Beware of Dog

By Becky Palapala


In my intellectual travels, one thing above all others has vexed me.  One thing above all others is likely to send me into a tangential rant about subtleties of meaning and logical correctness.

“That’s cynical.”


“You’re a cynic.”

When used in common intellectual debate, this word is used as some kind of ad hominem finishing move.  Usually, when people levy this declaration at people or ideas, it is done so with the apparent assumption that it is decisive.  Certainly, there is no recovery.  The cynic or offerer of the cynical idea should just accept that s/he has committed some moral treachery.  The hope is, I suppose, that the cynic will be shamed into retraction and all witnesses will be swayed to the accuser’s position because…of some reason I don’t understand.

My immediate reaction to such accusations is usually, “It is cynical.  Aaaaand…?”

To this, people generally react as if cynicism is a mortal sin and I have just admitted to not knowing or caring about the difference between right and wrong.

Perhaps cynics are unpleasant, but so are people who stink, and “You’re smelly!” fails to imply the kind of rhetorical coup that “You’re cynical!” is supposed to (though it is an attempt at a similar public shaming to no real logical benefit).

The difference between “stinky” and “cynical” is that most modern people, even cynics, would rather not be stinky, but many cynics take pride in their cynicism.  How could this be?  If it is a moral and/or ethical transgression, certainly only a monster would take pride in it.

The answer is, of course, that cynicism is not a moral or ethical transgression.  Historically speaking (and in the minds of many proud contemporary cynics), cynicism is the very opposite.  It is a system of virtue.

This, among other things, is a major contributor to the mutual befuddlement/indignation that tends to occur between cynics and their detractors.

Just about anyone who is anyone or aspires to be anyone in the realm of socio-political commentary or debate has an opinion on cynics and what cynics are.

The relative generosity or disapproval expressed in these definitions, I suspect, has a great deal to do with whether or not the individual offering them is/was a cynic himself, but it also depends on which definition of “cynic” the speaker is operating on:

Cyn-ic: An idealist whose rose-colored glasses have been removed, snapped in two, and stomped into the ground, immediately improving his vision. –Rick Bayan, The Cynic’s Sanctuary

Cynic:  A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision. –Ambrose Bierce

The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it. –George Bernard Shaw

Cynicism is intellectual treason. –Norman Cousins

What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. –Oscar Wilde

A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. –H.L. Mencken


Let us consult the free online dictionary:

1. A person who believes all people are motivated by selfishness.

2. A person whose outlook is scornfully and often habitually negative.

3. Cynic A member of a sect of ancient Greek philosophers who believed virtue to be the only good and self-control to be the only means of achieving virtue.


Obviously, definitions one and two are the most often intended when the word is used in contemporary discourse.  Two is a bit feeble in my opinion, since it makes cynicism sound erroneously synonymous with pessimism, which it is not. (Though it is possible and even common, I suppose, for a person to be both a cynic and a pessimist, neither necessitates the other.)

Definitions one and two are, for the most part, what detractors (including our quotesters above) are operating on when they express disgust with cynicism.

But neither definitions one nor two (despite appearances) are actually that far removed from definition three.  Etymologically, as one might suspect, they stem from this third meaning, and though cynics, even in Ancient Greece & Rome, were never popular with intellectuals (they were, however, well-beloved of the common people), there has been an apparent gradual and subtle widespread cultural defamation of cynics and a selective, reductive understanding of what cynicism entails.

The pro-cynic quotesters above (and many cynics) are operating from a stance seated much closer to the third definition of the word, whether they know it or not.

Diogenes, perhaps the most famous Cynic (or infamous, as you like it), offered this explanation for his conduct:

“I am Diogenes the Dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels.”

Diogenes was a beggar-philosopher who lived in a tub and spent much of his time wandering around Athens harassing well-to-do and other “respectable” citizens, berating them (and occasionally beating them with a stick) publicly for their greed, false pride in material possessions, and treatment of those beneath them (including himself).  His assaults were varied and often hilarious; he is said to have pissed on a group of feast-goers like a dog might, when, as if he were a dog, they threw him only bones.

Here is one of my favorite nuggets of wisdom from Diogenes:

Friends of Diogenes wanted to ransom him, where upon he called them simpletons; “for”, said he, “lions are not the slaves of those who feed them, but rather those who feed them are at the mercy of the lions: for fear is the mark of the slave, whereas wild beasts make men afraid of them.”

(You can read a few brief summaries of Diogenes’ exploits and a handful of quotes here:  Diogenes the Dog.)

