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Cynicism and Social Change

2011 February 16

I’ve been having a hard time not being cynical lately. Maybe it’s the winter months and the never-ending rounds of colds they bring, but naïve idealism has been elusive of late. It’s been hard recently to see people as anything other than selfish jerks who can’t be bothered to care for anything or anyone but themselves. I know a balanced view would be healthier, but at least this cynicism has sparked some interesting conversations regarding how that inherent selfishness of people sometimes leads to a better world.

To take the most impersonal of examples – my husband Mike is working towards his PhD in church history and is currently taking a class on the Civil Rights movement the content of which he’s discussed with me. As a good little American public school student, I never once actually had a history class that managed to make it to that particular era. So while I know the cultural legends about the period (the bus boycott, Brown v. Board, “I Have a Dream” and all that), I understand little about the political undercurrents of the whole thing. The idealistic side of me can’t wrap my mind around extreme racism and wants to cheer for how the nation was able to see its own sin and repent of its evils. At least that’s the fairy tale version that we tell as an inspirational bedtime story.

But in truth selfishness played a big role in the whole thing. If not for the Cold War and the fact that most powerful Americans hated the commies more than they did people of color, most of the cultural revolution would never have occurred. America was playing the role of the defender of freedom in the post-WW2 world. We stood for truth, justice, and the American Way. We spread the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights to every corner of the globe in order that our way (and not the communist way) would win out in the end. But those pesky commies made sure to point out that in America not all people were truly free. They used segregation and racism against us to undermine the truth of our ideals. Since we couldn’t let the communists be right, we as a nation had to do something about that. Time to do something to ensure a minimum of rights for everyone regardless of the color of their skin. Sure, there were activists and idealists, but the government run system ultimately changed not because people had a change of heart but because there was a greater “evil” to be fought.

Same thing with women’s rights. Since 9/11 there has been a fascinating openness in conservative circles to speak up for certain sorts of women’s rights. Granted, feminism and equality are still bad words and submission and the stained-glass ceiling are still alive and well, but even the most complementation of folks are speaking out about the need to end female genital mutilation and sex trafficking, and about how educating women can be a good thing. I want to idealistically believe that people are waking up to the sin of sexism, but the cynical part of me believes that it is only that the majority of Americans believe we are at war with Islam and want to separate themselves as far as possible from the perceived evils of an “oppressive religion.” It’s not about women, it’s about us.

Or take Egypt. We can all tweet away that “Egypt is free” and get teary-eyed at democracy for all, but I have to wonder what would happen if it all got too close to home. When Haiti had the first successful slave revolt in 1825, the United States refused to acknowledge them as an independent nation. Why? Because recognizing a free Haiti would undermine our own economy which was built on the backs of slaves. So what if it wasn’t Egypt or Yemen that was in revolution, but China? Would we be cheering on the spread of global democracy if the potential cost of that revolution was the worldwide economy and our lives of luxury?

Do we only care about others when there is something in it for us? Will we only put our necks out for the oppressed when our own safety is on the line? I don’t know. Sometimes though it’s hard not to be cynical. I can see why the temptation to turn to the extremes of militant activism or Hauerwasian withdraw holds so much appeal for many. Faith in “thy kingdom come” is hard to sustain.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. February 16, 2011

    Julie, I understand. I grew up during the Civil Rights movement, and believe me, it *was* a time of great idealism. The very best in human nature was on display again and again, whatever may have been the mixed motives behind it.

    However, the result has been that I’ve spent most of my adult life being disillusioned, as American democracy has again and again failed to rise to the promise that I was raised to believe it held. Cynicism is particularly heavy in the air right now, as we prepare to watch Congress trash what little remains of the safety net while multi-billionaires line their pockets. It’s been coming out in my blog posts too.

    • February 16, 2011

      I’m afraid I’m too young for the Civil Rights movement, but I agree with Robin. These days, with what’s going on in my state and our country, I’m having a hard time seeing past the disillusionment and cynicism.

  2. February 16, 2011

    Julie, I think your lament over the state of our social motivations is right on. It is hard to stomach the realities of how selfish most political progress can be.

    But if I may, I would like to shine a light in that darkness.

    I studied a bit of the Civil Rights Movement in Durham and met a fascinating woman in the process– Ann Atwater. In the mid-century, She was as poor as could be, a victim of racially motivated economic oppression. Through the course of events, she became intimate friends with a Klansman, C.P. The man who was once her bitter enemy in her fight against oppression became her most reliable ally.

    Certainly, there were huge and sweeping national motivations to maintain an image of equality in the pulse of their story. Yet in the end, Ann and C.P.’s story reminds me that it is people that matter. C.P. lost an entire support network in order to take part in a better story. He wasn’t thinking about nationalistic identity, he was thinking about how to help his friend, Ann, and the people in her care gain a voice in Durham.

    We should lament about the lack of genuine charity in our social imaginary, but never in the void of joy over the people exhibiting genuine charity without inhibition.

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