Easy Chair — From the May 2016 issue

The Habits of Highly Cynical People

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 6 of 6 )

Accommodating change and uncertainty requires a looser sense of self, an ability to respond in various ways. This is perhaps why qualified success unsettles those who are locked into fixed positions. The shift back to failure is a defensive measure. It is, in the end, a technique for turning away from the always imperfect, often important victories that life on earth provides — and for lumping things together regardless of scale. If corruption is evenly distributed and ubiquitous, then there is no adequate response — or, rather, no response is required. This is so common an attitude that Bill McKibben launched a preemptive strike against it when he first wrote about the revelations last fall that Exxon knew about climate change as early as the 1970s:

A few observers, especially on the professionally jaded left, have treated the story as old news — as something that even if we didn’t know, we knew. “Of course they lied,” someone told me. That cynicism, however, serves as the most effective kind of cover for Exxon.

Even so, in response to the Exxon news, I heard many say airily, “Oh, all corporations lie.” But the revelations were indeed news. The scale is different from any corrupt and dishonest thing a corporation has ever done, and it’s important to appreciate the difference. The dismissive “it’s all corrupt” line of reasoning pretends to excoriate what it ultimately excuses.

When a corporation writes something off, it accepts the cost. When we write off corporations as inherently corrupt, we accept the cost, too. Doing so paves the way for passivity and defeat. The superb and uncynical journalists at the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News who investigated Exxon, along with the activists who pushed on the issue, prompted the attorneys general of New York and California to launch investigations. And the revelations offer us opportunities to respond — in David Roberts’s terms, to change the culture more. Like the much-disparaged fossil-fuel-divestment movement, the attacks on Exxon have delegitimized a major power in ways that can have far-reaching consequences.

What is the alternative to naïve cynicism? An active response to what arises, a recognition that we often don’t know what is going to happen ahead of time, and an acceptance that whatever takes place will usually be a mixture of blessings and curses. Such an attitude is bolstered by historical memory, by accounts of indirect consequences, unanticipated cataclysms and victories, cumulative effects, and long timelines. Naïve cynicism loves itself more than the world; it defends itself in lieu of the world. I’m interested in the people who love the world more, and in what they have to tell us, which varies from day to day, subject to subject. Because what we do begins with what we believe we can do. It begins with being open to the possibilities and interested in the complexities.

Previous Page Next Page
6 of 6

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf

More from Rebecca Solnit:

Easy Chair From the March 2018 issue

Nobody Knows

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada


March 2019

The Myth of White Genocide

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Story of Storytelling

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.