To Diogenes, Cerberus of Hades was a kind of a mascot, and Hercules was a hero for having brought him out of the shadows of the underworld.

But Diogenes was not just “The Dog.” Cynicism was an offshoot of Socratic thinking which originated with Antisthenes, a student of Socrates.  Diogenes was also referred to as “Socrates gone mad.”

From Wikipedia (I know, I know.  But it will do for my purposes here):

[Cynics’] philosophy was that the purpose of life was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature. This meant rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, health, and fame, and by living a simple life free from all possessions. As reasoning creatures, people could gain happiness by rigorous training and by living in a way which was natural for humans. They believed that the world belonged equally to everyone, and that suffering was caused by false judgments of what was valuable and by the worthless customs and conventions which surrounded society. Many of these thoughts were later absorbed into Stoicism.

Historically, then, from this brief description, it would appear that Cynics adhered to a combination of what we would now recognize as Buddhist, Trancendentalist, Existentialist, Communist, Humanist, Taoist, Anarchist, and Ascetic ideas.

While few contemporary cynics live lives of poverty or disavow material possessions in order to live in accord with nature, the spirit of social rebellion and contempt for arbitrary social norms, hierarchies, and niceties (and indeed for the people who adhere too vehemently to them) that characterized Ancient Cynicism persists and is often what earns people of such tendencies the title of “cynic” in contemporary parlance.  Offense taken to or discomfort caused by a “cynical” person’s affronts to politesse (which now often includes obligatory expressions of positive thinking) has led to the current characterization of cynicism as a necessarily pessimistic attitude.

Arguably, the cynic has not changed in his/her rejection of arbitrary social norms; there has simply been an injection of new types of norms or greater emphasis on different types of norms, rejections of which are perceived as a given norm’s opposite.  Greeks were uniquely concerned with human exceptionalism and the inherent virtue of civilization, so Diogenes’ rejection of their society made him feral–an animal–in their eyes.  A dog, to be exact, who lived on the fringe, off the scraps of their enlightened affluence.  Likewise, with the contemporary injection of optimism or a positive/kindly view of human nature as a prevailing/emphasized social ideal, cynicism’s refusal to acquiesce becomes synonymous with misanthropy and pessimism.

In that way, despite considerably different lifestyles, any number of apt comparisons exist between Ancient Cynics with a capital C and those accused of cynicism with a lowercase, contemporary c.

It may be said, for example, that those accused of contemporary cynicism are often guilty of pissing on  a feast of de rigeur (and often arbitrary) positivity rather than any actual feast.

But they are not necessarily fatalists, which is, in large part, what sets a cynic apart from a pessimist.

As with Ancient Cynics, contemporary cynics’ snarling and biting and pissing tends to overshadow their necessarily and fundamentally idealistic nature.  There is, of course, no reason to be disgusted by or aggressively derisive of what one sees if one doesn’t have some very firmly held, even romantic, ideas about the way things ought to be and what could or should be done to make them better.

But this doesn’t necessarily make a cynic jaded or wounded, even if plenty of cynics may very well be.

In any case, if a cynic is snarling, you might as soon accuse a dog of being a dog and expect that to stop him as you would accuse a cynic of cynicism and expect that to cause him/her to quit.

Accusations of cynicism only work on those who don’t hear “Cynicism.”  Those cynics who know (or even have a vague sense of) their intellectual/philosophical heritage will be proud, not ashamed, and rightly so.

In the end, it is gamble to throw this word around.  If you raise it with intent to harm one of Diogenes’ dogs, he or she may bite or, better yet, simply oblige you and piss on your shoes.

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BECKY PALAPALA is the author of many unpublished poems, diatribes, and terse letters, which she holds captive in a homely tote bag in her bedroom. The poems that escaped can be found in online publication at Strix Varia, Paper Darts, and in other nooks and crannies of the internet. In 2008-2009, she served as a poetry editor for Ivory Tower. After an iliadic battle with higher education, Becky graduated with a B.A. in English Literature in the spring of 2010. She currently lives with her husband, daughter, and dog on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, where she pines for her rivertown home and attempts to befriend the rabbit that lives in her yard.

64 responses to “Beware of Dog”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Great essay, Becky. I really enjoyed it. I love the Diogenes quote about nuzzling the kind and biting the scoundrels.

