From Hypocrisy to Cynicism
From Hypocrisy to Cynicism by Dmitri Orlov
Our wondrous, mysterious universe abounds in sudden changes of state. They can be observed at every scale: huge stars suddenly collapse into black holes; droplets of water suddenly turn into snowflakes. Sometimes such almost instantaneous transitions are induced to good effect: soft iron is transformed into the hard martensite of tool steel; soft graphite is compressed into super-hard industrial diamonds. Whenever such shifts occur, they display one common property: their exact timing is arbitrary, and therefore impossible to predict. Thus, seismologists can predict the direction and the distance of a tectonic shift, but not when it will happen. Even very simple systems studied in carefully controlled laboratory settings, such as tiny sand piles, behave unpredictably. The triggering event may be significant enough to be measurable, or it may be infinitesimally small and thus undetectable. But one observation is valid for all such phenomena: they run their course very quickly relative to the duration of steady-state conditions that precede them.
Such shifts of state are not limited to mechanical systems but also affect behavior of groups of animals. The sound of a single gunshot can cause a flock of birds to fly up or a herd of grazing animals to set off in a stampede. Humans are not immune from such behavior either, and panicked crowds often surge toward the exits, crushing people underfoot. But it is human society, in all of its complexity, that can undergo the most dramatic and impressive shifts of state. Governments crumble, empires collapse, financial pyramids evaporate, and people are left scratching their heads because they can’t identify the triggering event. But just as it doesn’t matter which single snowflake triggers an avalanche, this is irrelevant: the trigger is not the root cause.
As the social order decays, previously equitable arrangements are gradually transformed into blatant swindles. Social tensions build. At some point some relatively insignificant event—these days it might be a tweet, a “hot mike” incident, the death of a public figure—sets off a chain reaction in which nobody wants to fall behind the rest and remain as the last fool to believe in a lie, but numerous people spontaneously opt for a horrible end to the status quo, seeing it as preferable to horror without end.
All of the above qualifies as “hand-waving analysis”—pretty much just words. But I intend to go beyond hand-waving and propose a conceptual model and a technique for analyzing various aspects of societal status quo in order to gauge how close any given society is to the point when a huge effect can ensue from a tiny, arbitrary cause. To this end, I choose to employ a couple of morally and philosophically loaded terms such as hypocrisy, skepticism and cynicism—but I intend to strip them of any moral significance and treat them as purely functional descriptors of psychological mechanisms. The model of society I will use may seem somewhat unsophisticated, but I think that it will suffice for our purpose—which is to be able to spot the situation when a heretofore stable society turns into one “rigged to blow” at any moment and without any warning.