cyn·i·cism   (sn-szm)
1. An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others: the public cynicism aroused by governmental scandals.
2. A scornfully or jadedly negative comment or act: "She arrived at a philosophy of her own, all made up of her private notations and cynicisms" (Henry James).
3. Cynicism The beliefs of the ancient Cynics.
Found here.

There's an interesting discussion unfolding over in the Students & Educators working group on how students and older aid workers alike deal with cynicism. Check it out.

Cynicism seems ubiquitous in the aid world to such a large extent that we often take it for granted without asking some key questions:

Is cynicism a given? Is there something about the practice of aid work or about the professional life cycle of an aid worker which inevitably breeds cynicism? Is it possible to spend ones' life dealing with the realities of poverty, the effects of disasters both natural and human-made, and the realities of NGOs and the aid world and still see it all with a sense of optimism?

Is cynicism a good thing?  ...or a bad thing? Most people in the conversation seem to think that it's one or the other. Is there such a thing as 'healthy cynicism', a counter-balance to, I suppose, unhealthy optimism? (and is there such a thing as unhealthy optimism in the aid world?) Or is cynicism only so much self-indulgent, unhelpful negativity that doesn't move anyone any closer to making aid better.

Share your thoughts on these, or ask other burning questions about the role and place of cynicism in the aid industry.

Tags: Cynicism, aid, humanitarian practice

Views: 352

Replies to This Discussion

I thought we'd just agreed over on Grace's post we should stop arguing about this ; - )

However, I think it's more important for people to share their views on when cynicism is useful or just being a pain in the ass.. 

What would be really cool is to get all the other caring professions to dive in. Teachers, there is a group of cynical grumpy types, and Social Workers? I am sure they have lots to share... although this could become discussion as a form of therapy if we're not careful. 

I think it is useful to analyse when cynical attitudes become a barrier, and when they are a really useful way of avoiding expending emotional energy on pointless crusades... etc...

Let someone else pick up the baton... I think I'm developing a serious case of cynical 'ennui' over my own discussion of cynicism.....

I think cynicism and snark have a valuable place in aid work. On the surface, sometimes it's the only way to deal with thoroughly heartbreaking situations. For me, cynicism serves as a constant reminder that ultimately, aid work isn't about the workers, and good intentions cannot be used as a justification for fundamentally flawed or dangerous initiatives. 

This is harder to articulate, but cynicism reminds us that success in this field does, in fact, require skill and expertise. Heartwarming stories aside, this is an industry like computing or plumbing or medicine that requires particular skills and training. Passion and a desire to serve are useful, maybe even necessary, but hardly sufficient. We snark amateurs who blow up their house with an ill-planned electrical repair and no one would sign up for surgery with a 'volunteer' neurosurgeon on a three week holiday, but somehow noble intentions have created the perception that aid=charity and anyone can "do" it.

Snark creates an in-group (without the negative connotations - I simply mean a trained, educated, experienced community); it's an acknowledgement that, despite ongoing challenges, experienced aid workers are not operating from scratch. There is an established basis of knowledge of what works (or rather, what definitely doesn't work) - cynicism points out that we've learned these lessons, while also encouraging innovation that builds on these lessons. As a young (albeit already cynical) aid worker, I've found the community to be welcoming of discourse, eager to engage with new practitioners - in short, fundamentally idealistic about the potential of aid while acknowledging its inherent complexity. I think the fact that the aid world continues to value field experience for new recruits demonstrates that cynicism is not so much a negative as a learned tendency to examine the broader picture, ask questions, and acknowledge the limit of good intentions.

Cynicism feels different here because most people in the field are motivated by a deeply held desire to do good, and when their impact is questioned or criticized, it's hard not to take it personally. Similarly, many atheists are seen as rude or offensive - rejecting the existence of god inherently means rejecting someone else's worldview, which is much harder to swallow than simply disagreeing on the relative merits of chocolate or vanilla. Cynicism is fundamentally disagreement, and given the personal investment and sacrifices that aid workers (and volunteers, etc) make, it's difficult to accept that your admirable intentions alone cannot will the world into a more just and loving place. I don't think that the aid world is any more or less cynical than other fields, but since idealism is so much more pervasive and personal, the contrast makes cynicism stand out more.

In a nutshell, cynicism is a reminder that 'Just because you meant well doesn't mean you didn't hurt people,' and that's fundamentally valuable. I don't think any of us cynics have lost the idealism that drew us into this work in the first place - cynicism just keeps us 'confidently humble' (to quote J) and encourages us to consider the broader implications of our work and the limitations of aid alone to change the world. If we were truly 'cynical,' we wouldn't still be here - our cynicism is perhaps better classified as a pragmatic admission that doing good is harder than we think, but still worthwhile. 

That said, cynicism often crosses a line and turns into just plain ass-clownery, particularly when it trends towards personal affronts instead of legitimate, if sarcastic, mockery of well-established bad ideas. 

Is cynicism a given? -- Only if there is something to be cynical about.

Is cynicism a good thing? ... or a bad thing? -- It's like the internet. Can be used for good or evil.

Is skepticism a more appropriate response to unhealthy optimism? 

Aung San Suu Kyi calls for 'healthy scepticism'

skep·ti·cism also scep·ti·cism (skpt-szm)
1. A doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind; dubiety. See Synonyms at uncertainty.
2. Philosophy
a. The ancient school of Pyrrho of Elis that stressed the uncertainty of our beliefs in order to oppose dogmatism.
b. The doctrine that absolute knowledge is impossible, either in a particular domain or in general.
c. A methodology based on an assumption of doubt with the aim of acquiring approximate or relative certainty.
3. Doubt or disbelief of religious tenets.
In a cursory google search on skepticism vs. cynicism, it seems that many writers view skepticism as  a productive and intellectual mode of questioning, distinct from cynicism, which they view as simplistic negativity. 
I am inclined to agree. What do you think?

I think cynicism is healthy ... and personally I really enjoy a snarky blog or two. There has been days when reading HRI and SEAWL have put a smile on my face and stopped my from feeling like slapping someone in a long and drawn out life saving meeting.

I think it's not so good if you become so cynical you can't do your job. Then perhaps it may be time to move on.

"Does the aid world benefit from cynicism?"



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