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Made in Shoreditch

I also contribute a weekly column to Made in Shoreditch magazine called 'Old East End/New East End', where I look at the relationship between the East End of old and new, looking at the changes and the stalwarts in landscape, residents and culture, focussing on one street or district each week. You can find it here.

The Cynic

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

I've often heard folk tell me I'm a cynic. If, for instance, I question the conventional wisdom on a given matter - like 'politicians go into politics for the right reasons to begin with' or 'Islam and Christianity are peaceful religions' - I generally find some eternal bloody optimist telling me that I've got a cynical view of the world and that I should not be so inclined. Well, bollocks to that.

Usually I distrust memes, but...

The cynic is a much maligned character in social circles. If one attends a party where some annoyingly smug chap happens to be drawling on about how wealthy he is, one may be inclined to question if said chap genuinely is so loaded - for if he were, why would he need to be reassuring us (himself?) that he is so? If this is one's reaction, he or she will be faced with a "you're so cynical" or "why can't you just take things at face value" type of reaction. However, it is my belief that we must always question.

Western philosophy and science are built upon the very foundations of what most people pseudo-sagaciously term cynicism. The idea of taking things at face value didn't work very well, for example, when the pious were the ruling elite. Galileo built a telescope which contradicted the Christian theory of a higher power to some degree and was thus punished with unnecessary severity for his actions. Darwin kept The Origin of Species locked away for twenty years due to his concerns that going against the church might not be the most mortality savvy idea. In not accepting the given word as definite, and probing to find out more Galileo and Darwin were acting, in the eyes of the eternal optimists, in a rather cynical fashion were they not? Would anybody reasonably suggest that Galileo's or Darwin's actions were worthy of a term with negative connotations? To the latter I would suggest (and hope) not.

Teenage Fanclub - Song to the Cynic

If there is a major flaw in the blase use of 'cynic' as a term (and there is) it is that it applies something negative to something that is undeserved of such action. Something which has recently triggered this irked riposte you are reading to that very labeling happened to me not too long ago. For the job which I am currently doing, I had to take a personality test (yes, the corporate powers that be now want to know if you'll fit in to their ideology before they rob you of your time and soul for a measly financial reward). While it seems that I am not a pathos-worthy schizoid with a semi-maniacal outlook, the test did flag up that I have a 98% distrust of others complex (quite how one can put a number on such a trait I don't know). In other words, it showed up that I have a cynical outlook on human beings and their potential actions. I would, to some degree, agree with this - especially in the context of the questions that the test asked. Upon being asked whether or not I think a worker will slack off when the boss isn't looking or whether or not I think a boss will screw an employee over if they can get away with it I answered yes (note: this wasn't the exact wording of the questions or answers, but they were words to that effect). I stand by this. Having been screwed over before by bosses before and having slacked off when a boss wasn't looking before I think I made the right choice. I would imagine that most people would answer these questions in the same way, provided they were being genuinely honest.

The point here is that humans do questionable things or things they should not do every single day and with this being the case, some of us wise-up and realise that if it has happened many times before, there is a good likelihood it will happen again and, as such, we must scrutinise and act with vigilance. It would seem others, however, are flatly happy to be trodden on, so long as their world view of "everything is perfect, nobody will ever try to do something nasty to me" can stay protected. While I do concede that this is a nice world view, in fact, it is one I would love to be true, it simply is not.


Contrarians like the late great author and journalist Christopher Hitchens and his prosaic idol George Orwell often wrote in a style that to the eternal optimist would seem cynical. With that in mind, I'd like to say that I would rather be a Hitch or an Orwell than be anything like those pie-in-the-sky dreamers.

I may well be a cynic or a pessimist or have an unreasonably distrusting view of people, but, quite frankly, I could not care less if this is the case. In fact, I celebrate it because it makes more sense than believing in unilateral goodness amongst others.