Being naive is easy. Being cynical is easy. The trouble, the test of real engagement with the rest of the world, lies somewhere in between.
By naivete, I mean that instinctual, overcredulous belief that others are almost always well-intentioned. When one of your moderate, optimistic friends cannot acknowledge — indeed, she might seem literally incapable of doing so — the huge systemic incentives that drive so many police departments in this country toward brutality, perjury and prejudice, that is an instance of the naivete about which I am writing. When an Obama voter will not accept the fact that her president killed a 16-year-old Pakistani boy without any due process, and his administration then argued that he was a “military age male” to alleviate its crime, that is naivete. When a proud Brown student avoids or ignores the facts and the stories, saying that sexual assault doesn’t happen at his university or in his fraternity, as I’ve seen a few do, that is naive.
As I said above, this attitude is far too easy. It doesn’t require any of us to challenge ourselves or change our minds about anything. All we have to do to live within this sort of naivete is hold our beliefs constant and let our knee-jerk reactions do what they do best. Most of all, optimistic naivete doesn’t drive us to answer any of the hard questions that plague each one of these issues. Is the war on drugs a destructive endeavor? What are the boundaries of a functionally infinite war on terror? Do the seemingly harmless environments in which we live enable sexual assault? Sadly, naivete is emotionally self-reinforcing, because it makes us feel grounded and safe, sure of the fact that we live in a world defined by a binary of good people who are without fault and bad people who are evil. I see this naivete expressed by far too many Brown students.
On the other hand lies cynicism, a chronic, consistent disbelief in the virtue of others’ intentions. “All politicians are corrupt, and they can’t ever fix a thing,” we hear from the cynics with a touch of glum despair. “Men just want to take advantage of women,” and “women just wanna control us men,” they say. “All cops are pigs on a lifelong power trip,” according to the cynics. Rarely do we ever see true cynicism, the kind that determines an entire life philosophy, but we often see hints of it in comments like these.
Just like naivete, cynicism is far too easy. It lets us disengage from the hard issues at the heart of moral life, and it lets us apply a single frame of cynical thought to problems that are multi-faceted and far from simple. Why study politics if all politicians are possessed by corrupt self-interest? Why care about gender if everyone’s just out to get one another? Why explore the ins and outs of law enforcement if there are only sociopaths running the departments? This flows directly into the real problem of cynicism: It’s paralyzing. There’s no real need to make the world a better place if we’re all just self-serving atoms, pushed away from each other by our own greed, sin and antipathy. Lastly, just like naivete, cynicism has its own psychological motivations. In a strange way, it’s romantic to be a cynic. It’s somehow tragically glamorous to be the stoic, long-suffering, hard-hearted individual, skeptical of humanity’s goodness and sure of its depravity. And, like naivete, I see this type of cynicism at Brown all the time.
See, each of these different worldviews, each of them exhibited by many Brown students, commits the same crime. One of the real beauties of living is our uniquely human desire to find truth. Whether we try to find it in politics, philosophy, morality, art or relationships, we each seek it in our own way. A theory of the world based in naivete or cynicism might appear as truth, but we all know that any such theory is really just a fraud. It takes an enormous amount of willful ignorance to actually think that our most respected establishments and figures can do no wrong or to actually believe in the hugely disenchanted generalizations that tend to characterize cynicism. Rather, cynicism and naivete give us free passes from the difficult, thankless, frustrating and cosmically important job of trying to understand the contrasts and complexities of human life.
No, this reality in which we find ourselves is a good deal more complicated than cynicism or naivete will ever allow us to see. It is filled with wholly corrupt institutions manned by principled individuals. It is run by leaders and followers who are as flawed as they are outstanding. And, it is distinguished by systems that hamstring human righteousness as much as it is lived by people who live virtuously no matter the cost.
Real engagement with the rest of this contradictory world doesn’t flinch away from either side of this equation. It completely acknowledges the greatness of which we are capable and the ways in which the world manages to undercut that capability. This is true human engagement. This is our only chance at reaching truth. And this is anything but easy.
Kevin Carty ’15 is a 20-year-old political science concentrator from DC. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed @politicarty.