Monday, September 17, 2007

Cynics or Sceptics and why?

Last Thursday and Friday I attended a conference on Political Socialisation organised by Universiteit Antwerpen, it was all fascinating stuff but one paper in particular made me think. That was offered by Henk Dekker, based on research into young people's political attitudes in The Netherlands. It discussed two important themes, firstly the nature of cynicism and secondly the sources.

Dekker made an important distinction which is often overlooked in studies; that is between scepticism (the rationale questioning of communication), and cynicism (the rejection of communication due to a mistrust of the communicator). The media often conflate and confuse the two on the basis that politicians are mistrusted so any questioning of campaign communication or manifesto promises are contingent on that mistrust. This may not be so and so cynicism may not be a widespread as is commonly believed. It is a question worth asking, particularly if studies look for cynicism as opposed to having indices for both cynicism and scepticism.

The second aspect that Dekker proposed is regarding one key source of cynicism, low self-esteem. Dekker argued that those individuals who feel they have not realised their own potential are more likely to blame others and create conspiracy theories to shift blame onto broader society and structures of power. So perceptions of powerlessness and feelings of low self-efficacy can result from personally not doing anything but the blame for that is easier to shift on the political structure than accept.

So, for example, non-voters may find it too difficult to make a decision, or even motivate themselves to go and vote, but may later feel guilty for failing to exercise their democratic duty (a feeling that may inspire low self-esteem). Their excuse however is shifted onto the political system by repeating negative press reports and claiming all politicians are the same and every vote is worthless.

Clearly there are rationale arguments for being cynical, and research of media coverage can suggest there is an effect between cynical reporting and cynical public attitudes. but this is a fresh perspective worth some consideration. Perhaps we should consider whether data such as the graph (right) represents healthy scepticism or a cynicism that is corrosive to democracy. So perhaps what I take from Dekker's paper is a suggestion that research into non-voting and the causes of cynicism should be a little more sophisticated to attempt to assess how deeply the cynical attitudes are within the public psyche as opposed to accepting that cynicism is really rife and is a prime cause of political disengagement.

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