Monday, July 9, 2012

What Is Sincerity?

We may not know what it is, but we still value sincerity.

If you ask a random stranger, he will offer the currently correct definition.

Sincerity, he will tell you, means expressing your deepest feelings, openly and honestly. When you express what is welling up in the depths of your soul you are being sincere.

By this definition expressing yourself with sincerity would be roughly equivalent to vomiting the undigested products in your soul.

That’s close enough to the definition R. Jay Magill offers in his new book Sincerity. Reviewing the book, Daniel Akst writes:

Mr. Magill's own definition of sincerity is both broad and precise: "confronting one's innermost thoughts or emotions and relaying them to others straightforwardly, no matter how relevant to the topic, injurious to one's own reputation, or embarrassing—or however correct or incorrect."

Akst correctly calls this oversharing, but it is also a good rendering of Freud’s rule of free association: say whatever comes to mind regardless of how painful or unimportant it may seem.

To my mind free association is nothing but a bad habit, an asocial one to boot. It retrains you, helping you to unlearn the habits of normal conversation. If you master the art of free association you will think that the speech act is thinking out loud.

Far from embodying the virtue of sincerity, such a practice defies decorum, fails to respect other people, and makes you the center of your own drama.

Freud convinced people that free association is therapeutic. It isn’t.

“Extreme frankness,” Akst states, is “brutal.” It is also self-absorbed and abusive.

Worse yet, the culturally correct definition offers an incorrect view of sincerity. You cannot rationalize your bad behavior, to say nothing of your failure to connect with others, by hiding behind a mask of false sincerity.

How then did we get to the point where we do not even know what sincerity is?

In truth, we owe it to Romantic poets and philosophers, especially to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Magill makes this salient point. Akst summarizes his idea:

In the realm of the literary arts, Mr. Magill has a field day, zeroing in on Rousseau as the source of our modern literary obsession with sincerity, which the author finds manifest in German and English Romanticism, American Transcendentalism, French Symbolism and other currents that come to look like a tidal wave in favor of finding and flaunting the unvarnished self. All such movements carry "the echo of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the subsequent romantic impulse: go forward and leap toward vigilant, violent self-expression; stress your own experience over the commercial and social developments surrounding your unique life."

There you have it. Sincerity was redefined to involve “violent self-expression” at the expense of your participation in social or commercial life.

Rousseau has no real interest in sincerity. He was trying to redefine it to lure people into an advanced state of social alienation, that is, anomie.

Anyone who becomes as self-involved as Rousseau wants him to be will necessarily compromise his relationships with friends and family. He will also become dysfunctional in the marketplace.

By changing the definition of sincerity, Rousseau was trying to undermine the social order.

They wanted to detach people from others, to render them insensitive to the needs and feelings of others, to turn them against each other, the better to foment what they considered the cathartic effects of drama and violence.

Put this into action and you get the French Revolution, of which Rousseau was the philosophical godfather.

Rousseau confused sincerity with authenticity. Would it not have been better to connect it with trustworthiness?

Pouring out your heart and soul regardless of the consequences is not the same as being good to your word.

Is a sincere person someone who is so self-absorbed that he neglects and ignores his duties and obligations to himself and to others?

Or is a sincere person someone we trust to keep his word, no matter what?

When we say that someone says what he means or means what he says we really mean that he can be trusted. We don't mean that he can't keep a secret.

To clarify the issue, let’s take a look at Confucius, who wrote about it more than 2,500 years ago. Since Magill seems to believe that sincerity was defined as a moral ideal five centuries ago, it is worth pointing out the importance of Confucius.

After all, the Chinese sage defined sincerity for the ages, and he defined it correctly. 

Confucius saw sincerity as a practice. Which is not the same as saying that it is a moral ideal. You are sincere if your behavior manifests it. Confucius did not worry himself about your soul’s torments. He began by reflecting on your obligations as a member of a community.

To be an ethical member of a community, Confucius said that people should follow customsand mores, ritual and ceremony.

But, you can perform the rites with sincerity or with insincerity. Either way, Confucius said, you must perform them.

More importantly, it is reasonable to believe that when you first start doing your duty you are not going to do so with any real sincerity.

Think of a child writing thank-you notes for birthday presents. Most likely he is doing it because his parents made him do it. Even if he does not understand why he is doing it, even if his gesture feels less than sincere, Confucius would have said that he must do it.  

Confucius would have said, it is better to follow the rite insincerely than not to follow it at all.

Sincerity is a goal, attained through rigorous practice. With repeated performance, it becomes habitual and then becomes invested with the proper feelings. Then it counts as sincere. You will not just be going through the motions. You will look like you mean it.

Sincerity must be visible to others. It involves having your gestures conform to your actions.

If you are doing the right thing for the wrong reason after a time you will have done the right thing so often that it will feel like second nature. Better yet, the more you do it the more you will see the benefits it confers. The more you understand the benefits, the more you will see its value.

Or, as 12 Step programs put it: Fake it until you make it.


Anonymous said...

Nice post on this subject.

And it compels me to mention my #1 pet peeve - the current mania that has total strangers asking me "How are you?". When asked by sales clerks, bank tellers, toll collectors, telemarketers, e.g. total strangers, it is an improper question! It is not asked out of a genuine concern for my welfare, they do not mean is not sincere. And it implies a level of familiarity that does not exist and therefore is not proper.

I generally avoid responding to the question/greeting. On occasion I will say "No so well. I may have stomach cancer" or something equally shocking like that. The resultant expression is priceless. They generally are too stunned to respond.

I would much rather have them greet me in the "old fashioned" manner - "Welcome to 'name your store'. How may I help you?" THAT is sincerity that can justifiably be faked.

Or maybe I'm just becoming a curmudgeon!

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