    I’ve often been called a cynic and it bothers me that this word springs so easily from other peoples’ mouths. in my experience, it’s usually said as a criticism of my own thoughts and is usually applied dismissively -as if whatever opinion I hold is not worthy of consideration because it is simply ‘cynical’ and therefore automatically null and void, which I find to be a lazy response.

    I guess it’s true that I am cynical, but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. I would love to be able to see the world and the majority of people in it as good and kind and full of good intentions but I am no Pollyanna and often I find a cynical view (or maybe it’s just a healthy dose of skepticism) is a good thing.

    I agree with you that cynicism is often misinterpreted as pessimism and that a lot of people simply throw these terms around by way of insult, rather than fully understanding the implicit meaning. I like to think that I am broad minded and have enough intellectual curiousity to be open to new things, but I think it’s healthy to sometimes look around with a slightly cynical eye.

    Happy New Year, by the way!!

    • Zara Potts says:

      Oh, I forgot to say that I often think that people confuse cynicism with a lack of joy – this really pisses me off. Just because you are cynical doesn’t mean you automatically suffer from a lack of joy!

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Of course it doesn’t. Cynics are often hilarious people. Stand-up comedy, for example, is made up of 80-90% cynics, I’d say.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      It IS a lazy response. I agree completely. And more than that, I think, it’s fearful.

      I’m not about to running through the streets knocking people on the head with a stick, masturbating in public, and spitting in the eyes of the “normals” of the world as Diogenes did, but with cynicism, as with so many things that people deem socially unacceptable out of hand and without question, the knee jerk reaction is usually a better indicator of what a given society fears than the relative worth/truth/wisdom of the idea to which they’re reacting.

      Saying “That’s cynical!” and expecting it to function as a de facto argument against any idea is basically like screaming, “Stop it! You’re scaring me!”

      Neither is much of an argument, but the latter, at least, would be honest.

  2. Matt says:

    Thank you!

    I’ve frequently had my opinions dismissed as “just cynical,” deployed as you mention as though it’s some witty bon mot that demolishes whatever argument I happen to be making. It’s almost as annoying as “Well, that’s just my faith” being used as if it elevates the interlocutor’s point up onto some untouchable pedestal. Either is a lazy method of debate, the equivalent of a child throwing its hands over its eyes and chanting “Neener-neener, can’t see you so you’re not there!”

    One can most certainly be a cynic and an optimist (I’d like to think I am – most of the time).

    Pessimism is saying, “That’s not going to work.” Cynicism is saying, “This is why that’s not going to work – let’s do something about it. Being a cynic means not forgetting about the thorns when you stop to smell the roses.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Cynics as problem-solvers? Hmmm.

      I don’t think I can get behind that.

      Problem identifiers, most definitely.

      And of course, as it tends to be with the Gordian web of philosophy, it is not at all unheard of for a religious person to be accused of cynicism by a secularist.

      After all, Christianity relies on the notion of original sin and the inherent terribleness of humanity.

      I hope it doesn’t traumatize you too much to know that much of early Christianity (and the monks, self-flagellators, and preachers thereafter) took their cues from Cynicism.

  3. sheree says:

    Most people think me too ignorant to be a cynic, so they call me a fucking cunt instead. I laugh because in reality I just have a curiously literal mind and there is nothing to be done about it.

    Couple my literal mind, with the inability to always articulate with class, my understanding of the facts in front of me and you end up with nick names like Frank and Jackass by the time your Twenty.

    Thank you for this post. You have provided me with an even deeper understanding of myself.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Most people think me too ignorant to be a cynic, so they call me a fucking cunt instead.

      Have you tried peeing on them?

      Cunt is as cunt does, innit it?

      You are so very welcome. Cynics, cunts, bitches, assholes, and every other manner of abrasive freak, whatever name they go by, is welcome under the flag.

      (But not asshats, shitbrains, or douchebags because fuck them.)

  4. dwoz says:

    A pedantic person drains the joy out of a good pun.

    A credulous person thinks Thomas Kinkade is an artist.

    A cynical person thinks the local rural dance school’s holiday season production of “A Hip-Hop Nutcracker” just may have been the tipping point for the end of civilization as we understand it, but applauds just as loudly as the next mom in the audience.

  5. Judy Prince says:

    Enjoyed this idea-challenging post, Becky, and the quotes were great.

    Despite, or p’raps because of, the often-made case for cynics being uniquely morally upright and excellent judges of character, I think most folks who’d like to self-apply the “cynic” label come off sounding supercilious and arrogant, and I include doggy Diogenes in that group.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Ah! Well maybe it’s good, then, that so many others are so willing to identify cynics. They rarely have to do it for themselves.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I feel like I should add that Diogenes and his ilk did not call themselves dogs, their detractors did.

