In Defense of Cynicism

I’ve been thinking about cynicism a lot lately, for no particular reason aside from the fact that I am a cynic.

According to the actual definition, a cynic is either an adherent of the Greek philosophical school of cynicism, and/or simply a person who believes that human actions are motivated by selfishness (or rational self-interest, to put it more euphemistically).

While I do happen to believe that, I think the word “cynic” has taken on a slightly different, more general meaning, and that is the one that I usually think of when I call myself that. This general definition is that a cynic is a person who sees the faults in things more clearly than most.

Obviously, this entire blog is an expression of that particular trait of mine, and that’s why people seem to either love it or hate it–for the most part, you either “get” cynicism or you don’t.

I think, though, that at least when it comes to politics and social justice, cynicism isn’t nearly as miserable and self-defeating as people think it is. Most intelligent people, if pressed, will admit that there are some serious problems in our society. However, they will tell you that none of this will ever change, that it’s depressing to even think about, and that it’s best to focus your attention on friends, family, work, hobbies.

But we “cynics,” who point out all these problems and analyze them so enthusiastically, seem to actually enjoy the process of unearthing trouble, even if the things we find often disgust and dismay us. The reason the process is so rewarding is because we know that we’re crawling along towards change, and that the more people we urge to care with our commentary, the faster that crawl will go.

So who’s the real cynic?

Of course, there are certainly people out there who cannot remain informed about societal problems while still holding on to their mental health. To such people, I would obviously say to take care of yourself first.

But I think that most people who protest that being critical is “depressing” are selling themselves short. What’s truly depressing is to feel like you have to deceive yourself into believing that everything’s just awesome because you can’t change it anyway.

Cynicism may not be the right word for my approach, but I don’t think there really is one. For instance, calling myself a “critical” person sends an equally distorted message, because it makes it sound like I criticize things for the sake of criticizing them. I don’t. I criticize them because they need to be criticized, and because we all stand to gain from criticizing them.

Instead, I like to call my philosophy “optimistic cynicism.” Or, you know–hope.

Not All Activism is Good Activism

I’ll be honest with you: whenever I see a social media campaign going viral, I get suspicious.

It’s not because I think people are evil or stupid, or because I dislike popular things (although that is often the case). It’s because for anything to become popular, it must be simple, easy-to-understand, without nuance.

The violence in Uganda is none of these things.

I have not posted the Kony 2012 video to my Facebook like so many of my friends have. That is because I don’t know–I can’t know, really–if the video does justice to the reality in Uganda. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the video here.

My views on this subject are much more complex than the act of posting a video. That’s why I’ve chosen to add my two cents not by reposting it, but by writing this.

First of all, look at some other types of activism that have gone viral lately. There were the SlutWalks, started when a Toronto cop told a bunch of students that women should avoid “dressing like sluts” in order to not be raped. SlutWalk consists of some very simple concepts: Don’t blame women for their own rapes. It’s not about what they’re wearing. And, by the way, what’s so bad about being a “slut?”

Then there was Occupy Wall Street, and all the other Occupy protests it spawned. The message of OWS was simple, too: there is too much damn inequality. The gap between the One Percent and the 99 Percent is too wide. Wall Street’s gains have become excessive.

There’s obviously plenty to criticize about SlutWalk and OWS. The former has been accused of marginalizing the voices of non-white, non-hetero, non-middle class women and pandering to the very sexist forces it seeks to combat by having women march around in their underwear.

The latter, meanwhile, has been criticized for being too ambiguous, not having specific demands for the government or for the financial sector, being anarchist/socialist/Communist, being unrealistic, consisting of too many people who supposedly majored in something stupid in college and don’t deserve jobs anyway.

But for all of their failures, SlutWalk and OWS have ensured that the issues of victim-blaming and economic inequality have entered our public dialogue–and stayed in it.

Kony 2012 seeks to do a similar thing. By “making Kony famous,” its creators insist, we can place Joseph Kony on the public agenda and “do something” about his terrible crimes.

But this is where things start to get dicey.

First of all, let me just say that I think awareness is extremely important. I think that American citizens, as a whole, aren’t nearly aware enough of what’s going on in their own backyards, let alone on another continent. More awareness, in my opinion, is almost always better than less awareness.

So on that front, I commend Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign. The video they have created is well-made in a way that ensures that nobody who watches it can remain ambivalent about what’s going on in Uganda.

However, the purpose of the video isn’t just to spread awareness. It’s to raise money.

For what, exactly?

