Bogus sentiment reaches its apex in these Happy Holidays. But the American body politic is afflicted year-round by a toxic stew of insincere thoughts, words and deeds. Is there a cure for this cancer?
By Chad Hermann
LMOST 20 YEARS AGO, in a bustling little gift shop Downtown, I found my all-time favorite Christmas card. On the front was a pastoral scene straight out of Currier & Ives: a snow-covered pine on a snow-covered hill, a rich blue sky behind and a caption below that read, "This Is the Season of Peace and Love." On the inside, an eloquent inscription: But at 12:01 a.m. on December 26th, it's back to Screw You, Charlie.
mmmI laughed. I bought it. I kept it. And I take it out every year on weeks like this, when bells are ringing and carolers are singing and shoppers are willing to run you through with a candy cane or a reindeer antler just to get a chance at a PlayStation 3. Because peace and love last only as long as stock on hand, and Charlie never gets a rain check.
mmmBut he does get a mailbox full of sincere best wishes for a warm and wonderful holiday season, a heaping pile of pious platitudes from almost everyone he loves and knows and hasn't seen in three years. He even gets one from someone who, two days earlier, would have eaten his feet for a TMX Elmo.
mmmI used to think that card was funny. But now, living and loving and trying to survive in this golden age of American Insincerity -- when war is peace and ignorance is strength and context is inconsequence and language is just another means to an inelegant end -- I realize it was visionary.
mmmIn its own, humble, vulgar little way, it foretold an era when each new day brings a bounty of gifts and blessings not even worthy of the words in which they're wrapped.
HE MOST RELIABLE OF those gifts trickle down from the top, a president to whom language is either a syntactical minefield or a weapon of rhetorical destruction.
mmmPresident Bush professes his sincerity like an adulterer professes his fidelity: loudly and fervently, to draw attention away from the lipstick on his collar. His manner of speaking, from an accent that comes and goes with the political wind to those self-styled, conflicting labels ("War President," "Compassionate Conservative") he dons to suit the occasion, is a monument to transparent insincerity. He rhapsodizes about the Culture of Life, solemnly vows never to destroy life in order to save life, but began a war that has so far claimed more than 2,900 American lives.
mmmHis predecessor, who elevated solipsism to performance art, may have been worse.
mmmAs president, Bill Clinton reduced the budget deficit but contributed mightily to the insincerity surplus, baptizing with infidelity an age when the country is free to doubt anything its chief executive says. He professed love for his wife while canoodling his intern, denied it with an untoward mix of outrage and duplicity, then tried to convince us that our understandings both of sexual relations and "is" were less sincere and sophisticated than his. He convinced us only that, just as a fish rots from the head, our discourse rots from the head of state.
mmmThe rot spreads also from news networks that promise to give us the world but barely give us the neighborhood. On the same day that Fox, CNN and MSNBC tripped over themselves to tell us one man's was body found in Oregon, the bodies of 13 men and women with no way home were shot in Al Anbar province and blown up in Kirkuk.
mmmIf you did not hear about them or their sad ends, it is no wonder. They had not partied with Paris Hilton.. They just did their jobs and died, giving the last full measure of devotion for a cause they could not quite articulate and a country that could not quite bring itself, beyond some ribbon magnets and occasional letters to the editor, to pay full attention to their sacrifice.
mmmBut perhaps we get the government and the media we deserve. When we want to develop our intellectual and spiritual selves but consume a steady diet of fast-food news and junk-food entertainment, we lay waste our promise and our possibility.
mmmWhen morals and ethics are relative, the language we use to communicate them, and indeed everything else, crumbles. Ideals fall apart. Sensibilities cannot hold. And hypocrisy, the bankrupt currency of the day, is loosed upon a world in which the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate insincerity.
TRY TO COMBAT THIS problem on the front lines of my Business Communication classes at Carnegie Mellon University.
I teach my students to know and respect their audience, to analyze their purpose and understand their situation, to bring fact and data and reason and rhetoric to the careful craft of their language. I implore them to be clear and open and honest in both their communication and their careers. And I try to convince them that what business and politics and every other industry or complex in the world could use a whole lot more of are men and women willing to speak from their hearts or souls or anywhere else that consultants and focus groups can not reach.
mmmIn a classroom full of budding professionals for whom success is power, power is money and money is often everything, my job is not easy.
It is even less so thanks to so many CEOs' profitable propensity for insincerity: drawing big salaries and benefits packages while cutting workers' benefits and blaming the economy; sending jobs and overseas to minimize service and maximize shareholder value; professing ties to their communities but, with the unanimous blessings of boards of directors, fleeing for bigger cities and paydays; fostering corporate cultures in which the bottom line is king, honesty and loyalty are the jokers.
mmmWe expect corporate insincerity in advertising. But we get it everywhere now that companies seem to think we're too numb to notice.
