Graphic by Jennifer Huang

Why is Cynicism the New Black?

In short, cynicism has had its day. Our generation should be looking towards the future, instead of criticizing it.

Sep 25, 2016

When did we become so cynical? In the name of making the world a better place, Ancient Greek cynics would question why the human race acted in certain ways, why we chased particular ambitions. Today, negativity, irreverence and jealousy have corrupted what was once a legitimate philosophical school of thought. Modern day cynics scream from the rooftops when Apple announces the removal of the headphone jack in its latest iPhone: they question the trivial, rather than the consequential things in life. Are we not the generation of change, the generation of all things new, innovative and optimistic? Negativity should be reserved for those that bore witness to old-fashioned maladies — things like the Vietnam War and dial-up internet. While our generation has known mistakes and suffering, our level of pessimism is unwarranted. In short, cynicism has had its day. Our generation should be looking towards the future, instead of criticizing it.
In today’s world, we suffer from what appears to be an incurable case of Tall-Poppy Syndrome. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this horribly outdated school of thought, it involves the cutting down of the hopes, dreams and ideals of anyone who attempts to rise above the norm. This brand of cynicism is contrary to every ambitious thing the world is trying to accomplish. It’s inevitably going to prevent us from reaching our full potential as a generation. If you can’t even walk down the street in clothes that might be deemed too outside-of-the-box, don’t even think about trying to colonise Mars.
Let’s bring this back to Earth. Saadiyat Island, to be exact. The emotional experience of being accepted into NYU Abu Dhabi should have been one of uninhibited happiness — and for me, it largely was. However, I couldn’t help but notice a trend in the responses I received from friends, extended family and that guy behind the counter at KFC.
“You’re going to NYU ... in Abu Dhabi? So, like, not the real NYU, right? It’s not quite as hard to get into, is it?”
This is probably the most accurate summation of the countless cynical responses I received upon telling people about my supposedly fantastic new achievement. Don’t get me wrong — this guy made a great Zinger Burger, but all I could really think about was the salt content in his words. At worst, this all made me question my own success.
So why are people so intent on cutting people down at their earliest convenience? Whatever happened to telling that person on the street that their outfit is cool, rather than staring with contempt because we aren’t brave enough to break social norms? Modern cynicism is a tendency that only leads to personal insecurity, judgment and jealousy — not the noble pursuit of challenging the system. We accomplish wonderful things when we have the support of our peers — but having to question oneself because those closest to you are devoid of optimism is a recipe for failure.
Doing something brave, different or unique can be incredibly tough for someone, especially if it’s their first time venturing out of the box. Sometimes all people need to hear in order to finally take the plunge is a reassuring comment or two.
How do we stop this? It’s about blocking out the white noise — the sarcasm, the flippant comments and destructive critiques — in order to knuckle down and get things done. It could be said that the cynicism of others simply drives some of the world’s most ambitious people to work harder. Elon Musk wants to take the human race to Mars and you can bet he doesn’t care what Bill from Ohio thinks about his plans. But how many Elon Musks or Sheryl Sandbergs are we preventing from ever reaching their full potential? How many da Vincis have we silenced?
If we want to move forward, we not only need to recognise the cynics among us as excess luggage on the space shuttle, but we also need to make sure they’re a dying breed. In the end, continuous progress, the breaking of social norms and the shattering of glass ceilings will cause many a cynic to convert. It’s up to the rest of us to make sure our achievements as individuals and communities are much louder than the tiny voices of those who are preoccupied with cutting others down. Whether you’re trying to go to Mars or just trying to improve your personal best on the treadmill — you should be able to do so without worrying what Bill from Ohio thinks. So let’s give it a shot — I’ve heard the view from space is pretty spectacular.
James Pearce is Deputy Features Editor. Email him at
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