Invisible Children supports military intervention–yes, you read that correctly–to stop Kony. Specifically, the money it raises goes towards supporting Uganda’s government and its army, which Kony’s LRA is fighting against.

But here’s the sad, sad irony of the situation: Uganda’s army is likely just as bad as Kony’s. It has also been reported to use child soldiers and has been accused of raping civilians and looting their property.

Guys, I don’t know how else to say this: do not give money to these people.

Besides this glaring issue, Invisible Children has also been criticized for their own actions as a charity organization. Last year, they spent about 8.7 million dollars, but only 32% of that money went to direct services. The rest covered the organization’s internal costs.

I know what you’re thinking: yeah, yeah, that’s any charity. Sure, all charities have to cover certain costs before they can contribute money to the actual causes that they support. However, not all charities are as bad about this as Invisible Children, which was rated 2/4 stars by Charity Navigator.

Here’s another thing not all charities do, but Invisible Children does. That’s right, they’re actually posing with guns and soldiers from the Ugandan army. This is unprofessional at best and narcissistic and self-congratulatory at worst. (Here’s the source.)

According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Invisible Children has also exaggerated its “facts” about the LRA in order to gain support. Now, some people don’t see much of a problem with this. Whatever keeps the checks coming, right?

Needless to say, I disagree. If you need to manipulate information in order to raise money, you’re not behaving ethically, and that’s the case whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a non-profit. That’s just what I believe.

Fortunately, there are plenty of more reputable charities that provide aid to Uganda. Here are some: War Child, Children of Uganda, Kiva (you can make microloans to people all over the world, including, obviously, Uganda). Some great organizations that aren’t specific to Uganda are Doctors Without Borders, Help International, Women for Women.

So giving money to Invisible Children might not be the best idea, especially if you don’t want your money going to an army that rapes people. But what about the other half of Kony 2012′s mission, raising awareness?

I’m not sure how making Kony a “household name” is going to help things, to be honest. Unlike campaigns like SlutWalk and OWS, which targeted ordinary American citizens to make themselves aware of issues they can actually do something about, Invisible Children wants to stop a powerful Ugandan warlord. But contrary to their claims that Kony needs to be “made famous,” he’s already quite well-known among the people who matter. The International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes back in 2005, and the American government has already had Kony on their radar for some time. In fact, as the Foreign Affairs article I linked to above discusses, they’ve been sending troops there for a while. So far, though, they haven’t succeeded in actually capturing him.

But even that raises difficult questions. Does Invisible Children want the United States to intervene militarily in order to stop Kony? If so, how is this any different from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which, ironically, were strongly opposed by the very same progressive-minded people who are now feverishly posting the Kony video on Facebook)? And if not, what exactly are ordinary Americans supposed to do upon learning about Kony?

These are all questions that aren’t really being asked in the rush to spread an admittedly powerful and emotional video. But they need to be asked. You’ve Facebooked it, you’ve Tweeted it, you’ve favorited the video on YouTube. Now what?

Unfortunately, just the act of asking these questions, and of suggesting that Invisible Children may not be winning any awards for the world’s most ethical charity, is frowned upon. Every article and Facebook post I’ve come across that criticizes this campaign has been deluged with comments about how “they’re just trying to do a good thing” and “why do you have to criticize everything.”

Ah, the age-old question–why, indeed, must we criticize everything?

Here’s the thing. The stakes are quite a bit higher here than for other viral campaigns. If SlutWalk fails, nothing happens. If Occupy Wall Street fails, nothing happens. If Kony 2012 fails, nothing may happen–or, Uganda’s army will obtain more power that it can use to rape more people and enslave more child soldiers. Kony may be captured and someone else may take over who is even crueler. The United States may become involved in yet another costly foreign entanglement.

Another fact worth noting is that many, many African writers (including Ugandan ones) have been criticizing this campaign very strongly. Now, I’m not one of those people who claim that Americans have no place doing charity work in Africa because White Man’s Burden, but I do think that when the very people you’re trying to help are criticizing the help you’re providing, you need to sit down and listen. I’ve included some links to these criticisms at the end of this post.

I keep hearing the remark that criticizing Kony 2012 only “brings down morale” and keeps people from donating money. However, as long as the criticism is factual–that is, as long as Invisible Children really does support the Ugandan army and really is only spending a third of its money on actual aid to Uganda–then those are facts that potential donors ought to know before they make their decision.

If you’re relying on misinformation or lack of information to get people to donate to your cause, what you’re spreading isn’t awareness. It’s propaganda.

