The Bad Cynicism Bandwagon
Much has been studied and written about police cynicism over the past 40 years. Arthur Neiderhoffer’s seminal research on police cynicism, reported in his 1969 book, Behind the Shield: The Police in Urban Society, spawned additional studies, challenges and debate. [See web link to Anita Mignone’s analysis of Neiderhoffer’s work.]
Police cynicism, how it arises and its purported effects are a standard topic now for police administration. Most of the literature condemns police cynicism as a precursor to:
Medical research similarly suggests that cynicism has ill effects. Cynics are more likely to suffer and die from heart disease than their bubbly brethren. Whether this is due to their cynicism or the fact that cynics drink and smoke more then their sunny sisters has not been determined.
Cynics are more likely to commit suicide. Whether this is due to their cynicism or a genetic intolerance to perky people that makes death seem preferable needs further study. [See web link to Pessimism, Cynicism Can Hurt Your Heart. ]
The current mainstream thinking in policing and medicine (and the ubiquitous self-help movement) is that cynicism is a bad thing. I joined this bandwagon. In my leadership training I’d ask police officers, “Are you more cynical now than when you began policing?”
Nationwide, the overwhelming majority of officers say they’ve become more cynical doing police work. Then I’d ask the officers if they thought they took their cynicism home. Most acknowledged they did to some extent. Next I asked if they thought their family deserved that and most would say their families didn’t. [See web link to Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. ]
I’d preach that cynicism was a death of the spirit. That, worse than all the other possible negative effects, meant the bad guys—the forces of evil—had won. Finally, I’d throw down the gauntlet and tell officers they could choose to be cynical—or not. Sometimes I’d even get an, “Amen, sister!”
“When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Will Appear”
That’s a Buddhist proverb. I don’t practice Buddhism, but I’m not above using what works from any belief system. One day as I was training on leadership, a teacher appeared. He was a seasoned officer and he spoke up after I gave my rousing sermon on the sins of cynicism. He asked me to define the term. I offered the most common definition from the literature: “Cynicism is a distrust of human nature and motives. A cynic expects the worst in human behavior.” My teacher replied, “That’s what keeps me alive on the streets.”
Having never been a patrol officer, that still made sense to me. I needed to add some wisdom to my knowledge. I started reviewing what I already knew from my studies.
Can Cynicism Ever Be a Good Thing in Policing?
If it helps keep police alive, as my teacher suggested, it’s definitely a good thing. There were also my personal preferences, from which I’d done a major disconnect. We all know cynical people who can suck the air out of a room. People who use their cynicism as an excuse to cop out of life with all its mysteries, paradoxes, ironies and serendipities, and want to drag everyone else down with them so they needn’t feel inferior.
But there’s another kind of cynicism that isn’t so simple. Ask me if I’d rather have dinner with Pollyanna (a term for someone who always finds the bright side of any situation) or Juno (the offbeat, oft-times cynical teenager in the 2007 movie of the same name), and it’s no contest. Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, H.L. Mencken and Ambrose Bierce—noted cynics—would be my dream dinner companions.
I needed to explore my personal predilections and how maybe policing shouldn’t throw out the cynicism baby with the bathwater—especially if the baby could save lives, so I researched back to cynicism’s infancy.
Cynicism Wasn’t Always a Bad Thing
The ancient Cynics were Greek, like some epic heroes we know. Diogenes was probably the most famous. When the conqueror Alexander the Great found Diogenes sitting in a marketplace and asked what he could do for him, the old philosopher replied, “You can step out of my sunlight.” That’s not a bummer; that’s a kick in the pants.
They first Cynics observed the citizenry and ridiculed anyone—regardless of class or station—who seemed pompous, pretentious, materialistic or downright wicked. Fiercely proud of their independence, they led disciplined, austere and virtuous lives. [See web link to Rick Bayan’s The Cynic’s Sanctuary. ] This doesn’t sound like a bad thing.
Instead of only looking for and finding the best in people, the ancient Cynics told the truth. Twain, Parker, Wilde, Mencken and Bierce added a modern twist. They not only told the truth—generally a good, if not always pleasant, thing to hear—but they did it with rueful humor. And humor doesn’t suck the air out of a room.
The cynic is not a realist. Realists are never disappointed in life because they expect so little of it. The cynic’s disappointment—so many police officers’ disappointment—comes from their fatal love of virtue. [ The Cynic’s Sanctuary. ]
A Post-Modern Cynicism for Policing
I’m proposing a post-modern cynicism for policing. I call it heroic cynicism. It allows for tactical cynicism, which keeps you alive on the streets and isn’t really cynicism but skepticism.
It also embraces a cynicism that allows you to see ugly truths and keep your intellectual integrity by not looking for the best in them because some evils contain no goodness, but also inspire you to keep on fighting the good fight.
Next month we’ll explore:
All of which I will draw on to advance a new policing philosophy of heroic cynicism.