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Are we too cynical to change the world? Interview with Paul Loeb

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Photo credit: bahri altay, Shutterstock

Photo credit: bahri altay, Shutterstock

When it comes to making a difference, we know how hard it can be to get started. However, even when you’ve been working for a while, discouragement and disillusionment can set in and make you wonder if you are truly having an impact. How do you keep going in the face of setbacks, challenges, and doubt?

We recently explored this question with Paul Loeb, advocate and author of five books including Soul Of A Citizen and The Impossible Will Take A Little While. His work tackles cynicism—the voice that tells you that change is not possible—and how changemakers from around the world have wrestled with cynicism and continued trying to make a difference.

In our interview, Paul talks about the origins of cynicism, the power of community, and why courage is contagious.

In Soul of a Citizen you touch on cynicism throughout the book, but you also have an entire chapter devoted to cynicism. Why focus on this topic?

Most people have a sense that the world needs some fixing and there are a ton of people who want to make a difference. The question is, “What are you going to do about it?”

Cynicism is the corrosive acid that says, “Why bother? Nothing that I’m going to do will matter.” Cynicism mocks the idealist. It’s different from saying, “I disagree with you about tax policy.” The cynic is the person who says that this work in its entirety is futile.

However, avoiding cynicism doesn’t mean being naïve. Not being cynical means that although you don’t know the exact outcome, you take action anyway and do the best you can. This is true in any historical context: You can be as strategic as possible while still recognizing that you’re never going to be sure about the outcome.

For example, Rosa Parks wasn’t this accidental activist who just stumbled into engagement. She’d been active in the local NAACP chapter for a dozen years, serving as their secretary, and had taken training sessions the summer before her arrest at the labor and civil rights center, The Highlander School. She was being a strategic actor. She knew she was going to be launching a particular campaign in a larger effort for justice and equality. But she didn’t know what the outcome would be, because you never do.

So once you get past cynicism, you try your best and act as effectively as you can.

Where does cynicism come from?

Paul Loeb

Paul Loeb

It’s a defense. Cynicism allows you to think that what you do won’t matter, so you shouldn’t even bother. Or you decide that those who are taking action that they’re just more noble than you are, and you use that as your excuse for inaction. But the moment you say that these problems are not inevitable, then you have to act.

If you have been working for change for a while, cynicism can come from exhaustion or a perception of futility. It comes from expectations not being met. But you have to have a long-term perspective. You’re inevitably going to lose some battles. Going back to the Rosa Parks example, while the boycott galvanized by her arrest took the civil rights movement to another level, there were all sorts of moments that seemingly didn’t do anything or didn’t work. You still have to keep going.

How can we address cynicism individually and organizationally?

At organizations, we need to take care of our staff. Most people in the nonprofit and social change sectors do hard work that’s not necessarily financial rewarding, so they have that added stress which can be so draining sometimes. Does the organization make a conscious effort to remind people that staff is appreciated and that their work is important? We take for granted and assume they know their work is important, but we need to tell them.

Also, isolation can burn people out. You can be working for social change and still feel isolated. If you end up doing something hard and you aren’t supported, someone needs to say, “Yes it’s hard, but here’s what we’ve done and here’s what we can do to get around this problem, together.”

In my own situation, I run a national project to get students involved in elections, and I have to be mindful to give my staff enough support. They’re the people who are actually making our work happen on the ground.

Dealing with cynicism is similar for individuals and organizations: Surround yourself with supportive communities. If you’re surrounded by cynicism, that attitude can easily become the norm. If you want to say, “I’m really worried about climate change. Look at the fires in Yosemite” but you hesitate to voice your views and draw others in to act because you’re afraid you’ll be mocked, then maybe you need a new supportive community.

Remember, “courage is contagious.” So to speak out, in the context of friends or workplace, or when doing outreach for an organization takes a certain amount of courage, but you’ll be better off in the long run.

How have you wrestled with cynicism yourself?

It’s funny, I don’t think wrestle with cynicism per se, though it’s easy to be caustic when you look at political leaders impeding action on real issues. I do wrestle with despair from time to time. If I see a really bad bill pass or if an important citizen’s movement loses a key battle I’ll definitely feel blue for a while, because I can see the likely consequences.

So I have to deal with that just like anyone else. I usually spend a little time being bummed out. Then I’ll go for a run, because I’ll always feel better. I’ll try to ground myself in the natural world; going back to what nourishes my spirit. Then I’ll talk with friends. That’s when I start thinking of possibilities. If you feel like there are no possibilities, then the door is shut and despair builds on itself. But when I think about the future and ways ordinary people can change it, then I’m thinking of new possibilities and my hopes open up accordingly.

For example, when I look at the steadily climbing atmospheric numbers on climate change, it’s terrifying. But then I see my city or other cities significantly reducing their carbon impact this opens up a new sense of possibilities. I start to wonder, how can we extend this? How can we make it possible to extend and expand this momentum throughout our country and worldwide?

And when you open up possibilities, whatever the situation is, you have a chance to bring more people in, because people respond to hope.

Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times, and of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Hope in a Time of Fear, as well as three other books. He’s also the founder of the Campus Election Engagement Project, and you can learn more about his work at www.paulloeb.org

3 Comments

  1. Geoffrey

    There is can be a fine spiritual line between cynicism, skepticism and the positive critical analysis of that which is status quo. Our media rich environments are not the most positive and heavily influence our perceptions.

    If we are able to, as we currently are to some extent, increase the filters on our media to help distribute as much “factual,” and positive information to ourselves, we can jump the hurdles mentioned in the above article.

    A singular platform that revolutionizes the way we use our networks for the purposes of organization and communication about social, environmental, and human causes would really help this ;)

    • Lisa Weeks

      I don’t believe cynicism is the problem. I believe people want to help and to make the world a better place. However, when they see all the problems of the world, they are overwhelmed. They ask themselves, “Where do I begin?” That, I believe, is the reason more people don’t get involved.

      • I view cynicism and a sense of powerlessness and being overwhelmed as intertwined. As I explore both in Soul of a Citizen and in the wholly updated edition of The Impossible Will Take a Little While, we overcome them by recognizing that the impact of our actions isn’t guaranteed. But that when we do jump in, ideally working together with others, our actions can lead to powerful and sometimes unexpected impacts.

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