Okay, so below you will see a kind of long rant about an Oscar Wilde quote. You’ve been warned.
So, while taking a brief study break today, I was browsing 9gag and found a post that bothered me quite a bit. Given that the site is about sixty percent not-funny people trying desperately to be funny (often using pointlessly off-color jokes) and thirty percent supposedly “deep thoughts” that would give Jack Handy a run for his money, you’d think I’d be past the point when a post could really annoy me like this. Especially with how simple this post was; it wasn’t sexist or racist or any of your standard “how-can-someone-still-think-this-it’s-2014” fare. Honestly, I’m guessing that the vast majority of people just sort of scrolled past it.
The post was just an incorrect Oscar Wilde quote. A black background, and in white the words, “People these days know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. – Oscar Wilde”. The title was “This is so true.” Okay, so you might not have noticed that they messed up the beginning of the quote, but for fuck’s sake, who cares? I mean, Wilde is sometimes referred to the most misquoted man in history. Is it really a big deal that the poster got a word or two wrong? Well, actually yes, it is. What they messed up actually says a lot, and points to a much more significant problem than someone missing out on some great literature.
Now, to start with, whether you could have identified that the quote above was incorrect or not, I would hope you could at least recognize that Wilde is not talking about this new century. Hell, he isn’t even talking about last century. The quote above appeared in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was published in 1890. Wilde wasn’t commenting on the world we live in now; if anything he was commenting on life in “modern” London over 120 years ago.
“Okay,” I hear you saying, “but isn’t that the whole point of literature? To find commonalities across space and time; to allow those far away or those long dead to speak to us now?” And of course, you would be right. It would be truly remarkable if Wilde was identifying a trend more than a century ago that still applied today. But he wasn’t. The quote is wrong, and just changing a few words completely negates what Wilde was trying to do. The actual quote is “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” So what was changed? How do this quote and the incorrect quote above differ? The topic. Wilde wasn’t making a comment on modern London; he was making a joke about cynics.
You see, cynicism is kind of a theory that life sucks. A cynic believes people are all selfish and evil, the government is out to destroy you, everyone is actually a complete idiot, and life is a waste of time. Seriously, it is an incredibly stupid mindset to be in. And it’s one that everyone (myself included) seems to find themselves in every now and then, particularly on the internet. So by changing a couple words in that quote, instead of saying cynics are silly and dumb, the poster is saying everyone is the world is cynical (and therefore, silly and dumb). What worries me is I don’t know if the poster realized the mistake. I do think that people today are overly cynical, but rather than comment on that trend, the poster is just playing into the exact same theme.
The thing is, Wilde’s definition of a cynic is pretty good; someone who can’t see how wonderful the world is. Someone so focused on the bad that they can’t see the stuff that is actually important. I feel this is a real problem right now. So many people are whole-heartedly adopting a cynical outlook on life. We live in a world where people freely exchange the labels “cynical” and “realistic,” as though this depressing outlook is correct beyond question. Half the time, the kinds of things people say are downright pessimistic, but still get treated as realistic. What is the modern day synonym for “optimism”? “Naivety.” If you think that the world is pretty cool and getting better; believe that people are generally good, people think you are childish. Never mind how great the world is today. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s go back to Wilde, shall we?
The quote above is said by the delightfully quotable, if slightly cruel, Lord Henry. When Wilde first wrote Dorian Gray, Henry was gay and in love with Dorian. The editors refused to publish it, and forced him to rewrite it, cutting all instances that hinted at the relationship (of course, it isn’t hard to see that Lord Henry is gay, but Wilde subverted it enough for his audience in 1890 to miss it). Five years later, Wilde would be tried on charges of engaging in homosexual behavior, and sentenced to two years hard labor. Today, not only is homosexuality not considered a crime in his home country of England or in his late life refuge of America, but gay marriage is legal in at least sixteen countries and seventeen states in the U.S. Believe it or not, but the world is getting better.
The year Dorian Gray came out, only a few countries had women’s suffrage, along with only one territory in the United States. In fact, just three years prior, women in Utah had actually lost the right to vote. But thirty years later, that would be fixed with the Nineteenth Amendment. Forty-three years later, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was passed, guaranteeing that a woman couldn’t be paid less for doing the same work as a man. Fifty years after that, conditions are continuing to improve, and the list of countries that legally deny rights to women continues to shrink, with Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates granting suffrage in the past decade and a half. Is there perfect equality? No, I’ll grant that there are certainly still discrepancies, but the world still looks a hell of a lot brighter than it did in Wilde’s time.
What else can we say about the year 1890? It’s the first time the phrase “separate but equal” was used in a de jure setting. Racial segregation was not only legal, but the norm in much of the United States until “separate but equal” was finally shown to be pretty much the most horrible practice since slavery roughly eighty years later. Today, no laws treat someone differently because of their race. Just like gender and homosexual rights, we may be far from perfect, but we are so much better than where we have been, even compared to the past couple decades.
If you want more proof of how far we’ve come, consider how revolted people get over racism and the like. If the world were truly as terrible as cynics would have us believe, you’d expect us to have thicker skin for it. But we don’t. Consider that when Nina Davuluri was named Miss America, a few thousand racist tweets were considered an outrage, even though in her own words “For one negative tweet, I received dozens of positive tweets and support from not only Indians, but the American people across the country…” People overwhelmingly supported her nomination, and the fact that anyone would disagree is considered awful.
History has always been the story of people slowly moving towards a better future. Yes, I know that there are times it feels that we’ll never reach that world we truly want to live in. But to act like life is terrible, or that man-kind’s best days are behind us? That is not only wrong; it’s insulting to all those who toiled to bring us to where we are today.
So do me a favor; memorize the quote correctly, and more importantly, memorize its meaning. Try and remind yourself how silly cynicism is. We live in the best time in history, and believe it or not, the world is going to keep getting better. I’m going to leave you with one last quote, this time from someone a bit more modern. It’s something that I feel really sums this up quite nicely:
“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes’.”
― Stephen Colbert