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Entre Semana: Wednesday, Feb 9
A skeptic's manifesto
If you are reading this, it means procrastination has been defeated: I have hit send on the first edition of Entre Semana. My ambition to publish this newsletter twice a week has been derailed by the appalling deficit of time in a 24-hour day, by the roller-coaster schedule experienced by any parent of school-age kids these days, and by my pet mental gremlin who insists it cannot be done until an endless list of other things is done first.
So, I’ve decided to simplify: this will be a space for my opinions and musings on Mexico and whatever brave new world we find ourselves living in. Some weeks this might be something brief, and others I could plunge into the deep end of big topics and ideas I think deserve more attention.
This first essay however, is different. I am going to lay some groundwork by answering a question you, the reader, should be asking. Why read another opinion at all?
It seems we are all the proud owners of an opinion on nearly everything these days. In fact, it’s becoming obligatory. How often does someone on Twitter or Facebook, or even in conversation, dare acknowledge that they haven’t formed an opinion yet on the Olympics, the threat of war in Ukraine, the Oscar nominees, the carnivore vs vegan diet wars or…fill in the blank? Opinions are like plastic, we produce, consume and recycle them, sometimes without even being aware it’s happening. And like plastic, opinions serve a purpose, but many are just so much detritus of the information age.
To give away your attention—that most coveted of commodities—to read the opinion of any writer, celebrity, political figure, pundit or bot in today’s world, there should be caveat emptor: let the reader beware. After all, attention is so finite and precious, there is an opportunity cost that comes with spending it on one opinion rather than another.
As a reader, I try to pause and ask myself: why? Why this column, op-ed, tweet, essay or book? The answer is often a constellation of reasons, ranging from precise use of language, to providing relevant context and new insights, to sharpness of wit. I might even call it chemistry: that recognition of shared humanity, hearing a voice in the wilderness and crying out “Yes!”
Wait, does this mean ignoring opinions that do not resonate with you? Does it mean insulating yourself from contrary arguments, retreating into the echo chamber? It can, and I think it’s safe to say that we all surrender to this inertia more than we should. But it’s healthy to be intellectually challenged when someone you often agree with expresses an opinion that you don’t, or vice versa.
There’s an official term for this kind of mental squirm: cognitive dissonance. And it’s one of the reasons I think our hominid brains find cynicism a less trying exercise than skepticism. Imagine cynicism as the mental fitness equivalent to strapping your FitBit on your toddler to get to 10,000 steps while skepticism is slogging through the 10k run even when you’re tired and your legs hurt.
Sometimes these two words can get confused, lumped together on the opposing side of credulity, but their views of the world are quite different. A quick detour on semantics: I know that the original Cynics and Skeptics whose philosophies bestowed us with these fluid concepts would argue with my modern take here. Both ancient Greek philosophical traditions began at their logical extremes: the Cynics rejected all the trappings of human civilization (clothes, houses, material possessions) in favor of an ascetic life, the Skeptics rejected the possibility of any human knowledge in favor of a shoulder shrug. Either way, participating in the banalities of human social life seemed pointless.
What do these words actually mean? Cynicism is a perspective that is automatically distrustful of human motives: of course that politician is a liar, or the system is rigged, or the people who voted for the other guy are bad. This isn’t to say a cynic is always factually wrong, on the contrary, they may often be right. The problem is with the mental framework itself, because it allows for snap judgements and superficial, binary thinking. Skepticism, which is fundamentally about clinging to doubts rather than beliefs, sees the world in gray.
I strive to be a skeptic in a world increasingly leaning into cynicism. I try to have faith in my doubts. I keep three landmarks in mind:
A cynic assumes bad intent, a skeptic assumes nothing
A cynic distrusts the bias in others, a skeptic distrusts her own
A cynic is dismissive, a skeptic is curious
To me, skepticism as it plays out in civic life is an antidote to apathy. The world is brutal, unfair, and chaotic; cynicism would want us to throw up our hands, to give up. But if we can come back to our own inner tethering, if we can keep trying to learn more, to acknowledge failings, to understand better, then the future may surprise us. Let’s hope it does.