Does This Kayfabe Make My Hips Look Big?

This notion of principled sincerity has me terrified, more terrified than I might be afraid of death.

This is the Riddle of the Sphinx on steroids, or too many fried shrimp, whatever the case may be. When wife asks hubby this question, the wise man knoweth to not answer the question. A wise man quickly delivers a soliloquy on a beauty that invites paramours uncounted, a smile whose radiance pales the moon, and a marital love that shames that of Penelope in the arms of Odysseus, as they tuck themselves into an extended night within the caress of the Tree of Life blessed by the gaze of the gods themselves.

To paraphrase Pink Floyd: I’m not frightened of sincerity. Anytime will do. Why should I be frightened of sincerity? There’s no reason for it. You’ve got to go some time.


Well, until the time comes.

If the Mrs. keeps packing away the fried shrimp, the time for sincerity may present itself, and the kayfabe must end. The delivery of sincerity is, of course, crucial. But let’s say that our hero has mastered his rhetoric, is overcome by love and concern for his wife’s health, and he says something like, “My love, thou art and ever shalt be the most beautiful creature in my sight, unworthy as I may be…” and, since I do not have such mastery over my own rhetoric, I wouldn’t know how to tell my wife, in all sincerity driven by love, that she has grown too fat for her own good. Because she’s not. And never will be. At least she’ll never hear such from me. Because she won’t ever be too fat. And I mean that.

Sincerity needs a relationship, a healthy relationship, a relationship of trust, which relies on trustworthiness. Trustworthiness rests on a primal understanding that sincerity brings something that is a lot like dying, and an understanding that a little dying is absolutely necessary for personal growth and societal growth, beginning with the family unit. Emotionally speaking, little boys and girls must die in order for men and women to emerge. One who is trustworthy may raise the blade, perhaps one who has had the blade jammed into his own psyche and knows how to wield it prudently. Little girls and boys love kayfabe; women and men love sincerity. And so we dance, men with girls, women with boys, back and forth, up and down, taking turns with the blade.

Otherwise, the little girl dressed in a woman’s clothing may stuff fried shrimp into her gaping piehole until she literally dies. Does her husband trust her enough to let him be man enough to tell her to stop eating? Has he done the labor of establishing himself as trustworthy, trustworthy enough to answer the question which must not be answered?

Likewise friends, neighbors, countrymen.

Huckleberry Finnsincerity

Nowhere in fiction is kayfabe more accessibly examined than in Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn. Huck’s jaunt down Heraclitus’ daydream starts with a sobering deception: slaughtering a pig so that everyone believes he is murdered. The entire story thus progresses as an exploration of the human need for show, for the show, for insincerity.

Huck dresses as a girl to extract information; he witnesses the justice of the peace shoot a drunk in cold blood, in full view of the townsfolk, who do nothing in response; the duke and the dauphin parlay a risque scam all the way down the river until they are caught, whence they are ridden out on a rail, tarred and feathered; the kayfabe of the professional gamblers on the shipwrecked steamboat (or is that in Life on the Mississippi? It’s a theme of Twain’s work that keeps popping up); Tom Sawyer’s arrival and choreographing of the release of Jim–

About Jim: that relationship is in and of itself an exploration of insincerity for the sake of survival, of intimacy revealing human truth, interpreting the kayfabe all up and down the shores of Mississippi’s America. The theme Mark Twain may be expressing and developing is that we desperately need insincerity in order to function as human beings. Many of us present ourselves to the world naked but for some threadbare loincloth self-woven, and we know that the same is true for many others. We are ashamed of ourselves, and, as an act of mercy, we allow our neighbors to obscure their own shame. It is a way of sheltering each other from righteous and self-righteous jeremiads.

Sincerity thrusts hard and true, and is necessary, in its time, but costly.

The human longing for insincerity fulfills a need to create a scapegoat, to burden someone of us with accumulated corporate shame in order to annihilate it. Once the deception has become great enough and harmful enough, the crowds unleash a kind of wrath which is out of proportion with respect to the crime. Compare and contrast the shooting of the drunk to the lynching of the duke and dauphin. One also recalls the story, somewhere in real life, of a murderer who was released from prison on a technicality (who told this story?): the townsfolk loved him because he was genial enough, and neighborly, but he had a nasty habit of parking illegally; thus, they tolerated him no longer, meting out justice against him. Once the slate is wiped clean of our collective shame, we can return to the kayfabe, enjoying and cataloging the outrages as they accumulate once again.

Wisdom, Cynicism, Glamour, and Wit: Wouldn’t You Like a Bit of it?

Oh, Adam. How you wound me so.

Irony and cynicism are red herrings. As long as everyone’s in on the kayfabe, it’s a great big joshing joke. The trouble comes when we allow ourselves the duplicitous pleasure of believing our own (and others’) bullshit and start treating political kayfabe as if it were sincere talk.

Okay, so I admit that I may not have gotten straight to the point. Let me try to remedy that.

