“Kayfabe” is an old carny term, expropriated famously by the pro wrestling circuit. It’s a specific kind of play-acting, in which rivalries, feuds, rancor, and animosity are contrived by players and presented to the audience as if real. In turn, the audience gladly suspends disbelief, ignoring or shunning loud apostates.
My good friend and professor Robin Hanson argues convincingly that much of the human brain is optimized in favor of hypocrisy. We, particularly those of us endowed with high social intelligence, are finely tuned kayfabe machines. We lie, cheat, grandilocute, backstab, obsequiate, and connive with zeal and panache. But throughout, we pay diligent tribute to a suite of social norms that include fairness, honor, decency, honesty, and charity. We humblebrag to raise our relative status under a thin fig leaf of modesty. And should you break kayfabe, prepare for trouble (make it double).
The punishment of heretics and apostates should be your biggest hint that kayfabe is sacred. You’re meant to display faith in the obviously absurd to signal conformity to common purpose or shared identity. If you can playact as if meaningless, junk affiliation has merit, surely you can be trusted to participate in more important institutions. It’s the sneaky outsider, the non-believer that can’t be trusted.
Would you let your daughter marry someone who broke kayfabe?
Capital-T Truth, contrarily, does not depend on allegiance to theater, to ceremony. Political sentiments are elevated by theme music—not so academic findings.Truth’s profanity is unsentimental when splatched bare. Storytelling, rhetoric, metaphor, allegory: these are the nougat and caramel that hide the hard nut of truth inside. The chore of the alert citizen is to check those political candy bars for razor blades before eating. The task of the social scientist is to lighten the burden of this chore.
Kayfabe can be great fun, so long as everyone’s in on the act. Excessive dominion arises when the farce gets elevated enough that constituents forget it’s all a big joke. When that happens, it is Truth that punctures the ambitions of the sovereign. The pleasures of sacred kayfabe are surely to be savored, but prudence demands precautions against excessive leavening.