Don’t feel insulted if you’d been in Greece in the 5th century BC and you’d been dubbed a “skeptikos”. It would have simply meant that you’d been tagged as someone who posed a lot of questions and who liked to ask for proof or logical explanations. And across the ages, skepticism has had a sickly cousin in cynicism. This latter would have a thoughtless “no” to whatever is up for consideration, a disdainful predisposition to reject assertions out of hand even when evidence is proffered that others may find compelling.  In addition, cynics have a derisive outlook that ascribes hidden motives to any person or group of persons with a proposition. They frequently masquerade as thinkers endowed with higher perception, and they are condescending and quick to assume that others are bad at heart and not worthy of consideration.  Oscar Wilde described a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Don’t go beyond skeptikos though

A skeptic can exhibit disbelief with regard to one thing only, or a group of things. For example, someone may be accepting of many philosophical doctrines but skeptical of church-going rituals and other religious beliefs, or supernatural claims to do with ghosts or UFO’s. Skeptics are not affirming that they will never believe in religious rituals or ghosts, only that they have not been convinced of those arguments yet. Note what Benjamin Franklin said: Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” Skeptics want to go from the “possible” and into the realm of the “probable”, where they are more comfortable. One of their fundamental tenets has it that “if you were sophisticated and articulate enough, you could make any argument sound plausible”.  They therefore remain on guard, inquisitive, yet particularly mistrustful of any argument that sounds contrived.

You left-brain logic and right-brain intuition

If you’re a skeptikos, you know that skepticism is tricky and has to be managed with both logic as well as intuition since frequently at stake are significant opportunities. Lean one way and your mistrust might cause you to miss out on such goodies. Lean the other way and you might become gullible and a target for those who want to sell you dubious goods or services. You have to gauge where the middle ground lies, and in which direction your sixth sense is pointing. An example of this might be if you were contemplating to start a new business. You would naturally want to be skeptical –analytical- while also remaining acutely aware of your intuitive feelings. It is this collaboration between the left-frontal logical brain and the intuitive right-brain that will satisfy the skeptic as to the soundness of a course of action. If you were a business manager, chances are you’d be striking that balance all the time, welcoming fresh ideas that come your way while maintaining a cautious vigil in the shark-infested waters of the marketplace.

Think of yourself as a “critical thinker” and avoid “group cynicism”

A more appropriate term for skeptics –particularly in business- is “critical thinkers”. They are all the time questioning and poking into claims, assertions, and other people’s proposals and presentations. Critical thinkers are essential for the wellbeing of their communities as well, for think of how things would degenerate if there were no one to question popular wisdom. If, for example, integrative medicine were to become popular and there were no skeptics around, no one might go for antibiotics or vaccines.

“Group skepticism” would slip into cynicism of an ugly kind if there were large groups on either side of an issue, a manifestation of “strength in numbers”. Think of Republicans and Democrats in our political theatre, and think of how polarized and rebuffing their talking points are, particularly when an election is in the offing. Revisionist –fake- history becomes the norm, and facts get rearranged to suit the necessity of the moment. Each group becomes completely closed to the arguments of the other, and each group ends up spending hundreds of millions of dollars in ridiculous support of a temporary and meaningless position. And there are numerous other types of “group skepticism” –or, more aptly named, group cynicism. The most flagrant example of this is the stand that atheists take in connection with “Higher Power” arguments. This back-and-forth has gone on for so long that the two sides are deeply entrenched in their beliefs. When they argue about this, it is usually to score points in eloquence rather than to make philosophical inroads.

Cynicism is corrupting and to be eradicated

Someone once said: “Anyone hyper-skeptical or more skeptical than I is a cynic”, and that includes corporations, particularly large corporations where the culture in the ranks is not as easy to manage as in smaller enterprises. If you’re a Blockbuster employee, and you are watching Netflix eating your company’s lunch day after day, it is hard not to become a cynic as to your company’s prospects. The same when Blackberry was riding high and Apple started bringing out its products. But even in the case of a viable business with hundreds of employees who have seen their bosses change management systems three or four times in a row, this would likely engender “cultural cynicism” with regard to the latest system that management is introducing. And the more aggressively management touts the new system, the deeper the cynicism.  Business leaders are thus constantly on the lookout for a decline in cultural morale.

Cynicism is degrading. It ascribes the worst possible attributes to people and organizations. To the cynic, people’s motives are always undignified, and no truth is worth taking a reasonable position towards. The best thing to do with any patch of cynicism is treat it like weeds –snatch them out at the roots and dispose of them.

About Mike Takieddine, the author:

Mine has been a privileged life, first for having traveled all over as son of a diplomatic family, then for having had the opportunity to study at Oxford, and finally for a gratifying career in business, in geriatric home care, and in writing. I look forward to using this wonderful medium to discuss the various aspects of life that are of interest to me.