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Culture of Cynicism by Richard Stivers

Mr. Kierkegaard worried that goodness is unappreciated, that many consider it “tantamount to stupidity.” We adore wants and consumer goods while seeing morality as a form of coercion or manipulation, rather than seeing desires as resulting from manipulation. "It's easier to fool people than convince them that they have been fooled," wrote Twain. Richard Stivers argues that “true to themselves” individuals, who strive merely to meet wants, present easy targets for hucksterism.


Ethics, writes Stivers, includes more than keeping the peace.


Cynical, emotive, consumer, therapeutic, organizational, and power based “moralities” rule. The futility producing principles of radical tolerance fill leftover spaces. Freedom merely means consumer choices to some individuals. Moral sincerity, combining right duties with full hearted motives, matters to Stivers. The “personality ethic” sees sincerity as merely an aesthetic role. “I manipulate myself so that I can manipulate others[.]” It relentlessly spreads ideologies of individuals on the make, then excoriates dissent for the alleged wrong of mentioning better norms. The ethos of nightclub prowling relentlessly spreads.


Stivers argues that success in health, income, leisure, and psychology matter most for the personality ethic. Pills, consumer goods, and therapeutic techniques keep anxieties at bay. And when they fail, more pills, goods, and techniques become solutions. Feelings of efficiency and self-efficacy result when moderns accomplish little worthwhile. Feeling important matters more to many than doing important things.


Heroism is in a sorry, passive state. Our "heroes" entertain, producing idle consumption goods rather than moral results. Professional athletes, he notes, are robotized by over coaching. Athletes are drilled on dealing with situations from media questions to zone blitzes. The athletic hero combines consumerism, genetic gifts, and willingness to follow orders, a wasteland where better traits are anathema.


Good morality should be a major part of culture. Now culture merely means entertainment and despicable moralities. Stivers criticizes familism and bourgeois morality, the former for personal life isolationism, the latter for groupthink, actions that avoid evils out of mere prudence, with little love for the good. Many individuals collapse morality into etiquette and compliance with laws.


We join a variety of groups, he argues, merely for aimless sampling. As sampling becomes habit, we begin viewing individuals as merely something to sample. Ambivalence, and often flat out contempt, dominate to such an extent that even those we owe the most are treated callously. Individuals playing at thousands of roles are fragmented, easy to control by powerful groups.


Stivers argues that techno-diversions deaden inner life and moral life. Media and peer pressure tell us what to want, and voila, we want it. Technology attracts the craven. Violate a social rule and people fume, causing unwanted conflicts and anxieties, but screw up with a techno-toy and few care.


We fight battles over trivia, lionizing the best poseur. Self-worth is too often based on image or winning. Popularity improves, no matter the selfishness, if we cultivate a kindly image. Public opinion is feel-good imitation virtue.


Envying, ruminating, living in fantasy worlds, wishing to be someone else, denigrating those truly morally better are easy escapes. Indignation at wrongs, combined with careful thought and action, matters. Instead, Stivers writes, public opinion offers the bizarre goal of chasing after objects we resent others for having.


We value children for their abilities to bring pleasure to adults, yet current practices undermine the pleasures the practices allegedly bring. The more we sentimentalize children, the more difficult child rearing becomes. Moral groups and activities for children are almost nonexistent. Moral activity is “morally” offensive. The acceptable roles for children include student, consumer, delinquent or pleasure provider.


Contrasting inner-directed characters with other-directed characters, Stivers writes that the inner-directed choose to act on their beliefs, even when no one looks. They feel guilt when breaking legitimate rules. The outer-directed character is manipulated, wanting and seeking popularity, yet carrying hostility toward others.


Euphemisms abound. “Life-style” turns the self into a commodity. Visual literacy excuses desires for unrelenting external stimulation. As the habits of now-now pre-occupy, chains of anticipations build: Something intriguing is headed your way. The fascination-industrial complex has something just for you. Forget the distant future and anxiety.


The sports writer thinks the tabloid trivial. The tabloid thinks sports trivial. The manicurist thinks the gardener trivial. The gardener thinks the dog show trivial. We have our sacred trivia and those other people with their trivia? They must be wrong.


Stivers describes his vision as bleak, but it is not so bleak. Flipping through TV channels is bleak. Those giving up television, Stivers writes, perceive an inner void at first. Weeks later, they feel free and alive. Yet some plausible excuse comes along, and the television re-emerges at the center. Parents keep TV to amuse children and for their childrens' “educations.” Constant spectacle, however, cannot replace losses in relationships.


If we rid the TV and find ourselves longing for its return, the problem is not getting it back. The problem is not having done the things to make life without television better.


Stivers is a vigorous thinker, packing an enormous quantity of ideas into these pages:

·        Teachers purvey bureaucratic rules rather than moral cultures.

·        We consider morality odious and time consuming, yet the rules and pursuits of consumption and bureaucratization become more odious, complex, and time consuming.

·        Research suggests individuals do not seem to mind their numbness and disengagement, appearing to take perverse pride in numbness and disengagement, similar to the way individuals once took perverse pride in the ideology, "Life's a bitch, then you die."

·        When safe, we are diffident. When not safe, we take misguided risks.

·        Women have their romance novels and men their lucky stud movies.

·        We should make our lives and environments full of value and purpose. We should not wallow in alienating hipness or technologies out of perverse pleasure or feelings of superiority. Or inferiority.


Stivers writes that the government produces 50,000 pages of new rules every year. Are bureaucrats completely to blame? Nope, writes Jerry Mashaw. Congress writes the rules then demands bureaucrats enforce them as if absolute. Bureaucrats possess little decision making power. When constituents complain to their local representative about the bureaucrat, the congressperson uses his power to intervene. The congressperson looks like a hero when, in fact, the representative creates and enforces rules. The bureaucrat is a messenger.


Culture is a one-sided work, but Stivers deserves credit for tackling issues few touch. Stivers places too much emphasis on selflessness and "the communal." Selflessness is often horrid, and it is often tantamount to stupidity. And so is the communal. Selflessly helping evil is despicable. Like Technology as Magic, Stivers delivers dozens of exemplary ideas and complex arguments mixed in with the harmful. Worth reading. (C) 1994    

book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 22, 2009


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