There’s something wrong with being cynical

Emmett Fitzpatrick

For some reason, I’ve always been interested in commencement speeches given by celebrities at schools across the country. Perhaps it’s the pompous nature of addresses given by people like Tom Brokaw that attracts me to reading the transcripts of these speeches, or perhaps it’s the clichéd advice of people who became famous without the help of a college degree. Either way, I came across an interesting speech from an unlikely source: comedian and journalist Stephen Colbert. While speaking to the Class of 2006 at Knox College, he gave the graduates a piece of advice that we all could stand to use. In essence, the main theme of his speech centered on one idea: Don’t be a cynic.

I’m not sure if cynicism has always dominated our world, but I know that it’s got a pretty firm grasp on it today. Personally, I’m against being cynical about the world at any age, but especially at an age when our biggest decisions are whether or not to go out on Wednesday nights and our idea of a night on the town is cramming into a crowded basement filled with kegs of Natural Light. No, we don’t know enough about the world at large to be filled with the keen sense of cynicism that seems to be infiltrating the way we view our place in the world. If you cannot see how widespread this cynical perspective actually is, I’d like to steal a line from the movie “American Beauty:” Look closer.

At the risk of sounding like yet another writer who bemoans our values and thinks that everyone else is going to hell due to their lack of intelligence and failure to make fairly obvious observations in a newspaper, I’d like to propose that we all need to shed our cynicism about the world in which we live. We must start believing that the world can be changed, and that we can change it. If we can’t change it, so be it.

Don’t worry, the cynics among us will always be there to say, “I told you so” after you turn down that well-paying and empty job on Wall Street after graduation. You may even tell yourself that they are smarter than you. After all, what will you have to show for that year you spent teaching English to children in the misnamed “third world” besides a cool Ghana soccer jersey from last year’s World Cup?

The cynics will appear to be wise, but in fact they are anything but, at least according to Colbert, who was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most important people in the world. He calls cynicism a “self-imposed blindness,” a defense mechanism, so to speak, against the seemingly impossible task of trying to understand the world and the people in it. The cynic won’t experience the displeasure that accompanies the mission that idealists will undertake, and he certainly won’t have to deal with the pain and hurt that idealists will undoubtedly experience in their relationships with others. Too bad for them.

To further establish myself as the preeminent cultural reference at Villanova and reveal more about this weird fascination I have with the tradition of the commencement address, I’d like to quote another speaker whom I came across while counting the hours until 5 p.m. as an intern last summer. I read the transcript from author and economist Thomas Friedman, who would probably end up on Thomas Friedman’s list of the 100 most important people in the world. Regardless, he made an important distinction between cynicism, which is detrimental to our understanding of the world, and skepticism, which is essential to our understanding of the world.

I haven’t quite reached the “trust no one” philosophy of David Duchovny, but you should always know the source of anything you hear. All people have their own motives for saying what they want, and being skeptical is important in anything you do. Skepticism is different from simply dismissing anything you hear from a point of view opposed from yours, a practice that has been perfected by cynics.

Let’s give idealism a chance. I tend to believe that there are more idealists out there than one might think, but they are bombarded with so much cynicism that it’s hard to stand up for their belief that they can change the world. These “closet idealists” are the group of people that the cynic is most afraid of. “You can’t be young and wise,” the old saying goes, so don’t try to be wise now. Go out and fail – you’ll survive. Just don’t go swimming with stingrays.