted’ may have hung in the air unsaid.

That sort of thing used to be a habit. I’d find myself talking to someone who was brightly enthusiastic about something or other, and it didn’t even occur to me that he or she was serious. I just assumed they were having a laugh, and responded accordingly. There were plenty of occasions when the penny didn’t drop until some time later. One time a young man in the pub told me he had only a few months to live and was out enjoying himself, living life to the full. I told him, yeah, there’s nothing like a deadline to get you motivated. I only realised a couple of days later that he really was going to die. Lucky enough he thought it was funny.

Working for a corporation has tempered my social difficulties a bit, but only because I started to abandon the idea that anyone could be properly earnest about anything. Here, you learn to assume that if someone is being enthusiastic about something, anything (the notional objects, not the Todd Rundgren album, though the same would be true for that too) it is to meet the demands of their role, drawing on ‘interpersonal skills’, a ‘can-do attitude’, and ‘making a positive impact’. This means you don’t go further than a series of polite oh-really how-wonderfuls. That way you don’t even have to worry about if someone is really enthusiastic or not, since you end up not giving a damn about what they’re saying anyway. Of course it means turning into a robot, but there are wolves to be kept away from the door.

Some CEO was on the TV the other night, the head of Coca-Cola I think, and, in the context of ‘The Importance of Being Irish’ he started talking about the value of ’emotional intelligence’. This stuff is only really important within a corporate structure, and only in so far as it leads to the accumulation of profit. Hardly anyone, save top executives and the heavily institutionalised, actually believes in it, but things like ’emotional intelligence’ start to seem like virtues. They just happen to let people like the Coke man convince themselves that their multi-million dollar salaries are on account of the fact that they are virtuous. How ’emotional intelligence’ is important for the people who work in bottling factories is far from clear. Maybe you need it to pick a union rep who won’t get murdered.

But, in getting people to knuckle down and shut their worthless mouths, it isn’t all down to terms from syncretistic forms of management theory. A lot of the heavy lifting is done by the more traditional, plainly familiar stuff: grit, determination, focus and so on. These things appear like universal virtues, until you start to think about how much the Nazis valued them. And when you see state-funded TV programmes that exalt tenacity, hard work, and creativity as virtues in themselves, and as fundamental elements of the national character, you can’t help feel you’re in some sort of trouble.

I am cynical because the world is a shithouse.

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April 2008
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