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The Shadow of Doubt: Grappling with the all-too-easy cynicism trap

What good could a couple of painted signs do?

This is what I thought to myself as Lansie Sylvia, director of Next Stop Democracy, took the stage at Vote That Jawn at WHYY Philadelphia. As she talked about the impact of her project’s painted “Vote Here” signs, my eyes strayed to the side of the stage where she set up an elaborately painted “VOTE AQUI” sign featuring a Latina woman with swirling hair. I thought, this is just another blown-up social media movement.

I wasn’t alone in my doubts; a few of my classmates echoed my thoughts, expressing admiration for Lansie’s creativity but immediately questioning the significance of her movement.

In hindsight, I wonder why we tend to think like this. Is it something ingrained in us?

As students, we train to argue, rebut, and critique. In fact we are praised for the viciousness with which we claw into the knowledge presented to us. We learn to compartmentalize the world, forcing its parts into our mental framework, all to support the seed of the arguments we devise. How clever I am, we think, when we spot a flaw in anything from the validity of an argument to the effectiveness of a voting initiative.

But there is a fine line between analytical and cynical. Too often, wrapped in the eloquence of our argument, we fall into the latter when faced with today’s complex politics. It is easier to identify fault than merit.

We are also infatuated by scandals. We love to call out the heads of large-scale movements as sellouts with ulterior motives. Just look at how people reacted to Colin Kaepernick’s campaign with Nike. We become wary of those in the spotlight. Maybe we distrust corporations. To us, people who do things for the love of it — for the sacred and pure purpose of doing right — shouldn’t and don’t get fame. We expect them to be low-key, small scale, genuine and humble, not connected and as Lansie called herself, “press-worthy.” We cast off with suspicion those who are confident, overly eloquent, too active on social media. Too-slick reeks of corporate interests and branding. Too lazy to discern the difference between well-spoken and dishonest, we fall back into the familiarity of cynicism.

Cynicism is the smug older brother of skepticism, no longer questioning but directly rejecting at face value. He slouches on the couch with a bag of chips, doubting the intentions of those around him. He revels in uncovering the ulterior motives of others, for god forbid somebody do something useful while he sits. He tells us there is a dirty secret behind everything, to be found only by rejecting positive stories and finding their fissures and imperfections.

But as I listened to Lansie Sylvia on that day, my cynicism waned.

Standing before a sea of red and black t-shirts, she told us about a simple survey she conducted of Next Stop Democracy artists. Before the project started, she asked them how many of them were registered to vote. When she asked again after the survey, voter registration rates among the artists had more than tripled. I realized in that moment that her movement is about so much more than the cynic in me made it out to be. It’s about its effect on not just those served by it, but also those serving. It’s about how a group of people who care can affect a community feeling unrepresented and forgotten by the political process.

It’s about hope.

Anna Duan is a freshman at Penn majoring in urban studies. She blogs about cities and architecture and writes in Penn’s food magazine, Penn Appetit. Anna has lived in Maryland and Shenzhen, China, where she worked with the Shenzhen Museum on translating their archives into English. Away from her desk, she enjoys hiking, weightlifting, sharp cheddar, and getting lost in cities.

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