Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Let’s all be Cynics [September 23]

Have you noticed how popular the word cynicism has become lately? Over and over we hear journalists and commentators telling us that Australian voters have become ‘cynical’ about politics. The word is being used to describe our disenchantment with our elected politicians, especially in the wake of the latest Federal leadership battle.

Oddly enough, the same word is also being used to describe those politicians. ‘Cynical’ pollies, we’re told, have been deliberately misleading us whilst organising jobs, visas and other favours for their donors, mates and lovers.

Here’s the weirdest part – cynicism used to mean the polar opposite of these contemporary definitions.

In Ancient Greece the Cynics were people who believed we should live a virtuous life in harmony with nature. Cynics rejected conventional desires for wealth, power, sex and fame (Barnaby Joyce, take note). They believed greed caused suffering, and some of them even gave away their property and fortunes. One famous Cynic called Diogenes embraced asceticism by living in a barrel on the streets of Athens.

The philosophy of Cynicism was later taken up in Ancient Rome, where Cynics preached self-sufficiency and the pursuit of inner happiness.

But language never stands still and over the intervening centuries the word has taken on new meanings. The original Cynics must be turning in their graves to see how their idealistic philosophy has been obliterated by history.

I have a few suggestions. First, let’s stop reaching for cliches and start expanding our vocabularies. Let’s substitute some more accurate words for how we’re really feeling about Australian politics. The recent Canberra shenanigans have left many of us drowning in a sea of complicated emotions, including frustration, bewilderment, disbelief, disappointment, disgust, fear, outrage and despair. A more nuanced analysis of why we’re losing faith in our political leaders might help us hold them to account.

Second, let’s embrace the vision of the original Cynics. They were right; greed causes suffering. Happiness can’t be bought. Nature deserves respect. Dangerous human-induced climate change is the consequence of our materialism and our lack of respect for the natural world. The recent Liberal leadership debacle was largely caused by their inability to agree on how – or even whether – to tackle this problem. If our politicians embraced true Cynicism we might feel less despairing about the future.

And finally, the next pollie to tell a porky pie should be banished to a barrel in the streets of Canberra.


(This column was first published by Fairfax in September 2018)