      The Cynics simply owned it.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Much like the Society of Friends, dubbed Quakers because of “quaking” when they felt the presence of God. And the Friends “owned” the pejorative name.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Right. But since Diogenes was a Cynic, “owning” his name entailed pissing on people.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Maybe he was simply pissed off. Not very Cynic-like in its most precious, ameliorative meaning.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’m glad you bring this up, since one of the most interesting things–to me, at least–about Diogenes and the depiction of him is that, in the few stories I’ve read of him, he doesn’t seem pissed off.

          Like, there’s a great deal of humor in it for him, and apparently for most of the people around him (those who aren’t being peed on or spit at, anyway).

          He’s almost Puck-ish.

    • Darian Arky says:

      Call me crazy — or supercilious and arrogant — but I imagine that most who label themselves cynics are only aware of the context of 1 and 2, just as those who label others and their arguments cycnical don’t have a clue about the nature of 3. And, by extension, I also don’t suppose that any sort of case is often made by the average person concerning the morality and judgement of cynics under definition 3.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I think people usually don’t find out about #3 until they’ve been accused of cynicism under definitions 1 & 2. That’s how I found out.

  6. Darian Arky says:

    Russian President Medvedev scornfully commented earlier this month that the WikiLeaks cables demonstrate the cynicism of American diplomats. Although he had definitions 1 and 2 clearly in mind, the content of those cables has a lot more to do with 3, frankly. With virtue and self-control being wholly absent in Russia, Medvedev and his countrymen are chronic 1s and 2s.

    Czechs too are heavy cynics, thanks in large measure to the Russians. “A bude hůř” (loosely, “The worst is yet to come”) is a refrain usually spoken with a sense of inevitability that is shared by all listeners.

    Josef Škvorecký allegedly said something about the biggest cynics being, in their essence, the most “citlivý” people. The problem here is that this word can mean, among other things, sensitive (in positive and negative contexts) and perceptive, or sentimental and impressionable. I can’t track down the source of the quote, but there may be a clue is his character Danny from “The Cowards,” described as behaving cynically to impress the girls, but being actually “citlivý” at his core.

    I like to style myself as a cynic on the basis of something related to definition 3, but I rarely break out of the 1-2 punch, and most often I’m just a product of something Bukowski said:

    “I’ve always been accused of being a cynic. I think cynicism is sour grapes. I think cynicism is a weakness. It’s saying ‘everything is wrong! EVERYTHING IS WRONG!’ You know? ‘This is not right! That is not right!’ Cynicism is the weakness that keeps one from being able to adjust to what is occurring at the moment. Yes, cynicism is definiteiy a weakness, just as optimism is. ‘The sun is shining, the birds are singing — so smile.’ That’s bullshit too. The truth lies somewhere in between. What is, just is. So you’re not ready to handle it…too bad.”

    Anyway, Medvedev couldn’t have been talking about me. I’m in Prague.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Poor Bukowski was clearly operating on definitions 1 & 2, too.

      It’s not his fault; his accusers did it to him.

      In fact, I think he’s an excellent example of Cynicism and the virtue therewithin.

      Bukowski was one of the most empathetic, feeling writers in modern memory, in my opinion. I like him because he is a Cynic. He finds the grace in what is, not what is imagined.

      As for Medvedev, accusations of cynicism are a handy way to indict those who don’t subscribe to his particular brand of hope or optimism.

      To what end? You tell me. *tap nose*

    • Darian Arky says:

      Hmmm…maybe Czechs (and Russians?) are better characterized as fatalistic, and perhaps Bukowski is really talking more about pessimism than he realizes. I dunno. It’s a fine line when you’re in the 1 and 2 mode, and that’s all I can wrap my brain around.

      But something that caught my eye again on the second read: “fundamentally idealistic nature.” You’re channeling Škvorecký…

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Škvorecký? Sensitive and perceptive?

        Yes. Absolutely. I think anyone who lacks those qualities has no hope of ever being a proper Cynic.

        Anyone who lacked those qualities would have neither the intuition to identify the scoundrels nor the humanity to care if they were scoundrels.

