Our Contribution to the World Begins with our Outlook
Cynicism feeds cynicism.
As college students, we are preparing to enter a workplace and society filled with socio-economic inequality, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, lacking empathy and more. How can we be a positive contribution to this imperfect world?
Our contribution to the world may not be as much a product of our actions as it is a product of our mindset. One can perceive the world either through a lens of cynicism or hope.
Cynicism is defined as the belief that people are motivated purely by self-interest. Our society often mistakes cynicism for realism. On his Instagram, Adam Grant, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University if Pennsylvania, wrote that, “Looking for the good in others doesn’t make you naive. It means you’re not cynical. Recognizing people’s strengths doesn’t deny their flaws. It reveals their potential to overcome their flaws. Those who refuse to see the good in others fail to bring out the best in others.”
This means that when we exaggerate the bad in people, we lose faith in them. For example, bipartisan gun control legislation would not have passed in Congress this June if all Congress Republicans had listened to Jim Jordan’s (R-OH) perspective that “...they [the Democrats] [a]’re coming after our Second Amendment liberties.” Assuming the best of their Democratic counterparts was key in a few Republicans ending their filibuster and joining the Democrats to pass a moderate gun control law.
Cynicism is a product of both misunderstanding other people and what we choose to emphasize in our worldview. When cynical, one may have no hope, and consequently see no reason to strive for better. As a result, he or she may accept violence as a remedy for violence, and satirize problems that seem grim or non-amenable to change.
Polybius’s History of the Roman Republic shows the importance of seeing the good in people rather than being cynical, even in the most extreme circumstances. Polybius tells the story of the Carthaginian War between Rome and Carthage, a growing empire in North Africa. Carthage staffed their military with paid soldiers from other nations. When Carthage lost the war, these soldiers did not receive their promised payments.
Carthage held the men in Libya until they could compensate them. In the face of injustice, the veterans mutinied violently, mutilating and killing their captors and crucifying a Carthaginian general.
Their behavior may seem justified. However, it did not yield positive results because violence often only gives way to more violence. Once the Carthaginians suppressed the mutiny, they responded with equal violence that the veterans gave them. They tortured and killed the former soldiers while parading through the streets of Carthage.
The mutinying veterans assumed the worst in their captors and in turn treated them the worst. The veteran's showed Carthage the worst of themselves with their violent mutiny, giving Carthage a reason to respond with more violence. Hence, if we lose hope in others, we contribute to hopelessness. The world becomes how we perceive it.
This might lead you to ask: why would captive soldiers ever see good in their captors? Having mercy on adversaries has been an effective way to preserve peace many times in history. For example, when Aemilius of Rome overthrew Perseus of Greece in 168 BC, he did not kill Perseus but held him captive, avoiding immediate blowback from the Greeks. Making concessions to Great Britain in 1794 through the Jay Treaty, the U.S. postponed war, buying time for the young nation.
Today, many people preach kindness and condemn the “eye for an eye” mentality that permeated the ancient world. But, have we really moved on?
When our co-workers don't do their work, a manager is sexist, or politicians fail to address pressing issues like climate change and gun violence, it is easy to become cynical as a leader or a civilian. However, when we are violent toward those who oppose us, they assume the worst in us as we do in them. Violence gives way to more violence, and stagnates (or even reverses) progress.
What if we can contribute to the world by simply embracing a hopeful, but realistic, outlook in our own lives?
Observational learning is the idea that our brains mimic behavior simply by observing it. This means that just like the violence of mutinying soldiers inspired violence in their captors, parental violence can inspire their children to be violent as well. It is tremendously important to see the good in the world so that we can treat it well. Our world becomes what we see.
Likewise, we can achieve progress for gender equality by assuming the best in our colleagues. Studies show that gender equality initiatives in the workplace can sometimes spark backlash. When women assume the worst in men, men assume the worst in us. Enforcing positive behavior in men while advocating for women’s rights may increase cooperation by inspiring men to see the good in women’s rights advocates as well. While of course, there are sometimes problems that call for a more assertive stance in order to gain political ground, we need to recognize that putting hope before cynicism can help us achieve growth in many areas of our life - from the gender equality in the work place to the family unit to mental health and often government.
Cynicism is often unproductive and only fans the flames of our world's problems. Embracing hopefulness and striving to put understanding before condemnation may be the first and most important step we can take in building a better world.