Stephen Colbert and cynicism

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Stephen Colbert gave a commencement address at Knox College in Illinois. It’s funny, of course, but then at the end, he becomes extraordinarily insightful, too. The full text is here. Here’s the part that impressed me:

[He’s encouraging the graduates to follow the rule of comedy improvisation by saying “yes” to as many new opportunities as possible.]

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

People have often described me as cynical, and they’ve usually meant it as a compliment. And while I appreciate what they’re trying to say — “I like your perspective on things” — I try to gently point out that it’s not true. I’m not cynical.

A cynic, as Colbert says, is someone who automatically mistrusts everything, who assumes the worst of people and their motives. That is NOT the same thing as being satirical. Satire is based on actual flaws or shortcomings that the satirist has observed in a person, group or institution. Cynicism is based on the cynic’s automatic dismissal of something, whether he’s had any actual dealings with it or not.

“Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics.” Exactly right. As I’ve been taking some college film-studies classes these past several months with regular ol’ undergraduates, most of my fellow students have been some 10 years younger than I am. I’ve heard their observations on life and the world and politics and whatnot, and sometimes it makes me smile. I think, “Aw, how adorable! I thought that when I was 19, too!”

I guess at some point you grow out of that phase where you think you’ve got it all figured out. You become an actual grownup — that is, someone who understands that a big part of life is NOT having things figured out. But as an educated adult, you’re able to cope with that uncertainty and be happy and successful anyway. I think that when we’re young, there’s a fear that if you DON’T know everything, you’re screwed, and so we convince ourselves that we’re more savvy than we really are, which often manifests itself in cynicism.

It’s also nice to hear Stephen Colbert eschew cynicism. I bet well-meaning fans probably call him cynical a lot, too, even though he isn’t.

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