Cynicism Is Near And Far

People seem to find it easier to be idealistic about social institutions and practices in which they are not greatly involved. It seems easier for non-soldiers to be idealistic about the military, for those who do are not teachers or students to be idealistic about school, and for those who are not reporters or interviewees to be idealistic about journalism. It also seems easier for the never-married to be idealistic about marriage.

People also, however, tend to be less idealistic about social institutions very distant in time and space. They think that ancient doctors didn’t help health, that ancient police mostly took bribes, that ancient marriages were raw domination, and so on. They also tend to think institutions in distant nations are similarly dysfunctional.

Many folks succumb to nostalgia, but they usually celebrate moderately old institutions and practices; few are nostalgic for an era thousands of years past. Similarly, many folks are cynical about their family, the company they work for, or the city they live in, and presume things must be better in other nearby families, firms, or cities.

In all this I see an interestingly intermediate near-far effect: We seem the least idealistic, or the most cynical, about things the most near and the most far in time, space, and social distance. We seem the most idealistic about things at intermediate distances. What other intermediate near-far effects can we see?

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  • The reason for this seems to be that idealism involves a combination of care, liking, and moral absolutism. Care and liking tend to apply to near things and moral absolutism to far, so the greatest combined effect is in the middle.

    To find other such examples, I would look at things which require a combination of near and far attributes. e.g. creativity (far) + pictures (near) –> maybe art is mostly of intermediate things?

    • It is not enough to have two opposing forces to produce an interior maximum. These added tendencies need to both have a concave dependence on the parameter, in this case the degree of nearness.

  • Linda Seebach

    I think you’re wrong about journalism. Surveys commonly show the public is highly cynical about journalism, believes journalists are too chummy with people they cover, are careless about accuracy, display both overt and covert bias on political issues, and so forth. Journalists, also commonly, cannot understand why the public distrusts their virtuous, dedicated selves who only want to change the world and hardly ever get anything wrong. I worked for a newspaper, and was active in a couple of journalism organizations, and I ran into a lot of journalists like that.

  • Is not cynicism about ancient institutions simply the inevitable flipside of the idealism of the modern? In order to put today’s institutions on a pedestal (if that is indeed what happens), you would have to contrast them against a far-inferior past.

  • Jim Savage

    Perhaps it’s because we simply know more about the intermediate near? It’s easy to be nostalgic for the 1970s, because we know people who recount the time. But I know nobody who enjoyed the sweet pleasures that were Dark Age Europe.

  • Buck Farmer

    There’s a joke about anti-semitism I heard from Alan Dershowitz, which basically runs:

    Anti-semite: Jews are evil, control-the-world, etc…but Isaac Steinberg, my neighbor, he’s an exception, an upstanding citizen.

    Jew: Jews are a great and noble race who’ve given mankind art, literature and science under great persecution…but that Isaac Steinberg, he’s a scoundrel and a cheat.

    Essentially, the joke crosses two forms of near-far. One is “in-group vs. out-group” the other is “personal experience vs. abstract knowledge.”

    I’m proposing that in this scenario, the intermediate group is “in-group AND abstract knowledge” OR “out-group AND personal experience.” This would get you a convex “near-intermediate-far” curve.

    • Buck Farmer

      Mechanism may be:

      For “personal experience” cyncism offers direct personal benefit; for “abstract knowledge” cyncism offers little direct benefit, but is cheap and so should appear as a common (if weak) signal.

      For “in-group” necessity of signalling acceptance / solidarity for particular individuals less important than for the entire group, so for “in-group” cyncism is less costly (also may signal superior social knowledge of group); “out-group” has presumption against acceptance / solidarity, so cyncism is more costly.

  • All the examples of “far” social institutions in the article are taken from the past. I can think of a number of alternative explanations, including: People today are taught that society has progressed with regards to freedom, equality, etc. By extrapolation, people must have been much less free, equal, etc in the distant past.

    • The perception of social institutions in distant nations, can similarly be explained by the fact that we are taught the standards of our own culture, so nations which don’t adhere to those standards are likely to be perceived as less moral and more suspect.

  • Buck Farmer

    Picking up from Islander’s comment…I think the mechanism is more general than the particular idea of “progress” and “in-group vs. out-group”

    For example, for about two thousand years in China, the Zhou Dynasty was held up as the pinnacle of social and political achievement. The earlier Xia and Shang Dynasties were not so esteemed and seen as barbaric at worse or failures at best.

    During the Zhou, or at least the myth of the Zhou, formed a central part of what defined China versus not-China. The Zhou were glorified because they defined the “in-group vs. out-group” not just in the space, but also in time.

    Similarly, many Americans seem to mythologize the Founding Fathers and the early Republic…whereas many of the liberties and freedoms associated with them were part of a continuous tradition with England.

  • Sean

    I’m not sure that your premises are correct. Many people are nostalgic about some very old things which still exist in some form (the Catholic Church, the Imperial House of Japan, primitive hunter-gatherers). They are yet more likely to be nostalgic about recent things because there are more relatively recent things lying around.

    Maybe the near-far framework is not the best way to understand this issue.