Consider three people. Art, Betty, and Carl (to pick three names at not-random). Art is the naif, Betty is the unreflective cynic, and Carl is the pomo age-of-irony post-introspection petit sage. In Postrel’s terms I categorize each as follows:

  1. Art is gormless. He believes what politicians say (or if not all politicians, at least the ones on his team). He is ensorcelled, perhaps unwillingly. He has yet to acquire the talent of second-guessing the elites, be they political, religious, commercial, what-have-you.
  2. Betty is Holden Caulfield, less naive than Art, but more naive than Carl. She’s recently recognized the insincerity that pervades and in Humean fashion has begun to catalog her observations and register her disgust. “The whole world is a lie” she cries.
  3. Carl rejoins: “no shit, Sherlock.” You see, Carl knows what Betty knows, and he’s reconciled it. He’s come not merely to passively, placidly accept the mere existence of mundane human hypocrisy, but to recognize that as in all human endeavors, it is strewn with trade-offs. A culture suffused with glimmering lies, ponderous kayfabe, and tightly-bound hypocrisy comes with costs, but it’s almost certainly better than an alternative world with nothing but pure brutal sincerity. Likewise, he recognizes the dire need for temperance, that a world full of rib-prodding insincerity is probably just as intolerable. He knows that navigating the world of half-truths we inhabit is challenging and that he’ll occasionally be wrong from time to time, but that his life and his society are enriched by the sweet little lies we whisper each other.

I implore you to believe me when I write that I wasn’t landing on Betty as the paradigm for maturity. I was pointing you at the dull-as-dishwater observation that one player won’t have any more than an infinitesimal influence over the general equilibrium, and that between the three rough options of a) naively believing everything everyone tells you b) sullenly rejecting any utterance as worthless insincerity and c) coming to grips with the duplicity of humans and using this secret knowledge to help you flourish (though not, of course, at the expense of others); the third option is quite clearly the best. Joyce’s Mulligan wasn’t a heretic—he was a placid apostate. 

I invite you, my dear friends, to untelescope your morality. You’ve no more hope of eliminating insincerity than an ant does of redirecting the Nile. The low-cost, high-margin project lies in learning how to best navigate a world where irony and insincerity are treated as exogenous.

To be sure, it’s difficult to precisely place where any of this fits into a serious project of eudaimonia. I think (though I admit that it’s only via introspection) that it’s eminently possible to be a good, useful, productive, moral member of society and to have also relinquished any pretext of sincere belief (I will say that I’m still occasionally taken aback by the sheer quantity of clergy I personally know who’ve confided in me their atheism). I have a suspicion, hard to test empirically, that the tripartite sincerity spectrum is orthogonal to good livin’, even if it correlates strongly with #phronesis. But I don’t think I want to go too far down this road, as yonder lies the realm of navel-fluff picking.


Flattery will get you everywhere, my dear. Besides, I think I’ve spilled quite enough ink this week kvetching about the embarrassing politics of wayward children.

I still recall the moment it happened, my charming darlings. No, not the time when the America of my youth hucked aside its pretentious dalliance with painful sincerity, but the moment I finally grasped that it was never there to begin with. There has never in the history of civilization as I hazily understand it been a period characterized by anything even remotely approaching genuine sincerity. Quite the opposite, since even primates exhibit evidence of strategic deception.

For me, the eye-opening event was the 1989 release of Faith No More’s album The Real Thing. The music video for their still-occasionally-played radio hit Epic was making the rounds. Here, give it a listen:

See what I mean? Patton takes great pains to growl out lyrics of great portent, howling as only he can do, challenging your flippant notions of your own masculinity with a guttural sneer. But the contents of the lyrics? Perfectly vapid. He’s taking the piss out of pretentious hair metal bands a few years before Kurt Cobain achieved international acclaim by doing the exact same thing, only with a bit more Pacific Northwestern melancholy (and those unforgettable anarchy cheerleaders). For me, that was the day sincerity died. Not with a bang, but with a fish flopping around as Roddy Bottum played a wee tinkling dirge to its demise.

Is that any different from Kurosawa and Mifune’s Yojimbo taking the piss out of the preposterous bowdlerization of the WWII-era Samurai aesthetic? Or to Mozart’s impish antics deflating self-important Italian opera? Irony suffuses human history, and many of the best works that have survived the ages (seriously you guys, re-read the Iliad and tell me it’s not 99.9% tongue-in-cheek) tends very heavily to the side of pricking the vanity of the self-indulgent psychopomp.

But as in all else, temperance is a virtue. I think what Peej wants from me is a steely eye gazing an an unseemly excess of not just irony, but the Hieronymous Bosch-flavoured animatronic grotesquery of recursive meta-irony. She fancies herself a 140-character Helen and I her pied Paris to cross deadly waters.

Challenge accepted.

Using game theory, it’s pretty easy to model a sincerity dilemma. With probability p, your interlocutor is being sincere (therefore, with probability 1-p, she is being insincere). Since you know the payoffs to the actions you can take, you have all the parameters you need to guide your response. As you vary p, your behavior should change. Easy peasy chicken sneezy.

Or is it? Not so fast, because what if p isn’t a parameter, but a variable? What if your behavior in this round influences the probability that others will either be sincere or act as if there were sincere in the next round? Go ahead and get all recursive with that. Take a moment and see if you can’t land on an equilibrium where every player is privately insincere but publicly sincere. If you were a naive observer, would you be able to distinguish between that world and one where everyone was actually legit sincere?

Take your time thinking carefully about that question before pondering this one:

What if foreign cultures have this same equilibrium? What if part of the cognitive dissonance expats experience a few months living abroad is the uncomfortable realization that their cozy adopted culture is just another gaggle of brooding hypocrites not all that different from the ones left behind?

The Age of Irony may as well be named The Age of Always. Adjust or perish as you see fit.

And the best way to slay the beast of tiresome meta-irony is to starve the damnable thing. Irony appeals to many of our ugliest human instincts. The virtuous wanderer acknowledges that these nasty urges exist, accepts them, and strives for excellence regardless. #Arete, young lady. #Phronesis.


It’s hard, but satisfying.