Ursula Carlson: The spread of cynicism
Like many others (I hope), I sat glued to my couch and watched the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry on television. If nothing else, it’s a rare opportunity to see history in the making.
Granted, the Republicans on the committee seemed reluctant to acknowledge it as having historical importance, preferring instead to colorfully describe it as a “circus,” and a “show” — words which also come from the highest authority Republicans (and their president) now cite: the Russians.
As Russian historian Greg Afinogenov, professor at Georgetown, points out in the article “The Politics of Cynicism,” by 2003, four-fifths of Russians agreed “Democratic procedures are pure show business.” When it comes to a cynical attitude toward democracy, the Republicans and the Russians are obviously on the same page.
Fiona Hill, former senior director for Russian and European Affairs on the National Security Council, appeared to startle the Republican members of the inquiry committee when she characterized as “fictional narrative” (or in normal language: a made-up story or bluntly put, a falsehood or lie) the Republican contention that it was Ukraine rather than Russia that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Surely, I try to persuade myself, Republicans have more faith in our government, our politically neutral foreign service and State Department employees, than to believe Russian propaganda (or “misinformation” or “alternative facts.”) But apparently not. The cynical Republicans have no trouble blaming any scapegoat necessary rather than the Russians.
Cynicism distorts reality, even language itself. Logic evaporates. Common sense goes out the window. Conspiracies abound, and the more far-fetched they are, the more likely it is that cynics will believe them. As James Mattis, former secretary of Defense, writes, “Cynicism is cowardice. And cynicism is corrosive when it saturates a society, as it has long saturated Russia’s and as it has saturated too much of ours.” Mattis adds, “It instills a sense of victimhood. It may be psychically gratifying in the moment, but it solves nothing.”
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, specialist in ethics of technology, describe at some length the effects of social media on democracy (and consequent cynicism) in the December issue of The Atlantic. Every reader will recognize the truth of their broader argument, but here I’ll focus on how since 2013 social media has become “a powerful accelerant for anyone who wants to start a fire.”
Democracy is destabilized partly due to the degree to which (on social media) ideas and conflicts of the present moment dominate and displace older ideas and the lessons of the past. In past generations, “information” (from music to history) was gradually acquired. We were aware of what is “new,” what is “older” (information 10-50 years ago), and what is “old” (more than 100 years old). In today’s world, the balance of these categories has shifted toward the “new” and the content of the “new” consists of “entertainment and celebrity gossip, daily or hourly political outrages and hot takes on current events.” Left in the dust is all the “old” and “older” information. Not only that, but social media “ pushes people toward a focus on the scandal, joke, or conflict of the day,” which may have a more profound effect on the young than the old, simply because in today’s world, to give one example, schools do not offer as many classes in history or civics.
Even though young people may have access to everything that has been written and digitized, “those born after 1995 or so may find themselves less familiar with the accumulated wisdom of humanity than any recent generation.”
A recent poll cited on the Nov. 25 PBS newscast revealed a sizable number (can’t recall the percentage!) of Americans had no idea we had three branches of government, much less what each branch was called.
This causes me to wonder: How many of Nevada’s schools teach history and civics? History throughout 12 years of schooling and civics, let’s say, in one’s junior year.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.