It was bound to take a toll. As a society, we have been subject to a non-stop bombardment of political vitriol, unchecked media bias, misleading (at best) commercial claims and rampant on-line and telemarketing fraud. Those unyielding influences have turned the most pragmatic among us into skeptics and the naturally dubious into persistent cynics.
Cynicism is a defense mechanism. It is a way to regain a sense of control after one’s ability to trust has been eroded. Cynicism alleviates the need to put any effort into discerning which people, institutions or principles of science are worthy of our trust. To a cynic, none of them are. It is easier for the cynic to live in a perpetual state of outrage and denial than to admit that there is any good in the world or that there are any universal truths. Eventually, persistent cynicism becomes accepted as a substitute for wisdom. It is a poor substitute.
Cynicism becomes pernicious when it causes us to expose ourselves or others to harm. The willingness to undermine our democracy based on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud is an example of pernicious cynicism. Unnecessarily exposing oneself and others to contracting COVID-19 by refusing to avail oneself of an available vaccine is also an example of pernicious cynicism.
In the 1981 Bill Murray comedy Stripes, a too tightly wound recruit Francis “Psycho” Soyer informs his fellow recruits that if any of them “touches my stuff, touches me or calls me Francis – I will kill you.” The grizzled drill Sergeant Hulka immediately and appropriately responds, “Lighten up, Francis.” Now is the time to heed Sergeant Hulka’s advice.
We do not know what Francis Soyer went through to bring him to his heightened state of mistrust, but we do know that we have all been through a great deal of trauma recently. Causing political division for commercial gain is a destabilizing force. Living a socially distant lifestyle runs contrary to human nature. These things unsettle us and leave us vulnerable to pernicious cynicism. But there are people out there who can be trusted. Not every institution is looking to take advantage of us. Truth exists.
A fair dose of caution is reasonable but it is time we all lighten up because the path we are on is a destructive one. Trust is an essential component of the social compact and of a healthy life.
Chris Kervick is First Selectman of the Town of Windsor Locks.