Dr. King On Cynicism

Dr. King On Cynicism January 20, 2020

I had a unique experience today that I’ve never had before. I found out that one of my local friends knew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. personally and worked under him at the very end of his career when he had shifted into anti-war organizing. My friend shared something that King said to him over and over again that was really convicting to me. He said, “Do not succumb to the disease of cynicism for it will justify all of your worst instincts.”

Part of why this was convicting was because I had just been accused yesterday of being cynical by a Facebook friend who flamed out and unfriended me since I posted some cynical speculations about the motives behind the New York Times’ strange dual endorsement of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. It wasn’t a very useful Facebook post, though I do think this Facebook ex-friend may have been a tad melodramatically reactive.

But it got me thinking about the role of cynicism in our social media culture and its relationship to “radicalism.” Too often, being radical has come to mean that you’re cynical about something that more basic liberals are naive about, whether it’s patriotism or the benefits of the free market or the benevolence of an average police officer. As a radical, I am suspicious and critical of the presumptions that privileged people make about the fairness and good-natured-ness of our world, but how often does my suspicion and critique overreach itself into an arrogant cynicism? Furthermore, does my radicalism represent what I am willing to sacrifice personally in order to live in a truly equitable, just world or is it merely an expression of my self-perceived intellectual superiority to people who can’t connect the dots the way that I can?

When the form that “activism” takes in our world is primarily sharing articles and poignant statements on social media, what is the difference between opening people’s eyes and reveling in cynicism? How much of what we spend our time doing online is just a sort of ideological circle jerk in an echo chamber? I don’t want to be dismissive of the community that once isolated people find online and the needs that we all have to deconstruct and vent, nor do I want to presume that sharing news or opinions online never changes anybody who wasn’t already on board. There are so many good things that happen because of online community.

I do worry that cynicism seems like a very natural temptation in our current state of affairs where everyone is trying to be an “influencer” and where most of the “work” we do involves no more than sitting on our ass and clicking buttons. I guess that itself was a cynical sentence to write (see, there’s no escape!).

I think the only remedy for cynicism is love. Maybe that’s an easy, default claim to make. But the two things that best defend me against the tyranny of my own cynicism are my desire for deeper connection with the divine (a.k.a. love of God) and my investment in the well-being of specific humans that I’m in relationship with (a.k.a. love of neighbor). Somehow that love needs to always be the anchor in our fight for justice. Otherwise, we just become bitter cynics who entertain ourselves with our snide take-downs of all the problematic people beneath us.

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