Children will believe basically anything. That’s their job. At some point later in life, there’s usually some form of disillusionment, and we learn to distrust the motives of others, to believe that we are being manipulated. Afterwards we find that our distrust has cost us something, a friendship, an opportunity, an understanding, and we try to become more trusting in response, and we swing like pendulums back and forth until we find a balance between cynicism and trust that feels right to us.
Our culture, too, swings like a pendulum. I grew up in the late 80’s and 90’s, a very cynical time, when everyone’s motives were suspect – not necessarily in a malicious way, but believing that what motivates people to take action is not sincere belief but a self-serving drive fueled by ignorance, stupidity, and greed. As time has passed, and the need for cooperation has become apparent, as the systemic toxic behaviors of our established culture are laid bare and the apocalyptic implications of our careless production are made clear, the general outlook has shifted towards one of trust, belief, and earnestness. We must hang together or we shall hang separately and all that.
I’ve been watching lots of cartoons because, you know, fuck it I don’t have a day job. It’s hard not to be struck by the difference between recent shows, targeted at a younger audience, and older shows or shows targeted at adults. Shows like Rocko’s Modern Life, Ren and Stimpy, The Tick – as kids we were told everyone was either an idiot and incompetent or disingenuous and greedy. There’s an ironic distance implicit there: We were never told that we were incompetent, just that almost everyone seemed to be, and we the audience were in a position to laugh about it. This tradition is carried on by shows targeted at the adults who watched those shows as kids, shows like Rick and Morty and The Venture Bros. Even though the characters in these shows have more nuance, are more flawed and human, even in their darkest and saddest moments their suffering is frequently played for laughs, and again there’s that distance, telling us, the audience, that we are not them, that we are separate and superior.
There’s no bottom to that well. That kind of deep cynicism makes a direct emotional connection with the characters impossible.
That distance isn’t there in something like Adventure Time or Steven Universe. When these characters suffer or triumph, we are right there with them. In Adventure time we get little glimpses of cynicism, mostly through older characters like Martin or Princess Bubblegum: However, even from their perspective there’s a counterbalance to the deep and ceaseless distance we feel in those series typified by cynicism, a sense that these characters are hurting, damaged, and their inability to connect and be genuine is as much pathology as antipathy. Cynicism is regarded as an affliction of those who have seen too much, rather than the only reasonable way to regard our arbitrary universe.
Of course, these are broad categories. Almost no one is completely trusting or completely cynical, though strong tendencies towards one or the other of these are typical of those of us who haven’t quite grown up yet. There are different ways to balance these outlooks, though: Sometimes, if we’re patient and diligent, we use cynicism and trust as analytical tools, carefully evaluating who and what we can trust and what requires extra scrutiny of us. Many of us, however, find a different kind of balance, trusting those who tell us things that align with our pre-existing beliefs and regarding with cynicism anyone who offers contradicting information. This lazy application of tools is an easy and appealing trap to fall into, one which leads to stagnant thinking.
The only way we can avoid falling into this trap is to follow both trust and cynicism through to their logical conclusion. If your inclination is to distrust, distrust everything, even yourself: Question, and question, and never stop questioning. If your inclination is to believe, believe everything you hear, from everyone, even those you hold in contempt. Both of these paths eventually converge, leaving you with conflicting and unresolvable beliefs, and an understanding that there is no way to resolve the manifold viewpoints through which we view the world. At these end points, cynicism and earnestness both lead to a kind of enlightenment. This understanding, that the world is fundamentally not reducible to a single point of view is, at its extreme, a wisdom that makes action untenable: Both a viewpoint that rejects everything and a viewpoint that accepts all make individual judgment, and therefore individual action, impossible.
We can see examples of both of these extremes, and the limitations they imply, in the characters BoJack Horseman and Steven Universe, each in their respective self-titled series. BoJack is initially deeply cynical of everyone and everything, assuming that everyone who isn’t as unhappy as he is is either too stupid to know better or pretending: Over time and experience, he comes to examine himself with this same cynical eye, and find that even his cynicism is a ploy, a dodge to avoid facing his own deep dissatisfaction, and that the people who he’d initially dismissed were more complex in their history and motivations than he’d believed. Conversely, Steven believes in the best of everyone, and tries to resolve everything peacefully even with clearly hostile creatures, often with less than stellar results. In the long run, though, these characters who are defined by cynicism and earnestness must learn to relent: BoJack comes to recognize how his refusal to be sincere and present has hurt himself and others, and tries, in little ways, to be more open and trusting, while Steven comes to accept that in order to defend his hometown and everyone in it sometimes he has to take a stand and fight back against people whom he personally has nothing against.
Growing up is the process of finding balance, of learning how to trust and when to question, of finding ways to support and be supported by others while still reserving just enough of oneself that if a relationship sinks we don’t drown with it. This process is frequently painful. Sometimes it’s nice to let the people on-screen be our proxy, and suffer that pain for us, so we can learn through the paths they have taken.
Eventually, we all have to learn for ourselves.