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I've often found the word "cynical" or "cynicism" hard to understand when it is used in a sentence. More often than not, the meaning given in an English-English dictionary just doesn't sound right to me (doesn't fit in the sentence), let alone the translation in an English-Chinese dictionary, which is more confusing than clarifying.

The three sentences below are from the same book. I don't really understand what cynical/cynicism means in any of them. I guess I should probably include more context for each instance, but then I'll need to quote more than a few pages. All I can say is, the book is about how, in the 1830s, the U.S government tried to drive native Americans out of their homeland east of the Mississippi and settle them across the river instead under the pretense that it is for their good because they would go extinct if they continued to live among the white.

  1. William Hicks and John Ross, leaders of the Cherokee Nation, called the scheme championed by the federal government a “burlesque,” a word that perfectly captures the policy’s combination of starry-eyed utopianism and vicious cynicism.

  2. At heart, the plan for native salvation in the West was deeply cynical, but white Americans managed to cloak their cynicism in a cheery optimism.

  3. The civilizing plan was ethnocentric and self-serving. In its worst form— as when Thomas Jefferson admitted in a confidential letter that he desired to separate native people from their lands for their own good— it was also paternalistic and cynical. Indeed, the plan to civilize native people could bleed into a desire to erase them.

My guess is that it is a cynical/cynicism policy because native people are thought as inferior to the white and unable to thrive in the east? But I can't be sure. The first definition in the dictionary is:

believing that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity

which just doesn't fit (the government believes native people are motivated purely by self-interest?? That's neither here nor there...).

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    “ the government believes native people are motivated purely by self-interest??” that’s not what the author is saying. The author is saying that the colonists were the ones motivated by self-interest.
    – cruthers
    Commented Oct 21, 2021 at 13:22

2 Answers 2

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"Cynical" is a confusing word because it has two meanings that are near opposites.

Merriam-Webster has these two descriptions:

Essential Meaning of cynical
1 : believing that people are generally selfish and dishonest

She's become more cynical in her old age.

2 : selfish and dishonest in a way that shows no concern about treating other people fairly

Some people regard the governor's visit to the hospital as a cynical attempt to win votes.

The first definition is about the feeling or attitude someone has about someone else's behaviour. It's like skeptical with negativity.

The second definition is about the intent of someone's behaviour.

In all three of your examples above, "cynical" has the second definition. The writer is saying that US Government claimed they had the best interests of the Native Americans in mind, but really this was an excuse to justify serving their own interests at the expense of the Native Americans.

By contrast, today, the descendants of those Native Americans are cynical (in the first sense) that the government ever has their best interests in mind.

Another English word with a similar pair of meanings is "suspicious". Something can be suspicious, or a person can be suspicious of something. The two meanings of "cynical" parallel the two meanings of "suspicious".

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I think I can see the confusion, as the meaning of the word doesn't only imply negativity, it is also usually used in negative terms.

One literal definition of 'cynicism' is:

An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others.

When we use this word, it is generally to indicate doubt or distrust.

Of course, a person can have good reason to doubt or distrust somebody. But if I had serious reservations about somebody's trustworthiness, I would probably not describe myself as 'cynical', because that suggests that I maybe don't have grounds for those doubts and that the problem is my attitude. Your example 2 is a good one to highlight this - cynicism was 'cloaked' (or hidden) with optimism - so cynicism can be synonymous with negativity, although it means more than that.

Cynicism is really an attitude. If a person is cynical by nature, then they may have a default position of distrust or doubt until shown otherwise. That attitude can shape thinking and decisions, and when a decision has clearly been shaped by cynicism, it may be described as 'cynical'.

Your general understanding of the text seems to be correct - these plans were drawn up by people who did not really believe in the purpose they were supposed to serve, and that was apparently evident in the way they were drawn up.

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  • I'm sorry, but I'm still not quite sure how to interpret the word in each instance. And I encounter yet another sentence that contains it. (I have found that the author just loves this word -- in less than 20 pages he used it five times.)
    – Olivia Lo
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 9:09
  • "... as long as the southern states were inhabited by 'savages' who were not enumerated in apportioning representation in Congress, explained one Georgia newspaper, slave owners would be deprived of their rightful political power and remain 'tributaries' to the 'overbearing aristocracy' of the North. Unlike slaves, indigenous residents were alas not counted by the U.S. Constitution as three-fifths of a person, the cynical device that enhanced white southern political strength."
    – Olivia Lo
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 9:10
  • Can I venture to say that in each of these instances, cynical is in a general way synonymous with "sick"?
    – Olivia Lo
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 9:11
  • I looked up the thesaurus and found that both "sardonic" and "wry" seem to fit the bill here, but I'm not sure.
    – Olivia Lo
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 9:15
  • @OliviaLo Some of these additional questions are taking this a little off-topic. Questions here have to be focused. "Sardonic" and "wry" don't substitute for 'cynical'. They are usually both reserved to describe humorous, satirical observations that contain an element of cynicism. I don't know why you think "sick" is related at all.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Oct 22, 2021 at 10:05

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