The Daily Show with John Stewart and The Colbert Report seem to be providing more people, especially young people, with their take on the news. Given that these shows rely heavily on satire, it’s easy to think that they also necessarily convey an overwhelming sense of cynicism, and there’s at lease some evidence that TDS viewers tend to be more cynical. But Stephen Colbert gave a commencement speech at Knox College, and after opening with the funny stuff, he seems to make a serious and passionate appeal at the end, addressing the consequences of cynicism. To give those comments on cynicism sufficient context, I’ll also include some of the preceding comments:

So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

And that’s The Word.

I try to make a similar argument in the final chapter of The Big Picture. Cynicism is a tool of the status quo. It inhibits change by making us believe that it is not only impossible but not even worth attempting. We are disempowered before we even begin.

My hope is that through sociology we will be able to better understand the obstacles before us, our limitations or unfreedom, not so that we lose hope, but so that we might be better equipped to make more informed, more realistic, more free choices, and in so doing, make the world a better place.

Advertisements