Sincerity mistaken for simple-mindedness

Chris Reads
5 min readMay 10, 2024

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Our world is a complex, confusing world. There is much wrong with it, and too many pursue power and riches instead of seeking to correct it. In such a world, it’s easy to be a cynic, not only nitpicking at the positive, but also seeing the negative in both sides of the issue and deeming it hopeless. It often serves as a coping mechanism after one has been let down one too many times and wants to shield themselves against hope. Consequently, most people in today’s world are some variety of pessimist. More damaging however, is that this cynicism is frequently associated with intelligence, and sincerity associated with naivety.

The dark trinity of pseudo-intellectualizing are pessimism, nihilism, and cynicism; though they’re different, I’ll be using cynicism to broadly cover all three. Pessimism is garden-variety hopelessness and despair, glass half-full mentality. Nihilism is the belief that negative outcomes are inevitable, and resignation that all other attempts are meaningless. Cynicism is actually a mistrust of agendas and suspicion of underlying motives, a doubly-warped belief that undermines any genuine effort in providing solutions. Given dominant media narratives and the attractiveness of bad news, it’s easy for anyone with a passing interest in the world around them to fall victim to this triad. The world is bad, there are many disingenuous people, and it is unlikely to change. Anyone who doesn’t see this is either willingly blind or incapable of inference.

The idiot then, is someone who is optimistic, hopeful, and naive. They look at the world and see the good in it. They believe that problems are solvable and they can have an impact. And they believe in the inherent good of people, that people innately care about other people, and want the best for their peers. This isn’t a modern phenomenon either: from Pollyanna to Pangloss, positivity has been depicted as adjacent to stupidity. After all, how can someone be positive knowing all that they know about the world? Happiness is for children and the mentally enfeeble. They don’t know about all the things that could hurt them, all the ways their plans could go wrong, and how fleeting their joy is. No, it’s only because they have not been furnished with the appropriate information and given it inadequate thought.

And how easy it is to be a cynic! The world is doomed, and there is nothing we can do about it. Millennials will never be able to afford real estate. Man-made climate change is irreversibly changing the planet. Political polarization is destroying any possibility of progress. Enjoy waking up to a small screen, working on a bigger screen, relaxing on the biggest screen, then going back to winding down on a small screen. What is your Middle East protest going to achieve? Why bother burning the midnight oil when the promotion is going to the nepotism hire? It’s much easier to resign oneself to the hands of fate when they have no agency. There is nothing do be done because in the end, it doesn’t even matter.
But cynicism is ultimately unproductive. Because cynics don’t believe in their ability to impact future events, they will chose the path of least resistance, one that may even run counter to their beliefs, because it doesn’t matter. Take climate change for example. A naïve belief is the one of the eighties, that personal responsibility can have an impact: reduce, reuse, and recycle. A more learned person will attribute the cause of climate change to corporate actions, perhaps as far as criticizing the capitalist system itself. A cynic is someone who has accepted that there is nothing individuals can do to reverse climate change, and believes they can’t sufficient impact corporations either. So they drive everywhere, no longer shop consciously, and don’t attend protests. What happens then, when everyone in society is a cynic? Or worse still, those with any power to make decisions are cynics?

Unfortunately, most people think of themselves as intellectuals, free from the illusions that ail the idealists. Within a society of cynics, who will lead the change? Who still believes that a society is comprised of individuals, and when enough individuals act, they can change society as a whole? Children and the mentally unfirm. Think about the recent campus encampments. Environmental protests led by small children. It’s those who have no responsibilities and no fears who are able to protest so. Cynics view these movements as ineffective and a waste of energy. But critically, the opposition views them as a threat. They call the police, they threaten, and they argue. To some extent, it proves the cynics wrong, that there is capacity for change.

Every protest in the past and the present has been led by an idealist who believes in their ability to make an impact. Perhaps that’s why King’s famous dream resonated and resonates so strongly with listeners: he knows it seems like a dream, standing where they were standing, yet he believes in it and implores the listener to do so as well. To a cynic, the outcome of a proxy conflict with a huge power differential seems like a foregone conclusion. Yet the idealist believes not only that the future is not written, but also that they have the ability to make a difference on it. Non-violent protest and forceful revolutions were never guaranteed to succeed, even for the fools who lead them. Yet that is the job of the leader, to play the idealist and change the minds of the cynics. To warm one icy heart after another until they have found a critical mass of people to join them.

Increasingly, I’ve come to view sincerity as an enviable trait. Sure, it’s fun to laugh at the hippie’s commitment to animal rights, or a young person’s commitment to a corporate job, but they have purpose while the rest of us don’t. We are the crows or foxes in a fable, watching the earnest field mouse or rabbit eventually do what we never could. They can understand that it’s impossible to save all the animals, but in the lives of this one shelter dog, they can make a difference. They can also see the corporation as a byproduct of capitalism, but nurture a sustainable community within it and find meaning in what they do.

I’m afraid that most people aren’t sincere about anything, including their aspirations or their relationships. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming of becoming an actor or being deeply in love. But to protect themselves from disappointment, to show that they aren’t stupid, they are too willing to downplay what it is that they are capable of doing or feeling. And that is damaging. Try sincerity, discover passion, and maybe find success. Of course it’s not going to work out every time. But it will never work out if one is not sincere.

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