Andrew Fiala

Be skeptical of the powerful. But believe in your fellow man

“Big sister” Carmen Hernandez, right, from the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California mentor program, shares a banana split with her “little sister” Melissa Martinez, 13, while spending time together in Fresno in this 2014 photo.
“Big sister” Carmen Hernandez, right, from the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central California mentor program, shares a banana split with her “little sister” Melissa Martinez, 13, while spending time together in Fresno in this 2014 photo. Fresno Bee file

The shadows seem to be growing deeper as the institutions of social life fail. But cynicism needs proper focus. We should be skeptical of power without giving up faith in humanity.

The reasons for despair are many. Priests rape children while the church covers it up. Leading men abuse women, while their peers look the other way. Washington is a partisan snake-pit of lies, insults, and cover-ups. Minority communities distrust the police. Social media is infiltrated by trolls. And the press is labeled “the enemy of the people.”

Big impersonal structures have a fatal flaw, known since the time of the Greeks. Not every big thing is bad. But corruption festers when concentrated in the dark halls of power.

Power is the problem. History’s worst crimes were institutional. The Romans persecuted Jews and Christians. The church conducted its Inquisitions. The Americans traded in slaves and slaughtered the Indians. Greed, ambition, and institutional inertia create dirty hands.

Genocidal atrocities require a compliant bureaucracy that supports hatred and megalomania. And the pettiness of a small mind is magnified by a bully pulpit or a Twitter account.

But let’s not throw the baby of humanity out with the bloody bathwater of political life. Kind and honest people do good every day. Most of that good work occurs in the small corners of life that exist beyond the headlines.

A neighbor helps with a home repair. A teacher spends extra time with a struggling student. A soccer player gives an opponent a high-five. A lost dog is returned to its owner. A comforting shoulder is offered to a suffering friend.

Some people are extraordinarily generous and courageous. This month heroic firefighters sweated to save our forests. Some were killed.

Saints and heroes are inspiring. But we don’t need more saints and heroes. They are useful in an emergency. But emergencies are exceptions. The daily cares of life require only basic fairness, truthfulness, and kindness.

If the world is to be saved, it will not be rescued by heroes and saints. By the time we need rescue, it is already too late. Ordinary life depends on ordinary people. The world is conserved by the common decency of the common man and woman.

Cynicism is dangerous when it undermines our faith in humanity. Despair can destroy decency. Some think that if no one can be trusted, then it is OK to join the carnival of corruption. But the challenge is to keep doing good despite the smell of decay oozing from the bastions of power.

The ancient Cynics understood this. Cynicism was a school founded by Diogenes in Athens. The Cynics distrusted authority. They were not impressed by the pretentions of power. But they believed in virtue. They thought human beings could live well — if only we were left alone.

A story makes this clear. Alexander the Great wanted to meet Diogenes, who had a reputation for wisdom. Alexander found Diogenes lounging in the sun. Alexander stood over Diogenes, his shadow looming over the philosopher. The powerful king asked if there was anything he could do for Diogenes. Diogenes replied, “get out of the light.”

Some say this means Diogenes was a lazy sunbather. But this is a parable. Powerful bigwigs think we need them to rescue us. But their egos block the natural source of good things. They get in our way, obscuring the light. The best thing the powerful can do is get out of our way and stop stinking up the place.

The priests need to stop molesting children. The politicians need to stop pitting us against one another. And the churches and the parties need to stop covering up the truth.

You don’t need to be a hero to avoid perversion or tell the truth. You don’t need to be a saint to avoid corruption. You only need to be a human being.

The light shines clearly for everyone who is not blinded by the pursuit of power. It glows around the edges of the shadows cast by big institutions. It is wise to be cynical. Distrust the powerful. But never give up on humanity.

There are good people everywhere trying to live in the light.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala