In the wake of the “no makeup selfie” phenomenon, and perhaps as a sister thought to Rebecca Fitzsimons’s recent probe into the allergenic world of Google and hypochondria, I’ve been mulling over the word ‘scepticaemia.’ In fact, it’s not a word, and my forays into the various different spelling options—‘sk’, ‘sc’, ‘e’, ‘ae’—have turned up but a few online touchstones, in the form of blogs or Twitter pages largely devoted to medical scepticism. I was thinking of it in broader terms, as a coinage apropos of the ‘c-word’ my optimistic mother most abhors: cynicism. I wondered at what point—when comment is so free and ubiquitous—cynicism begins to infect scepticism and, in either case, how you can tell you’ve got it bad.
It might not surprise you that, according to an American study, young people are less trusting and more cynical than ever. In a stroke of good luck for the anecdotal richness of this article, over the past few weeks I have been told by a Leeds taxi driver that 9/11 was invented and the English funded the Holocaust (he directed me to checktheevidence.com) and stumbled across a coffee table book in a Southampton beauty salon called Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit?: The Encyclopaedia of Modern Life. The blurb reads: “This book is for the large percentage of the population interested in saying NO to the phony ideas, cretinous people, useless products and doublespeak that increasingly dominate our lives.” This perhaps exemplifies just the sort of sentiment my mother hoped would not define my life. Cynics are typically ascribed with bitterness, negativity and scorn.
Yet being sceptical, with its etymological roots in knowledge and enquiry (the Greek skeptikos: to consider, examine) rather than the more ethically aggressive cynicism (from kunikos: dog-like), is often seen as an intelligent stance. Diderot called it “the first step towards truth.” The other day, I was chatting with friends about the inevitable post-show diagnostics that come after seeing a piece of theatre. With reference to a particularly well-respected, habitually sceptical friend, someone pointed out that “I didn’t like it” often feels like it is the most intelligent and authoritative opinion. Scepticism can seem likean avenue, an opening for truth to slip in through the cracks in the monolithic pile of proverbial ‘Shit.’
I remember reading Ian Hacking’s article “Lost in the Forest” [1. London Review of Books, Vol. 35 No. 15, 8 August 2013] about the DSM-5 (the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), in which he refers to psychologists who are “sceptical” about standardised diagnosis. While Hacking is not a universal advocate of DSM critics, he acknowledges that in this case sceptics are challenging the pseudo-scientific “idea that, in our present state of knowledge, the recognised varieties of mental illness should neatly sort themselves into tidy blocks…” Here the sceptics are those who question biomedical certainty and seek a less rigid methodology. It is less the door-slamming antagonism of the cynic, more the window-opening query of the sensitive sceptic.
This distinction between scepticism as an epistemological query that is usually fair versus cynicism as an ethical judgment, which might be temperamental, could be where problems occur in modern life. The “no makeup selfie” campaign is a case in point. Was this an instance of people trying to take moral issue, which we’re here defining as a cynical stance, with something that just doesn’t have an inherent moral status and so should de facto command scepticism, if anything?
The argument in support of the craze is largely pragmatic. The trend was not initiated by any charity; the savvy PR team at Cancer Research UK saw an opportunity and tweeted suggesting people text a donation whenever they ‘nominate’ someone to take a makeup-free photo. Eight million pounds was raised. The online locus and celebrity endorsement helped to target people who wouldn’t otherwise donate. Critics of the trend, meanwhile, have lambasted it for being unrighteous, vain, narcissistic, selfish, fraudulent and idiotic. One such journalist self-identified as a “cynic,” while others seem to class themselves more in the sceptic camp, deducing their qualms with the ‘NSM’—and what it represents—by a combination of logic and empathy.
As regards scepticism, one look at some of the selfies people have published tells us that we can, in all likelihood, claim knowledge of ulterior motives including vanity, self-promotion and a wish to be accepted. But if we define ethics as that which pertains to right and wrong, cynicism demands that we judge this act morally. If someone thinks it is immoral and worthy of outrage to post a picture of yourself posing on a social networking site or engage in popular competitive trends then so be it. But I suspect that a bit of online peacocking and sheeplike behaviour are not what is at stake here. It is the association with the other, inimical c-word—cancer—that riles people up. [2. I want to acknowledge that for some people, boycotting the NSM trend is linked more to reservations based on gender equality. This leads to interesting questions about how people can spread scepticism of a cultural more, in this case the pressure for women to be made up and attractive at all times, without seeming to pass aggressive moral judgment on those they consider to be engaging in it] It could be argued that a leap in logic has been made, allowing cynicism about couch philanthropy and the smugness of the sympathetic to infect a healthy, open-minded scepticism, which might allow for a link between successful charitable endeavour and self-serving behaviour.
I am not in the market for casting aspersions on either camp. However, probably the only thing I have in common with the aforementioned chatty Leeds cabbie is the thought that we should always ‘check the evidence.’ A brief look at the philosophy behind contemporary scepticism reveals that it is often associated with paradox, wherein the inability to deny or rule out a sceptical hypothesis undermines what knowledge we thought we had. To enlist a quote: “because any action can be recast to serve some selfish end, the cynic’s position is ultimately not contestable. Sealed within her own self-reinforcing assumptions, the cynic can interpret even selfless actions as calculated attempts to create an image of selflessness.” [3. Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good, Joseph N. Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, OUP 1997]
The problem of impossible selflessness is as old and familiar as the hills and as such, can be most successfully ignored through a reference to Friends. Most people have certain things they feel cynical about or at least situations in which they feel it is a realistic, rather than a pessimistic, response. If Diderot is right and scepticism is the first step towards truth, perhaps cynicism is what happens when you get there.
But the cynic’s bubble of intractable moral dyspepsia doesn’t necessarily seem like the way to live a life. As with most maternal advice, this seems to become less opaque and more startlingly obvious with age. Take one of history’s renowned cynics as an example. Ambrose Bierce, author of A Cynic Looks at Life (1912) and The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), also published as The Cynic’s Word Book, defines a cynic as “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” So far, so depressingly austere. In A Cynic Looks at Life he wisely calls out civilization as no superior to savagery and patriotism as fundamentally nonsensical but he also advocates the death penalty and begins the chapter ‘Emancipated Woman’ with the words: “What I should like to know is, how the ‘enlargement of woman’s sphere’…benefits the sex.” All in all, not a hugely appealing guy by my standards; although of course he was also a product of his time.
One of the Oscar films of 2014, Nebraska, offers an insight into the questionable condition of scepticaemia. Woody Grant is arguably just a career alcoholic, who has no deep relationship with his sons and a tendency to provincial naivety or the onset of dementia, or both. Any sceptical individual, including his son David, can see through the letter Woody receives claiming he has won a million dollar sweepstake that he can collect in Nebraska. If the film had been acted in accordance with the cynic’s philosophy, Woody would have been shouted down and David would never learnt about his father’s past, bonded with him or gained the self-esteem that comes with the trip. Rightly or wrongly, this is where the film’s refusal to bow down to cynicism leads.
In some way the actions of those who send out sweepstake letters and of the character of Woody himself prove what we already knew: that the only constant in a commercial society is the will to receive, without consideration for who is giving and at what cost. It’s giving and taking rounded out into one neat circle of selfishness. But in its ponderous, quirky way Alexander Payne’s film is a reminder that for the common man or woman, to receive means to want and to want requires hope and hope is the only antidote to cynicism.