Keep Calm: C is for Cynic

Morwenna Jones 29 May 2014

Why are we cynical?  Well firstly, it’s terribly English.  Along with our slice of lemon or cube of sugar, we take our tea with a drop of sarcasm.  It’s also easy.  It’s far less difficult to make fun of something, or criticise it, than to extol its benefits.  It’s easier for me to write a column castigating Cambridge for its cynicism that for me to write about how clever we all are for highlighting the flaws in everything from CUSU to CUBC.

Cynicism in Cambridge starts as soon as you arrive. If you travel to and from our glorious university by train, you will know one fundamental thing, and it’s not that in order to get from Cambridge to anywhere of significance you have to get the Hogwarts Express’ to King’s Cross, or that catching any train apart from the direct service means stopping at every single blade of grass between Cambridge and London. 

No, you know that Cambridge is the ‘Home of Anglia Ruskin University’ and that this is a fact that those clever chaps at Greater Anglia deemed important enough for its very own signpost.

Cynicism starts the minute you get off the train.                                               Credit: Joshua Brown

What madness.  Surely bigging up a former polytechnic that ranks a meagre 105 in comparison to our top-spot and that has less than half of our funding is just a waste of time?  And, surely we need to clarify to Cambridge’s 3 million yearly visitors that Cambridge is the ‘Home of the University of Cambridge’, just in case any of them get confused? 

I don’t think so.  Yes, the sign is ironic, but our attitude towards it doesn’t reveal our incredibly witty ability to recognise tongue-in-cheek situations.  Instead, it reveals the sceptic within each of us who makes even the classic British pessimist appear brimming with positivity. 

Cambridge isn’t just the ‘Home of Anglia Ruskin University’, nor of ARU and the University of Cambridge:  Cambridge is the ‘Home of Cynicism’.   

Cynicism: as inevitable as rain in Cambridge?                                             Credit: Jonathan Jos-Read

We, as a university, have an innate inability to see the positive side of anything.  We dismiss century-old traditions like The Boat Race as ‘irrelevant’.  We (or at least I) scorn feminism as alienating, demanding of us all that we ‘check our privilege’. Our inherent belief in the “I’ve found something negative to say, therefore I must say it” philosophy even leads us to criticise a social-media phenomenon like ‘no make-up selfies’ raising over £8 million for Cancer Research. And when Cabinet MPs come to speak at our university and engage in debate, the response of some of us is not to listen or engage, but to tell them to ‘Fuck Off’. 

It appears that most of us were absent when our pre-school teachers were imparting that ancient pearl of wisdom: ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’, myself, shamefully included.  Obviously, dissent is important.  Constructive criticism is crucial, and if we are to improve anything in a society fraught with problems like gender inequality and elitism then we must engage with both sides of an argument.  But that doesn’t mean criticising something solely for the sake of criticising. 

So I’ll try and get something positive out of my own cynicism that I’ve expressed here and ask this: why don’t we just calm down? 

Being at Cambridge is a bit like being a child who always has their hand up to answer a question.   Only here, everybody else has their hand up too, meaning that you have to try extra hard to get your voice heard.

As we – or most of us – learnt at school and as I've certainly learnt over the last couple of days: ‘any attention is good attention’ is not a healthy attitude. Trust me on this. I learnt the hard way. So instead of seeking attention for the sake of attention, or criticising for the sake of criticising: stop and think.  Perhaps if you put your hand down, you might get noticed anyway.