• Michael Cann

Cynicism, Manipulation and Heartbreak

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Today, I dropped my kids to school.

My son asked "are we going to be early, late, or on-time?" My daughter replied "we'll probably be late."

We were actually running 20 minutes early.

I asked her about her prediction that she would be late. What information was she basing that expectation on? Her response: it was better to predict being late so that she could more easily manage her disappointment in case she was late.

Cynicism includes a prediction that the future will look exactly like past disappointments.

But cynicism is more than a prediction - it is a preference to be disappointed and right rather than to face the vulnerability of uncertainty. With cynicism, being right is the hard-earned consolation prize that soothes our predicted heartbreak before anything has even gone wrong. Cynicism says it's better to be prepared for the worst than it is to be a vulnerable fool.

Your degree of cynicism reflects the strength of your commitment to your own low expectations. The more painful the potential disappointment, the stronger and more justified your low expectations can seem.

Cynicism is a defence strategy that reflects the choices you make to be vulnerable or not, but it can easily become entrenched as a belief about the way things actually are.

Cynicism has a special relationship with manipulation.

To be manipulative is to enter into a conversation for purposes other than the ones that are declared, and to shape a conversation to a pre-determined narrative.

Manipulation is heartbreaking, because it breaks connection. Rather than conversation being a process of co-discovery and learning, manipulation reduces conversation to a mechanical attempt to reach a pre-determined outcome.

Nobody starts out wanting to manipulate people, but our cynical expectations justify our manipulation because we tell ourselves there's no other option.

Our manipulation then justifies another person's low expectations of human relating. In this way, we keep the worst of human drama alive and well.

Both cynicism and manipulation have this in common - they profoundly interrupt emergence and creativity. They kill the possibility of new solutions that lie outside the parameters of a failing conversation, and beyond the wildest dreams of the participants.

Politics has suffered an imagination deficit for so long that it's impossible for most people to conceive of what politics without manipulation or cynicism would be like. Our hearts are so broken, the wildest our dreams get is merely to win. Connection, coherence, collective intelligence and mutual love are not even on the table.

Indeed, when the terms of an argument are already framed in terms of heroes, victims and villains, any attempt to humanise your enemy opens you up to being considered a villain by your own tribe.

An untold proportion of people bare silent witness to these polarised arguments, and fail to stand up against them for fear of being mis-cast as someone from the opposing team.

The cynical and manipulative ends of every debate end up dominating the public conversation, despite the fact that they neither represent the majority of people, nor offer genuine solutions to the crises of our times.

I am not so naive as to think that we can, or should, eliminate all cynicism and manipulation from the world.

Nonetheless, I stand for the power of connection. I would rather be the open fool who is sometimes wrong, than the cynical fool who is always right.

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©2020 by Michael Cann.