Cynicism today is not helpful, no matter how much you like Van Gogh

Photo by: Jean-Léon Gérôme

Cynicism today is not helpful. 

In ancient Greece, the foremost cynic philosopher lived in a massive ceramic jar in the streets of Athens. He criticized the largest idealist philosopher of the day, Plato, and preached poverty and action over theory and a lifestyle accustomed to nomos (social custom). 

Diogenes as a historical figure is interesting in his own right; even his rebellion against social custom could be seen as admirable in certain respects. For example, he disdained the economic system of slavery in Athens. However, cynicism functions today in a much less active and dialectical way.

Recently, a video emerged of two young Just Stop Oil climate activists throwing soup cans on a famous Vincent Van Gogh painting to bring awareness to the impending climate disaster. In the video, they appeal to the fact that climate change will be felt especially by their age cohort. Many immediately came to the defense of art, politeness and more proper tactics of activism. The story made it to the New York Times, essentially fulfilling the goal of spreading the activists’ message. Meanwhile the painting was hardly damaged as it was covered by a glass pane. 

The activists’ actions quickly fomented broad cynicism online. Twitter user @ShellenbergerMD tweeted:

“two activists just threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s original masterpiece, ‘Sunflowers’ to protest natural gas and oil. With millions at risk of dying around the world from energy & food shortages, this isn’t climate altruism, it’s anti-human nihilism.”

What’s fascinating about this tweet is that this was not meant to be “climate altruism.” Altruism implies notions of selflessness and a care for others. What was clear in the video was that these young activists were speaking about the dismal future prospects that they themselves and their age group are facing down the pipeline. 

This kind of cynical judgment on decorum was also seen in the response to Greta Thunberg’s climate activism. Many commentators felt Thunberg was too militant and rhetorical; playing at people’s heartstrings instead of being quiet and polite like a young person “ought” to if they want a seat with the adults in the room. 

Cynicism does nothing for our future. We collectively face the prospect of life on earth as we know it ending. The youngest generations alive today and their kids are going to be enmeshed in climate catastrophe, the prospects of which we’re already seeing in places like Pakistan where monsoon rains have caused flooding that has displaced over a third of the population. 

The philosophical school of cynicism that Diogenes preached was one of action over thought. If a lick of that sentiment connected with today’s cynics then perhaps kids wouldn’t have to take such desperate measures to get their voices heard. 

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