  7. Gloria says:

    There are times, though, when cynicism doesn’t serve – for example: a failed relationship discoloring one’s view of dating in the future, which may or may not cause one to be mistrustful of the preferred sex or of relationships themselves. This isn’t useful – especially when it causes one pain – which could be avoided by taking a less negative view. Also, I think that cynicism can be deeply annoying. If I’m with someone who is negative about every damn little thing, it’s going to harsh on my mellow a little bit. “Yes! I know! You hate everything. Everything is annoying. No one anywhere has ever gotten It right. Okay? Shut up?” Cynics can be irritating. I’d rather be forced to deal with stinky ’cause I can always plug my nose. Most of the cynics I know spend less time trying to problem solve than they do trying to problem identify. Which is great and everything. We need those. We do, I get that. But we also need the hippy-dippy sunshine shitters. And somewhere closer to the middle – between those two things – exists the person I’d most like to take a roadtrip with.

    Very thought-provoking. Awesome, Becky.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      A pissy person is just a pissy person. A Cynic is a pissy person with a purpose.

      And a Cynic would never doubt the usefulness of a sunshine-shitter. S/he would just dismiss, out of hand, that it is necessary, helpful, or constructive for everyone to shit sunshine.

      S/he would be adamant that such a state is, in fact, harmful and disgusting.

      Because someone, after all, has to be there to say that a state of perpetual, unquestioning hope and trust is a recipe for a cultish disaster.

      That goes for romance and politics alike.

    • I swing between the two— horribly negatively cynical, and sunshine shittingly frivolous— so often it’s probably some sort of mild pyschological defect.

      But I’m totally with you on people who are just negative and cynical all the damn time. I live with my brother now, and he’s so full of hate had the Emperor been trying to get him to join the Dark Side in Return of the Jedi the film would have been about 12 minutes long. Only with my brother beating the shit out of the Emperor because the Empire was ‘so fucking predicatable.’

      Sometimes it’s quite amusing, but after a while it kind of gets me down and irritable as well.

      Incidentally halfway through reading this piece I became incredibly aware of being quite out of my depth and a little bit confused. The fact that it took me three sentences to use Star Wars in an analogy probably explains why that is…

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I don’t want to upset you, but you’re totally stuck on definitions 1& 2.

        The ones I’m disavowing.

        Goddamnit, Irwin, I’m not sure you learned anything.


        *piss piss piss*

        • I was just reacting to Gloria’s comment and the overly negative cynics she was talking about.

          I’m actually totally with you on the other definitions. I get that. I’m have quite cynical attitudes to certain things, and I know what it’s like to have a valid arguement dismissed for being perceived as cynical.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I was totally kidding.

          Negativity for no reason is never (well, okay, maybe sometimes, but not usually) fun. I agree.

          When it’s baseless or pointless, then it’s just bitching.

    • Tawni says:

      Sunshine shitter? Does somebody need a sunshine shitter? (My happy rainbow warning light started flashing when you wrote that.)

      • Becky Palapala says:

        *defends self with gothasol*

      • Gloria says:

        I don’t know, Tawni. You’re shiny and bright and warm and lovely – but you’ve got bite. You’re no Luna Lovegood with your head all swimmy with bright warm thoughts. You’re a genuinely sunshiney person, but I still want you on my side in a bar fight. You’ve marked your ground and you stand firmly on it. You just happen to do it with a smile and a pan of (vegetarian) muffins.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I wouldn’t put it past her to taint those muffins if the situation called for it.

          You know, smile, curtsy, then call the “clean up” crew as she sashays out of the parlor.

          Death by hospitality. I wouldn’t want to be on her bad side. 😉

        • Tawni says:

          Haha. You dear ladies totally have my Scorpio number. It really is an act. I learned very young that if you smile and act stupid, it takes people completely off their guard. And an enemy is sooooooo easy to manipulate/conquer when they think you’re harmless. *evil laughter… ahem!… vapid giggles*

        • Tawni says:

          P.S. Muffins, anyone? The special ingredient is LOVE. *winks*

        • Gloria says:

          I’m going to write a short story: Tawni’s Poisoned Muffin

        • Becky Palapala says:


  8. Richard Cox says:

    I had a related conversation with Duke today, about how in the US it’s unseemly to show your warts. Positivity is valued over honesty. It’s rampant. Everyone wants everything to be perfect.

    But the imperfections are where life is really lived.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I blame the liberal arts.

      Honestly (no matter how ironically), I do.

      And there’s Weber in there with “Protestant Ethic,” but this “triumph-of-the-kindness-of-the-human-spirit” shit is getting out of hand.

  9. J.M. Blaine says:

    Cynic: Failed Optimist.