As I said before, awareness is important. But a free society thrives on dialogue. Posting a video and then condemning everyone who dares to criticize it is not dialogue.

These are, quite literally, matters of life or death. This is not the time to be upbeat and positive about everything you hear just because you don’t want to rain on the parade.

For more perspectives on Kony and Invisible Children’s campaign, here are some good sources:

Won't Someone Please Think of the Sluts?

[Snark Warning]

I was bemused recently by the reaction when I mentioned on my Tumblr–in the context of a larger conversation–that I’m proud of the fact that I’m not, for lack of a better term, “promiscuous.”

I was promptly accused of “slut-shaming,” which, according to this blog, is constituted by the following:

the idea of shaming and/or attacking a woman or a girl for being sexual, having one or more sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, and/or acting on sexual feelings.

The word “slut” has recently undergone a revival of sort, and was used for the infamous SlutWalks of this past spring and summer. Naive as I am, I’d assumed that the point of this new discourse on slut-shaming was to emphasize that everyone should be free to choose–and to take pride in–whatever sort of sexual life they desire. This would be an idea that I would support till my dying day.

Apparently, though, the hidden side of this message is that it’s no longer fashionable to be sexually abstinent or to reserve sex for serious, loving relationships, and that anyone who takes pride in their decision to do so is necessarily shaming sluts.

Well, needless to say, I don’t subscribe to that notion. Here’s why.

I love my major (psychology). I’m proud of the fact that I’m studying to be a psychologist and would not have it any other way. Does that mean I look down upon everyone who chooses a different major and think that everyone should study psychology? No.

Another example. I’m proud of being Jewish. Although I’m not observant, I take a lot out of the Jewish tradition and would not want to belong to any other faith. Does that mean I look down upon everyone who has another religion? No.

But for some reason, when we’re talking about sexual politics, everyone seriously loses their heads. This entire branch of the social justice movement is subject to the very same dichotomous thinking it despises (i.e. the virgin-whore dichotomy, and others). A bunch of people simply assumed that just because I’m proud of my own decisions about my sex life, I look down upon all other possible decisions and therefore am taking part in slut-shaming.

Sorry to complicate things for you, but no. As I’m constantly posting things on my Tumblr regarding sexual freedom and related topics, and as I’m a member of a campus organization dedicated to, among other things, promoting sex positivity, I think I can safely vouch for the fact that I don’t deplore anybody’s personal choices as long as they do not involve harming others.

But that simply does not mean that I don’t take pride in my own actions and decisions. I think people are assuming that “pride” implies a moral stance, but it doesn’t. I’m not proud of my abstinence from casual sex because I think I’m more moral than others. I’m proud of it for other reasons, such as:

  • it’s a rejection of college social norms, and I’m always happy to reject some social norms;
  • it’s a way of observing my beliefs about sexuality and spirituality–beliefs that are not necessarily religious in nature, but that I hold very strongly (for myself);
  • and, most importantly, it’s the healthiest choice for me, and in a culture where psychological health plays second fiddle (hell, last fiddle) to everything else, I’m proud of doing what’s healthiest for me.

You might have noticed that in the preceding list, I italicized “for myself” and “for me.” This is because I’m acknowledging that the choices I’ve made, and my pride regarding those choices, reflects the fact that this is what’s right for me as an individual, and not necessarily what I’d wish to impose on the rest of the general population.

I realize that this distinction may have been lost on some people–namely, the ones that accused me of “slut shaming”–in my original post, but that’s why I’ve dedicated this entire article to illuminating it.

The end result of all this is that I’m no longer quite so enthusiastic about participating in a movement that denies me the right to take pride in my lifestyle just because it’s not what the cool kids are doing these days. That’s not even considering the fact that, as difficult as “sluts” have it, my decision to abstain from casual sex hasn’t been entirely free of consequences either. Where’s the discourse on virgin-shaming? Or, in my case, people-who-hate-hooking-up-shaming?

(Just recently on Tumblr, I witnessed dozens of people ganging up on a girl who declared in a completely judgment-free way that she wishes to remain a virgin till marriage. To these sexually liberated but mentally stunted morons, I only have this to say–for shame.)

So I’ll end with this: to any self-described sluts who are reading this and feel shamed by my personal lifestyle choices, I offer my sincere apologies. However, I’ll also advise you to learn how to derive your self-esteem from internal pride rather than external approval. I’ll keep advocating for sex-positivity because it’s what I believe in, but I’m sure as hell going to live my life the way I want to and be proud of it, with or without your approval.

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