Cynicism as a Fantasy that Perpetuates Itself Through Mockery
Update: The last 6 months I’ve been writing and thinking about lots of stuff that hasn’t made it into long form blog posts yet. I’ve put a summary of all the threads I’m investigating up on my new site naturalhazard.xyz. Eventually all of my writing will live there, and for the time being I’m just going to be cross-posting/distributing via substack.
(link to version of this post on my home site)
Here's a clip from the TV show The Magicians that captures an important feature of the flavor of Cynicism I've been trying to understand.
Relevant background: the gang just finished a quest in this haunted house. The ghosts of two kids are stuck in a loop of reliving being tortured/abused/killed by their psycho housekeeper. Also, just an episode or two ago Elliot had a new boyfriend that he was falling hard for. Said boyfriend got possessed by "The Beast" (main bad guy), and Elliot ended up having to kill his boyfriend to prevent him from hurting others. This is still raw in his mind.
Zooming in to one relevant chunk of dialogue:
Alice: This is exactly the sort of thing we should be able to fix! There are ways to clear a haunted house.
Elliot: The house, yes. It doesn't help with the ghosts.
Alice: There are rituals in every civilization!
Elliot: To prevent this, not reverse it.
The conversation starts off attuned to the actual problem. Alice is pretty tilted, but begins generating possible leads on solutions and Elliot provides rebuttals as to why he doesn't think those leads will help. For a few moments it's an actual conversation aimed at figuring out what, if anything, can be down to help a fucked up situation.
Now, the show hasn't really given enough details of the world or the magic system for us, the viewers, to make reasonable claims about whether or not saving the ghost-kids is possible in-universe. There have been other moments in the show were a similarly unexplained-to-the-viewers problem was presented, declared impossible, and then resolved. But there have also been many points where there seemed to be agreement about certain fundamental limits of magic. Point being, we don't have any of the information we'd actually need to make a judgment about whether Alice or Elliot is right here. Luckily, I'm less interested in who's right, and more in how the characters play out both sides of this conflict.
Quickly the interaction turns into them both enacting roles in an attempt to get the other to participate in the narrative they are using to avoid dealing with pain they aren't equipped to handle. We see that here:
Alice: "We have to help them! There has to be something. Those kids, they did nothing... that is so unfair."
Elliot: "Life ain't fair. Why in the high holy fuck should death be any different? Thinking that you can change anything, it's such an act of monumental ego! I mean, who the fuck do you really think you are? I mean you're just some arrogant tittle twat so SUCK it up!"
Quentin: "Shut the fuck up."
Alice is overwhelmed with both the awfulness of the situation they just left behind in the haunted house and her sense of personal responsibility. Elliot is also hurting, but for different reasons. Remember, he recently had to kill his own possessed boyfriend to save the school. From that emotional context, he lashes out at Alice, no longer arguing with her but simply mocking her.
There are honest and dishonest ways to pursue a problem others are calling impossible. There are honest and dishonest ways to dissuade people from going on what you believe are suicide missions. Alice and Elliot are acting out the dishonest version of each, which correspond to what I'm calling Naive Idealism and Jaded Cynicism. The Jaded Cynic wonders what sort of arrogant idiot you'd have to be to think you can do something, and the Naive Idealist wonders what sort of monster you'd have to be to not be trying to do something.
To be clear, the Idealism and Cynicism I am pointing to are not opposing clusters of beliefs, they are opposing ways of relating to injustice. They describe internal processes that one uses to come to beliefs, they don't describe the beliefs themselves. A belief can't be Cynical nor Idealistic, but a person can. Both processes involve distancing yourself from the reality of strong injustices in order to sustain an untrue story about how the injustice is either totally resolvable or totally unresolvable. Your assessment of possibility flow from you, and not the situation.
"There must be a way." "Why?" "Because there has to be."
"That's never gonna work." "Why?" "Because good things don't work out."
Avoiding conditioning on the specifics of the problem works for making a fully-general counterargument, but doesn't work for acting effectually in the world. You don't get to tell the problem how difficult it is, the problem tells you. Naive Idealism and Jaded Cynicism are two different ways of not listening to the problem. And if the pain of an injustice is more real, more dominating in your awareness than the injustice itself, not listening to the problem is exactly what gives you the wiggle room to create the narrative that you are using to soothe your pain.
There's a lot more I want to say about the structure of Cynicism, but for this post I'm going to leave it at pointing out how Elliot shuts down Alice's bid for action with the classic Cynical move; using insults to assert a social reality whose norms are an inversion of morality. It's not that doing something is impossible, it's that it's an "act of monumental ego". It's not that she's wrong, it's that she's being an "arrogant little twat". He's no longer trying to convince her it won't work. He's not even trying to convince her that the situation is not actually that bad. He's simply asserting "We don't fix things here, okay?" with the insults serving to drive home that if Alice is on the other side of this norm she will be subject to contempt and ridicule.
This is part of the strategy that Cynicism uses to perpetuate itself. Others need to be pulled into line so there's less stress on the emotionally load-bearing fantasy about why action isn't possible. Because Cynicism is reliant on a fantasy to support itself, it has a very limited capacity to generate support via the type of reasoned arguments that naturally produce motivation in people. The only other way to influence people is with physical or social threats. Hence, asserting a social reality with norms against trying to discern right from wrong and trying to bring about good things.
There's a tragically ironic way in which Elliot's venomous assertion that life is unfair is an attempt to enforce a sort of meta-fairness on the world. Imagine for a moment how deeply unfair it would be if Alice was in fact able to right the wrong of the ghost-kids being on loop, but Elliot was never be able to get his boyfriend back. Imagine if the world was such that Elliot got dished deeply upsetting injustices that he couldn't do anything about, while Alice faced a bunch of wrongs that were completely in her capacity to right. That would be fucked up.