At the end of every year, a bunch of smart people with linguistics and English degrees (or just a keyboard and an electronic soapbox) announce their “word of the year.” Geoff Nunberg is a name you have probably never heard before unless you are interested in linguistics. His word of the year was “tribalism.”
If you are surprised by this word choice, you have either been living under a rock or are in a tribe. 2017 was a year of fracturing. Instead of worrying about the future like we did in 2016, we were living out our worst fears.
While I agree “tribalism” is the one of the more fitting words, I think there is one word that deserves some credit. So my word of the year is *drum roll* CYNICISM. Ah yes, good old cynicism.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a cynic is “a person who believes that people are motivated purely by self-interest.” Someone can even be called a cynic if they are skeptical.
The reason I chose cynicism as my word of the year is because it was the central theme to most of my columns this year. My article about giving to charity was literally about why self-interest might be as bad as it seems. My other articles express a worry about cynicism in our political institutions and social interactions.
Now the big question is “Am I, your lovely columnist, a cynic?” Has 2017 made me abandon my polite skepticism and embrace cynicism?
No. I am not a cynic. (Whether I am a pessimist or not is a whole other article.) However, my rejection of cynicism doesn’t mean I don’t understand why people embrace it. It is true that a lot of important people this year appear to only act in their self-interest. I feel like every 10 seconds I get a news update about a new plan to retract the government’s helping hand.
When I was in high school, I was taught a seemingly contradictory lesson about ethics: Act as you want to be treated, but respect other people’s decisions. This lesson has always annoyed me, because it means I have to be nice to the bully, even when he is metaphorically punching me in the face. The whole ethical dilemma is based around a hope that the bully will convert to your way of thinking. However, if I were to back down from the bully, or took my frustration out on someone and became a bully, then I would lose myself.
Now I do believe that you have to try to persuade people to do what is right. If people embrace cynicism, then they will inevitably give up.
The answer to how to fighting the urge of embracing cynicism is hope and sticking with your principles. I believe 2017 should be the year of not backing down. 2017 taught us that if people refuse to be quiet, they will be heard.
I believe articles that end with predictions are at best wishful thinking, and at worst disappointments waiting to happen. So I won’t end my final article for the semester with a prediction. Instead, I will end it on a happy note. The future is literally impossible to predict. What we think is going to happen probably won’t happen. This failure is due to the fact that we are thinking of the future in terms of the past and present. The future is a domain of its own. It’s an unpredictable beast.
If you are a cynic, you think the future is going to be just as bad as the present and past. But for us non-cynics, what is beautiful about this unpredictable beast we call the future is that you may be pleasantly surprised.
If you are still worrying about the future and cynicism, look at the night sky. You may see some stars, the moon and a planet or two. To see the night sky, you have to look up and lose yourself in its sublime uncertainty.