Cynicism is Consent

Now and then I think of an aphorism that’s so self evident that surely some guru must have said it by now. Perhaps someone did before 1990, but Google finds nothing for “cynicism is consent.”

So I’ll say it.  Cynicism is consent.

Currently I’m having a small, polite dust-up with the Cincinnati Enquirer about a false headline on a story.  When I tweeted about it, I got this tweet from a leading urbanist thinker whom I very much admire:

“You expect a headline writer to understand subtlety? Hah!”

To which my response is:  Not unless I force them to.

I cannot begin to describe how much better public transit would be if people who feel cynical about it would complain constructively instead of languishing in the dead-end expressed by that tweet.  And yes, you have to do it over and over.  Patiently.

As a consultant with 20 years under my belt in this business, I have seen enough of “what really goes on behind closed doors” that if I wanted to express cynicism, I’d be way more qualified than most folks to back it up.  But you’ll notice I don’t.

As with many issues, public transit in America is neglected because of apathy, not opposition.  The opponents are not the problem.  The apathy of supporters is.  And cynicism is a big part of that apathy.

Cynicism often dresses itself up as wisdom and worldliness.  Often it sounds like the voice of older folks warning young ones against idealism.

But in the end, the cynic who presumes the worst is as useless as the pollyanna who presumes the best.  Because to assume either of those things means that there’s nothing for you to do, which means you are consenting.

18 Responses to Cynicism is Consent

  1. Thecristen June 13, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    Great message. It also applies to many many areas besides public transit. This is just what I needed to read today. Thank you.

  2. Alex Forrest June 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    So glad to read this today! I just attended a local transit committee meeting yesterday–one of the attendees was a regular rider like myself. Our bus network is currently being evaluated by a consulting firm, which held stakeholder meetings. When this particular rider attempted to attend one of these meetings, he was informed that–as a passenger–he was not a stakeholder (!!), and was thus barred from attending.
    Faced with such a situation, it’s easy to be cynical, but that accomplishes nothing. I spoke with the rider after the meeting and we’ll be working together in future to ensure that passengers have a say in their transit system. Persistence–and good ideas–are the only ways to make a difference!

  3. Alex June 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    So transportation engineers refer to bus pull-outs as transit amenities out of apathy, not opposition?

  4. Beta Magellan June 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    In the words of Aaron Renn:
    So why do I say that the people of Chicago don’t want a great system? Because it’s true. People in Chicago like to grouse about the CTA the way they complain about the weather. But that doesn’t translate into anything more than amusing newspaper columns and blog postings. Like the weather, the problems of transit underinvestment are viewed as simply the “background noise” you have to put up with to live in Chicago.

  5. ReeD June 13, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    Thank you for this. I keep pushing for optimism and excitement — it’s easy to get caught up in the negativity, but it’s a cop-out and a disservice. People who love things should be fighting for them not against the negativity. A fair amount of this may come down to the higher road idea as well.

  6. Colin Stewart June 14, 2013 at 6:12 am #

    Great post, Jarrett. Nothing to add.

  7. roxygrrl177 June 14, 2013 at 7:32 am #

    I really needed this today. Thank you.

  8. BTA June 14, 2013 at 8:17 am #

    I totally agree. I’ve noticed that major projects attract sometimes attract massive debates online and in print but when I go to public meetings not that many other people show up. Jokes on them I guess because my comments actually end up on the record.

  9. EngineerScotty June 14, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    My only addition would be to counsel that folks avoid the other end of the spectrum–conducting themselves in public advocacy like a**holes. Which is not to say that activists cannot and should not be firm–but if you expect to be taken seriously, behave seriously.

  10. Steve Munro June 15, 2013 at 8:02 am #

    Second try at this comment: As someone who has been an activist/advocate for over 40 years, and who has watched (and been the recipient of) varying treatments by public agencies, I have found that there is no one approach that “works” in being listened to.
    The most common problem is professionals (and even worse, politicians who depend on them to justify their positions) who treat “the public” as a pesky group to be at best mollified, at worst ignored or belittled.
    If the pros want to be taken seriously, recognize that criticism of your work does not automatically mean the speaker is a fool to be dismissed. Sometimes, far too often, you are wrong, or at least not entirely right.

  11. EN57 June 16, 2013 at 6:34 am #

    Why would public transport activists be cynical in the first place? How have they been disappointed in the past? How has their trust been lost?
    Politicians, transport professionals and yes, independent globetrotting consultants too, need to ask themselves if they are speaking or behaving in a way that might be causing or deepening distrust in the handling of public transport issues and solutions. Breaking trust by enthusiastically promising theoretical, one-size-fits-all solutions that can’t be practically delivered would be one way. Ignoring inconvenient community concerns would be another.

  12. AlYourPalster June 16, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    I really wish I could believe that, however if you are really honest about the situation you see that special interest has hijacked many functions of government one of them being transit.
    Now how do ‘we’ the citizens, who have been locked out of the power process, do anything about that?
    It’s not by passive compliance. It’s by resistance.
    Some of that resistance takes the form of pointing out corruption and collusion.
    And to continue to point it out, in the face of being ostracized and scorned as being ‘unproductive’ to the conversation.
    No great social movement has ever been accomplished by ‘being nice’. It all comes with a certain degree of angst and turmoil.
    Too many people are vested in ‘appearances’ and not in results.
    Some of us are fighting multimillion dollar tax funded propaganda machines. How do we fight that?
    It’s virtually impossible. Sometimes shouting is the only way to get attention.

  13. AlYourPalster June 16, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

    “””but if you expect to be taken seriously, behave seriously”””
    ~~~>This is a serious issue. What the author is suggesting is that ‘professionals’ can act in all sorts of unethical and dubious behavior but since they do that with etiquette and manners then somehow its acceptable.
    But the guy that is shouting CRIMINALS! CHARLATANS! LIARS! Somehow is not to be taken seriously because he is shouting!
    And there my friends is the problem. People have their values backwards and are looking at the wrong qualities to judge situations.
    How do we correct peoples values? I guess we can’t can we.

  14. AlYourPalster June 16, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

    And this is what happens when you ignore criticism; the citizens of Brazil have taken to the streets because of deaf dumb and blind planners/technocrats.

  15. Nathanael June 17, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Real cynicism only comes from thwarted idealists.
    Listen to the people who are accused of being “cynical” about the massive US government spying on all Americans without cause. These are idealists.
    The people who are saying “No problem!” are neither cynics nor idealists, and *they* are the ones who are consenting.

  16. Murray June 17, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    I recall then lead singer of Midnight Oil, Peter Garrett saying once: the difference between cynicism and hope is action. Seems to reflect this attitude very well.

  17. Origami Isopod June 29, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    This might be accurate for talking about public transit, but I think we can safely assume the worst about the people who oppose things like equality marriage, reproductive rights, and voting rights.

  18. M July 10, 2016 at 9:50 pm #

    ” the cynic who presumes the worst is as useless as the pollyanna who presumes the pest.” => best