Brewing companies sell us cases of beer but implore us to drink responsibly. Drug companies shill prescription medicines like dime-store candies, hard-selling benefits but soft-pedaling side effects that could make us bleed or bloat at every orifice. Automated voices tell us again and again, while we're on hold for 20 minutes, that our call is important to them. mmmOperators stick to the script and admit responsibility for nothing, assuring us in detached and dulcet tones that it's the computer's fault.
But we know better. We know that when we accept these things, it's no one's fault but our own.
mmmThe more I think about that, as I stand before my students and tell them they cannot succeed by doing what I see people doing and accepting every day, the more I feel like a sham. And the more I feel like it doesn't matter if we don't accept those things. Because we do them, too.
mmmWe want higher quality at lower prices, more services for fewer taxes. We expect fair property assessments, then fudge our appeals to get below-market value. We demand accountability from community leaders and politicians, but we cheat on taxes and slide through stop signs and sneak 12 items into express lanes. We bemoan overpaid athletes but watch their games and wear their jerseys and want their autographs.
mmmWe proclaim our spirituality, go to church, and pass judgment on everyone we meet. We want lives and jobs with meaning, but we fill our communication with a devil's dictionary of pervasive cant, idiomatic stock phrases that navigate conversations we'd rather not have anyway, so we can grab a latte or squeeze in a workout before going home to empty apartments.
mmmEvery day we indulge in this endless, enervating background noise of unblinking responses that pass for interpersonal connections.
And so we hasten the decline of our lives and our language.
We compromise the thought for the script, the argument for the sound bite, the warm elegance of sincerity for the cool insincerity of expedience. We get what we want, and we are satisfied. Even as we are not fulfilled.
Y 12-YEAR-OLD, AS 12-year-olds are wont to do, has lately become obsessed with his appearance. With his clothes, his shoes, his hair. The dressings and trappings of his slowly shifting self. He is more concerned with how he looks than with what he does, less focused on who he is than how he may seem. Which is to say he is more concerned with looking cool than being cool. The distinction does not trouble him. He is content to be thought cool even as he suspects he is not.
mmmThis preference of perception over reality, attainment over excellence, art over matter, has always been an essential and thus forgivable part of being 12. But it is not, even as it has lately become, an essential and forgivable part of being a lawyer or professor or politician. And yet it is now the most recognizable feature of a culture that, suffering a disconnect between public and private, thought and action, desire and deed, freely trades genuine wishes for empty fulfillments.
mmmThe whole tendency of modern America is away from sincerity. We have not left it behind, but we have at least turned our backs upon it, looking instead to a land of seductive hungers and superficial efforts. The force compelling this tendency and spawning these examples you know all too well -- it is the quest for gain, for advantage, for self-interest divorced from the notion of common good:
mmmIncreased sales and political capital. Higher ratings and revenues. Fame and fortune and the precious 12-year-old cool factor. The more likely we are to want something in return for what we say or do, the more likely we are to fudge, spin, massage, manipulate. And so to sell what is left of ourselves and our souls for the chance that, with one more speech or show or merger, one more hollow greeting or empty greeting card, we may gain love or money or power or prestige -- and all without earning or deserving it.
mmmOur insincerity, laid bare, looks like nothing more or less than our own selfishness.
mmmWe have become, in many ways, an insincere people in an increasingly fractured and disingenuous country. We rarely say what we mean, mean what we say or, except in our best and most intimate moments, trust in the power of what we truly believe. This seems especially sad for a country and a people borne not just of geographical opportunity, but political and philosophical integrity.
mmmIf Americans are no longer honest with themselves and our world, if we compromise our government and our culture, our lives and our legacies, merely for the light and transient causes of self-interest, then we have become more, and worse, than that against which we once rebelled. And this age of insincerity will march ever onward.
UT IF THIS CENTURY, this season -- and that sardonic Christmas card -- can teach us anything, it is that we still have a lovely capacity for sense and sensitivity, for the kinds of honesty and sincerity that allowed a land of castoffs and yearning immigrants to summon so much peace and love and possibility before.
mmmWe had then, and surely we still have now, the faith and steely resolve to become that most true and righteous of places: a country where, no matter the day or the week or the year, no matter how far we may have strayed from our noble beginnings, if we learn from our mistakes and carry them with us in our good works, there is always hope for redemption.
mmmAnd where, as long as we speak freely and honestly -- and, yes, even critically -- from our hearts and our minds and our still-yearning souls, there can always be a promise and a season of sincerity.
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-- John Allison ( firstname.lastname@example.org 412-263-1915 )