Eve responds to my response to her manifesto against sincerism. We discussed this some off-blog, and as she said I think we agree about 75%. Toward the end of that discussion, I mentioned that I know what it feels like to be a misfit by being too sincere, and Eve said she couldn’t imagine that. So now that the subject’s come up again, I thought I’d elaborate.
When I was growing up, just about all of the traits the Eve says sincerism opposes — “irony, misdirection, self-protection, exaggeration, agent-provocateur behavior, unspoken understandings, WASPish complicity in one another’s secrets, and your mouth writing checks your ass can’t cash” — are also traits that might be called cool. As in, put on the persona, hide the vulnerabilities, play the game, get the jokes, nail the pop-culture references, pick things up without having to be told, do outrageous things, annoy the authorities, etc. For a kid who is not cool — like, say, me — this can all seem like an impenetrable puzzle. It requires a level of intuition, gamesmanship, and immersion in a culture that you might not even find especially interesting, except that to not know it can make you a target of ridicule.
This is part of what complicates “mainstream” and “fringe.” All these references and understandings and secrets are for a group, not a stranger or an isolate. If you’re by yourself in an unfamiliar culture, you appreciate it when people deal with you straight rather than expect you to know things you can’t know. Of course, it’s also impolite to demand that they translate everything without trying to pick up the language, so I take Eve’s point on that. I think my reaction may have come from associating this kind of behavior with a kind of border patrol.
Some personality types are probably more likely to feel like strangers in their own culture. When I wrote about sci-fi robots a while ago I mentioned that people with Asperger syndrome often identify with robot characters like Cmdr. Data because they, like robots, don’t pick up on the unspoken and irrational aspects of communication; they just take literally what you tell them. I suppose this underscores how genre fiction can tell things that realism can’t, although that doesn’t mean it opposes sincerism.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that “cool” itself is something that started among fringe populations — the young and the black, mostly — and that teenage in-crowds exist under authorities at school and in other youth-oriented programs that are often run by sincerists. I am sure that is not true all over the country, but where I grew up, and probably where Eve did too, people attracted to working with young folks generally liked to think we can all get along if we just share our feelings. My mother, who trains teachers for a living, says getting student teachers to adopt the “mask of command” is often one of the hardest things to get student teachers to do. It goes against the grain of their personalities.
But even that needs contextualizing, I think. For one thing, it strikes me that all the examples of sincerism that Eve and I are coming up with are very female. Is this really a chick problem? I am reminded of a paper from my college sociology course (which I know I’ve mentioned here before) about the “feminization of love,” arguing that women tend to define love as sharing your feelings and secrets with others, while men define it more as doing things for others. The post-feminist struggle of women to be leaders while still being women (and not making the same mistakes as men) may lead them to adapt a more-feminine mode of relating to leadership.
The connection with feminism also points up the fact that this is really a post-’60s phenomenon. I may be wrong, but I doubt that if we were in the 1950s, Eve would be arguing that sincerism rules the country. The counterculture promoted some highly sincerist philosophies, such as romantic primitivism, nudism, and a psychotherapeutic model of relationships (which I suspect is why Eve felt an imperative to “press my fingers against other people’s bruises”, as she puts it).
Sexual liberation is also a very sincerist philosophy in its way, since it tries to put blunt communication in place of the semi-improvisational theater that courtship has normally been. I think this is what Eve was getting at when she called “safe words” essentially sincerist. But going by what my mother tells me about dating in the ’50s, this was a reaction against a form of ritual communication that was already going haywire. The thing about these shared cultural understandings is that you lose them with a sufficient cultural disruption. Courtship in the ’50s was already different from what it was a few decades earlier (you don’t see much dating in Victorian novels), and the ’60s changed the rules again. Nowadays, the safest advice is not to assume anything.
That’s why Eve’s objection to safe words, though I understand it, seems a bit backwards. Do we really want people tying each other up and flogging each other without some way to say “stop”? Do you want someone with a whip to be telling you that thinking you know your own feelings is a Heideggerian fetish? (Well, maybe some philosophy students would like that …) I think the problem here is with the situation, not the safeguard. It’s a situation of people engaging in a dangerous sex game and making things up as they go. As Lynn alluded to in her own post on this discussion, seeing sex as a game, but where nobody really agrees on the rules, leads some men to set of rules where there’s no real way for a woman to actually mean no. Standing against sincerism isn’t going to bring back a shared script.
A few other comments. Point 6a in Eve’s post, about aesthetics, has me pulled in two directions. Clothing in general is hard to defend on purely sincerist grounds; and since I am not a nudist, I’m not about to make an ethical critique of every fashion norm out there. Still, there’s something about Eve’s comment that sounds an awful lot like, “Well if it takes a little misogyny to make women dress right, then that’s what it takes!” In which case I am not on board. (Maybe at some point I should blog my conflicted reaction to the show What Not To Wear, which would probably explain this better.)
Also, I didn’t really mean to propose that journalism was inherently sincerist, so much as I was going off Eve’s example of “American newspapers’ claim to ‘objectivity.’” Although now that I look at it again, I think that was meant more as a metaphor. (Gee, I do sound like Cmdr. Data…)