Scepticism Good – Cynicism Bad

by David Garnett

Those of us who do voluntary work in the community are often confronted with scepticism about our ability to achieve what we say and occasionally even cynicism about our motives. One of the things I learned from working with professional community workers is that scepticism can be turned into a positive force. If you stay with it, refuse to react negatively to those with doubts and demonstrate that you can be deliver tangible outcomes, sceptics eventually turn round and become active friends. On a number of occasions I have seen how the professionalism and persistence of individual staff members of a housing association persuaded one-time sceptics that they are listening to people’s concerns and are sincere in their intentions. What I have learned from serving on the board of community organisations is that cynicism (unlike scepticism) is often ideologically or politically driven and can be a pernicious force that demoralises staff and frustrates the work of the organisation. My conclusion is that scepticism should be embraced and cynicism has to be confronted head on.

One of the worst mistakes that any service provider can make is to over-promise. Where you deliver what was possible and are clear about what was is not possible, sceptics (“I’ll believe it when I see it”) can be turned into fans.

Confronting cynicism
Cynicism is not the same as scepticism. The difference between the sceptic and the cynic is that, having examined the evidence, the sceptic may conclude that the proposition is correct or the promise delivered. The cynic, on the other hand, is not interested in looking at the evidence at all (or only selecting those bits of evidence that support his or her prejudices and preconceptions), and simply assumes that the proposition is wrong or the promise is bound to be broken. Scepticism is at the heart of the scientific method. The true sceptic looks for objective facts and is prepared to give credit for success. By contrast, the cynic tends to be negative and ignorant and, in my experience, often motivated by malice. The cynic tends to be disorientated by, and dismissive of, other people’s successes.

We might argue that scepticism can be a positive thing, leading to intelligent questioning and constructive argument. Cynicism, on the other hand, is a wholly negative thing that seeks for problems that do not exist and exaggerates (or even sensationalises) those that do. Cynics look for reasons not to get involved and enjoy disparaging those who do: it is wilfully dismissive and destructive. In modern civic life there is a fair degree of cynicism that has to be overcome to achieve worthwhile outcomes. Those of us in public life know only too well that the local press gleefully reports bad news stories while good news stories often get ignored. The response should be to embrace the sceptics and confound the cynics and get on and continue to pursue the possible.

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