  10. Irene Zion says:


    I always kind of liked Cerberus, but I’m a dog-lover and who wouldn’t like three dogs in one package?

    This is my favorite quote:
    “A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. –H.L. Mencken”

    I don’t think I’m a cynic, but that’s what cut flowers mean to me, but then there’s history explaining that.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I’ve always liked Cerberus, too.

      I mean, talk about a guard dog.

      Dobermans and Rottweilers are scary and all, but not as scary as a hellhound.

  11. As a person who is routinely dismissed (yes, it’s not just a label – it’s a put-down) as a cynic, I loved this essay. It’s amazing how some terms just have that power to supposedly end or win an argument.

    I always make the mistake of saying, “I’m not actually a cynic,” which is true. I sometimes say “I’m just a realist,” or “I’m actually optimistic about the future, in spite of the fact I can see the present and past sucked,” but then there’s always the counter-argument waiting: “That’s what all cynics say.”

    • Becky Palapala says:

      It’s only a putdown if it makes you feel bad. I’ve decided that from now on, when people say I’m cynical, I’ll say, “F’IN right I am!” See what they can do with that.

  12. Erika Rae says: Where the cynics are.

    Not too bad, eh?

    Actually, Becky, I am going to take this opportunity to tell you what I really think of you, knowing full well that your first inclination is going to be to tell me to shut the fuck up, make a real comment, and leave the praise at the door. Becky. You are the grand-poobah cynic of us all – and I admire the hell out of you for it. You challenge the rest of us on every turn. I rarely leave a comment without thinking…where would Becky find the hole in that? I sense you shifting uncomfortably reading this right now. Whatever and deal with it. I’d want you on my team any day.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Sorry I didn’t answer sooner, Erika. I was too busy shifting uncomfortably in my chair.

      What kind of backwards world is this where even being unlikeable makes one likable???

      And why does “unlikeable” have an e in the middle when “likable” doesn’t????

      Oh, everything is just a MESS. This is exactly what we cynics meeeeeeaaannnn…..

  13. D.R. Haney says:

    I used to get accused of cynicism all the time, and I once complained about it to friends.

    “You know,” I said, “I bet in Germany in 1935, if someone had said, ‘You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? The Jews are going to be placed in prison camps and exterminated,’ people would have said, ‘You’re such a cynic.'”

    My friends said I was likely right.

    But I personally think of the jaded as just that, and not as ‘cynics.’ As I define it, a cynic is someone who, for example, will knowingly play to the lowest common denominator in order to make a buck or otherwise advance himself. Americans don’t seem to have much of a problem with that kind of cynicism. Indeed, they’ll defend it as good business or political sense — that is, if they’re able to recognize it. They often can’t. It’s the facade that’s judged, and it’s judged favorably so long as it’s sufficiently cheerful or winning in some way.

    • Gloria says:

      The last paragraph of this comment is brilliant, Duke. That does seem to fit perfectly into Becky’s third definition of cynicism. Very interesting.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I’d say that’s the most recent definition of cynicism for sure.

      People especially like to use the word with respect to art, particularly when they’re treading the intersection of art and commerce. Music, literature, whatever.

      Pandering is related to definition number #1 in the sense that it is said to be open acquiescence to a belief in the stupidity, impatience, lack of vision, etc. of the general population.

      I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t think a significant portion of the population has issues of just those types.

      And I think Diogenes probably thought so, too (though he would probably add “lack of virtue”). But, using him as an example, it would seem the difference between Cynics and those who would be called cynics now, I think, is that where cynics are identified by their willingness to stoop, Cynics are disinclined to give people (maybe anyone) what they want.

  14. Greg Olear says:

    At Kaplan, I learned that “cynicism” meant “not trusting the motives of others.” As in, cynics would suspect that Mark Zuckerberg’s huge gift to the city of Newark was a PR move, calculated to polish his image in the wake of the Sorkin movie’s release. I think that’s a good definition, as distinct from raw pessimism.

    Generally, when people say, “You’re a cynic,” it’s because you are questioning a belief system, and once a debate goes into belief systems, the debate is over.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      That’s part of my point. Sort of.

      “You’re a cynic,” when used as some kind of final say, assumes that the person the statement is directed at (and any given spectator) believes it IS a finishing move. It carries with it an inherent assumption that cynicism indicates a lack of virtue or that being a cynic is inherently lacking in value.

      It’s tied to a belief system, or at the very least of a sociological/philosophical conviction, that, in my mind, requires further justification.

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