Cynics? No.

April 24, 2009

I'm jumping on the Susan Boyle bandwagon.  I think she can handle it.  She seems unusually sane (much like our current President. Is an international outbreak of sanity quietly unfolding? But I digress…).  What interests me in the Boyle phenomenon is how often people referred to themselves as cynics when discussing their reaction to her performance on "Britain's Got Talent."  They were cynics before she sang, and big-hearted converts after. 

I don't think cynical is the right word to describe the "before" reaction to Susan Boyle. What was there to be cynical about?  Was this person there to con them? The dictionary defines a cynic as someone who believes that all human motivation is selfish, and also someone who adopts the sneering attitude toward others a belief like that would engender.  And then, in the way of dictionaries, a throwaway etymology is appended: "cynic" is derived from the Cynics, a philosophical movement in ancient Greece associated particularly with Diogenes of Sinope (he of the lamp).

Now, that's interesting.  What kind of Greek philosopher was advocating such a sneery, misanthropic, defensive worldview?  I had to find out more.  For this I turned to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy ("a professionally peer-reviewed resource").

According to the IEP, the Cynics believed that virtue is the only good and the means to virtue is self-control and independence.  They're described as ascetic (famed for novel and invigorating activities like "walk[ing] barefoot in the snow, hugg[ing] cold statues, and roll[ing] about in the scalding summer sand in [one's] pithos")1 but their self-denial and physical trials aren't ends in themselves.  They're geared toward preserving their independence from the powerful and the wealthy.  Needing nothing from the ruling elite, the Cynic can "speak freely about the silly, and often vicious, way life is lived by his or her contemporaries." 2 

Diogenes himself was poor, unemployed, witty and generally regarded as shameless by conventional Athenians (eating in the marketplace; drinking in the marketplace, masturbating in the marketplace…).  He subjected himself to a vigorous regime of harsh physical training to withstand the difficulties of his chosen poverty.  The end goal was always maximum freedom by following the dictates of nature instead of those of society. 

Dependent on no one but himself, Diogenes could say anything to anyone.  Approached by Alexander the Great while he was sunning himself in the marketplace, and asked what favor the king could grant him, Diogenes replied "Stand out of my light."3  Fellow philosophers were not spared.  "Diogenes Laertius writes that, “Plato saw [Diogenes of Sinope] washing lettuces, came up to him and quietly said to him, ‘Had you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t now be washing lettuces,’ and [Diogenes] with equal calmness answered, ‘If you had washed lettuces, you wouldn’t have paid court to Dionysius’” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 58)."4

How we got from Cynic to cynic is a bit uncertain.  The modern word has some connotations of the Cynic philosophy, with its questioning of surface motives.  But everything else seems to have been lost.  Modern cynics assume selfishness as the human default, saving the time it takes to discern individual character.  But this cynicism is not directed at the powerful or the wealthy, nor is it complemented with a personal quest for freedom through virtuous, independent living.  In fact, it's usually asserted by people who hope to join the wealthy and the powerful by signalling that they, too, are in on the game. 

The supposedly cynical "Britain's Got Talent" audience is on the wrong side.  The original Cynics skewered exactly the sort of fame-mongering and cult of celebrity that BGT, the three judges, and the easily manipulated audience represent.  That's the stuff deserving of cynicism, the motives that should be questioned, the glib shallowness that true Cynics would have eviserated with scathing humor and living example. 

And what of those claiming to be cynical about Susan Boyle?  They weren't questioning her motives  when she walked onto the stage.  They weren't on their guard against her inner selfishness, soon to be revealed.  No.  They saw a frumpy, middle-aged woman and decided that no good could come from her.  The word they're looking for is not cynical, but shallow.  And also sexist in that peculiar way that equates outer female beauty with inner female beauty in a direct one-to-one ratio.

Few people will proudly proclaim their shallowness to the world, however. "Cynical" has more élan.  It tells people you're on to them, before they can get on to you.  It connotes savvy and cool.  But what could be farther from savvy and cool than the audience for "Britain's Got Talent" or any other reality talent show?  Their trained seal responses are choreographed to the core.  A sturdy woman walks onto the stage and gives her age (47, gasp), and the audience snickers, boooo.  Seconds later, a beautiful voice emerges from her throat and they leap to their feet in adulation, yea!  Simon Cowell pronounces that Susan can go to back to her village with head held high, blessed by the BGT judges and audience.  Rapture erupts.

I imagine that Susan Boyle already walked around her village with head held high.  In fact, it looks like Susan Boyle–modest, self-aware and ascetic–is the real Cynic.  And Diogenes of Sinope, resting on the sidewalk at the stage door and eating a banana after his daily 10 mile run, gives her a wink as she exits the coliseum, having bested the lions and confounded the crowd.