Blue Line

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A little cynicism may not be so bad


April 21, 2014
By Dorothy Cotton

1114 words – MR

A little cynicism may not be so bad

I was just invited to present a paper at a conference in Greece. It sounded very exciting – all expenses were paid. I had almost talked myself into going when I noted the return e-mail address of the person extending the invitation wasn’t Greek – and, in fact, wasn’t even from an academic institution. Duh. It was, of course, spam.

I actually get a zillion of these quasi-legitimate sounding invitations to conferences. The first give-away is their very nebulous titles. They are always vague things like “the International Congress on Life and Humanity” or “the 17th Biannual Symposium on Childhood and Science.”

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The second give-way is that frankly, while I may be a Legend in My Own Mind, I can’t imagine that anyone really wants to hear from me badly enough to foot the bill for a trip to Greece. So I am a bit of a cynic when I get conference announcements and many of them go directly to the Bin.

The downside, of course, is that I have missed the announcement of at least one conference I was actually interested in attending. I dump a whole lot of stuff I get via e-mail because I have reached the point where I assume that almost everything is spam. Cynicism has its drawbacks, it turns out.

Police are, of course, no strangers to cynicism. It appears to be almost an inevitable outcome of the job. If you read much of the writing about police and cynicism, it tends to be embedded in the notion that all officers end up cynical and bitter. (The hitch with this conclusion is that I actually know a whole lot of police officers – even very senior and experienced ones – who are NOT cynical. But I digress.)

I will acknowledge that there is a whole lot of cynicism out there, and it is not new. During the French Revolution, the Minster of Police was known to comment that the world is largely composed of scoundrels, hypocrites and imbeciles. Sounds like cynicism to me.

Cynicism is kind of the opposite of idealism. Arthur Neiderhoffer is probably the best known researcher in the area of police cynicism – and he ought to know. He was a police officer who later became a sociologist. Actually he went to law school THEN became a police officer… then a sociologist… and educator… and researcher… (he lived from 1917 to 1981 and did most of his work in New York City, where I am confident there is a whole lot of cynicism.) In any case, he had a lot to say about the subject.

Neiderhoffer maintained that police officers experience frustration and disillusionment when faced with the contrast between ideal expectations and the reality of police work on the street. It is this disconnect which generates cynicism. This is believed to occur over the course of an officer’s career, beginning with the contrast between academy training and initial field experience and later as an effect of continued exposure to administrative changes perceived as being out of balance with street-level policing, observed failures of the criminal justice system and contagion effects from other cynical officers.

It happens when police are constantly interacting with the bad guys, and yet the public often is not exactly thrilled with the police either. It happens because people tend to sign up wanting to be boy/girl scouts – and things don’t actually turn out that way. While it is sometimes assumed that dealing with unpleasant people and events leads to cynicism, research would suggest that bad management, too much paperwork, inefficient and ineffectual criminal justice systems and public disdain are more responsible than scoundrels, hypocrites and imbeciles.

Cynicism by itself would not be such a bad thing if it did not also lead to problem behaviour. There is a ton of research in this area and it seem clear that cynicism is linked to a number of bad things – corruption, low morale, mental and physical health problems, failed relationships, performance issues….

Cynicism is not unique to policing, of course. One thing that cynicism research in policing has shown is that officers are actually not by nature any more cynical than the rest of us. I have a sneaky suspicion that anyone who deals with the public probably becomes cynical over time. Imagine being the cashier at the local supermarket.

If you do a literature research on the relationship between cynicism and various occupations, you’ll find a lot of research on teachers, mental health professionals, managers, teachers, military personnel and mental health professionals. In other words, apparently dealing with other human beings is an occupational hazard which predisposes you to becoming cynical.

Apparently, human beings are not all they are cracked up to be, but this does create an interesting conundrum. In my work doing pre-employment assessments of police candidates, you tend to see two types: people who want to save the world and people who think the world is full of scumbags who they want to get rid of. We tend to avoid hiring the latter group so that leaves us with those who are almost doomed to become cynical, because (newsflash) – you are not likely to be able to save the world.

There is another interesting observation about policing and cynicism. There is some evidence that police tend to become more cynical in the early to mid years of their careers – but then it reverses. They actually become less cynical later in their careers.

Perhaps it is a matter of perspective, redefining what success looks like or realizing that there is more than one way to save the world – and it might be a little more subtle than you initially thought. Maybe as you get older, you don’t need the public reassurance that you hoped for when you were younger. Perhaps it is more about learning how to be cynical in a more adaptive fashion.

If you find yourself getting really cynical, my advice is… watch it! You could be heading for trouble. However, there is also a line of thought that suggests a little cynicism is not such a bad thing. The fact is that police do deal with a lot of bad people and crap and therefore, the expectation that there is going to be bad stuff is not really out of line.

If you expect bad stuff, it is not going to take you by surprise. While the opposite of cynicism is, on the one hand, idealism, I think there may be elements of naiveté there as well. Too much naiveté is probably the route to disaster as a police officer.

Healthy cynicism is perhaps the answer. Work on that, OK?