Demonstrations: Cynicism and its discontents

Karabakh demonstrations, Yerevan 1988

It’s odd–isn’t it?– that more than two decades after the beginning of the perestroika demonstrations (remember those?), we hear the same reserved comments, the same fears, the same platitudes as demonstrators turn the entire edifice of another Arab military dictatorship into rubble?  Then, in 1988, when Armenians took to the streets in Karabagh and in Armenia, many diaspora Armenians and non-Armenians alike held their breath, turned their faces away, and buried their heads in the ground as the millions gathered in public squares their fists in the air, their voices loud and clear.

And, now, again, in another part of the world, as demonstrators take to the streets, many persons whom we expect to be on the side of the people sound worried, untrusting, in denial.  Some bring the example of Iran, saying, “Look at what happened in Iran!”  This is often followed by some reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.  Others use the perennial explanation that the US is “behind it all.”  Others still express their total disinterest, even cynicism, about the whole thing, exposing unwittingly I am sure, their deep orientalist, if not racist, sentiments.

This last attitude is the one which unites our Armenian compatriots with the docile–say it, co-opted–masses across our continent. For what is docility if not the other side of cynicism, which serves the rulers just fine? And what is the knee-jerk reaction to violence if not an acquiescence to state violence in its many configurations?   And of all the attitudes which emerge in the face of popular uprisings, of unpredictable events taking us by surprise, nothing is more lethal (and easy to don) than cynicism. And if cynicism has gotten a bad name not only in revolutionary upheaval but in life as well, there’s good reason for it.  For nothing corrodes as permanently as cynicism, nothing. Dictatorships often go about methodically nurturing cynicism because the cynic is the secret ally of repression, the one who masquerades his or her acquiescence as thought, as enlightened attitude.

It was the historian Christopher Lasch who wrote so extensively and passionately and with such elegance about resisting, through the conscious cultivation of “hope, trust, wonder,”  the easy slide into “resentments.”  He spoke of the spiritual discipline of resistance, of “the common good”  as the highest aim of a civilized society.  These terms may sound a bit crusty and old-fashioned, but these days to be old-fashioned is to be revolutionary.  And if the cynic bristles and then smiles the all-knowing, vacuous smile, it is because cynicism is easy and fashionable and disingenuous.

But hope and wonder and trust are always there, around the corner, jumping out of nowhere and ‘catching us in the act’ as it were. And then, without our consent or awareness, hope and wonder and trust suddenly begin marching into the public square, permeating every human tissue and fiber.  The cynic will continue and persist; he or she has no choice so powerful is the hold of cynicism on its subjects, using every trick in the book to justify his or her attitude, including the perennial one explaining the causes by attaching them to the consequences.

Cynicism thrives in vacuousness, in the empty chambers of the human heart and mind, lives in fear of content because content is identified with the crowd, the masses, the demonstrators–and those are always nasty, violent little things, aren’t they? No, because cynicism is in the end the opposite of knowledge, the adversary of content from Madison, WI, to Tripoli, Libya.

And if we see so many young people at the helm of these uprisings and revolts, the reason is not so much facebook and social networking and stuff like that. It is that the young are the real source of the battle against cynicism.  A friend wrote saying, “Cynicism is the disease of the aged.”  Yes, it is the young who can keep us free of that disease, and it is the young who will bring us, if we so choose, into the public sphere, the square, the capitol building. It is the young who, in Edward Said’s phrase, can “restore us to ourselves”, dragging us kicking and screaming into the future–without self-pity, nostalgia, or conspiracy scenarios!


About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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