Sincerity With a Motive

Not all sincerity is the same.

Sincerity isn’t a bad thing. It is a virtue, and it’s preferable to non-sincerity. But there is such a thing as sincerity with a motive.

I am not sure I would stand and point at Orin as an example of a classic pathological liar, but you have only to watch him in certain kinds of action to see that there can be such a thing as sincerity with a motive. I have no idea what your relationship with Orin is or what your feelings are — and if Orin wishes it I am afraid I can predict your feelings for him will be strong — so I shall just tell you that for instance at E.T.A. I saw Orin in bars or at post-tournament dances go up to a young lady he would like to pick up and use this fail-safe cross-sectional pick-up Strategy that involved an opening like “Tell me what sort of man you prefer, and then I’ll affect the demeanor of that man.” Which in a way of course is being almost pathologically open and sincere about the whole picking-up enterprise, but also has this quality of Look-At-Me-Being-So-Totally-Open-And-Sincere-I – Rise – Above – The – Whole – Disingenuous – Posing – Process – Of – Attracting – Someone -, – And – I – Transcend – The – Common – Disingenuity – In – A – Bar – Herd – In – A – Particularly – Hip – And -Witty – Self – Aware – Way -, – And – If – You – Will – Let – Me – Pick – You – Up – I – Will – Not – Only -Keep – Being – This – Wittily, – Transcendently – Open -, – But – Will – Bring-You – Into – This -World-Of-Social-Falsehood-Transcendence, which of course he cannot do because the whole openness demeanor thing is itself a purposive social falsehood; it is a pose of poselessness;

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Affectation is consciously trying to make a particular impression is. To try to gauge what is likely to sell and supply it. Jobs, relationships, talks, networking, all seem to fit into this, to varying degrees.

What about not trying to make an impression? It might be hard to succeed, because, if I’m even a little self-aware, I have an idea how I’d come across to someone – the question is then whether I care. If I do, it’s hard to not be ‘affected’, to attempt an ‘affectation’ aimed at producing a particular outcome.

Sincerity with a motive is the affectation of no affectation – trying to make the impression of not trying to make an impression. That’s the pose of poselessness. And such poselessness is a pose no less than any other – one can pose as more poseless than they are, just as they might pose as smarter, braver, cooler. That poselessness is not poselessness but the most affected of all affectations.

What we call ‘acting’ is in fact one example of such a pose, not the focus here but nevertheless a good illustration – particularly because ‘acting’ is supposed to be completely inauthentic, literally a pretense.

How can we be made so willingly to acquiesce to the delusion that the people on the TV don’t know they’re being watched, to the fantasy that we’re somehow transcending privacy and feeding on unself-conscious human activity? There might be lots of reasons why these unrealities are so swallowable, but a big one is that the performers behind the glass are—varying degrees of thespian talent notwithstanding—absolute geniuses at seeming unwatched. Make no mistake—seeming unwatched in front of a TV camera is an art. Take a look at how non-professionals act when a TV camera is pointed at them: they often spaz out, or else they go all stiff, frozen with self-consciousness. Even PR people and politicians are, in terms of being on camera, rank amateurs. And we love to laugh at how stiff and fake non-pros appear on television. How unnatural.

For Emerson, only a certain very rare species of person is fit to stand this gaze of millions. It is not your normal, hardworking, quietly desperate species of American. The man who can stand the megagaze is a walking imago, a certain type of transcendent semihuman who, in Emerson’s phrase, “carries the holiday in his eye.” The Emersonian holiday that television actors’ eyes carry is the promise of a vacation from human self-consciousness. Not worrying about how you come across. A total unallergy to gazes. It is contemporarily heroic. It is frightening and strong. It is also, of course, an act, for you have to be just abnormally self-conscious and self-controlled to appear unwatched before cameras and lenses and men with clipboards.

E Unibus Pluram, David Foster Wallace

Returning to sincerity with a motive, I’ll argue that the pose of poselessness is more dangerous than ordinary posing. You can usually tell a poser out, you know this guy is trying too hard to come off as cool or nonchalant or sophisticated or whatever the pose is. At any rate, posing tends to raise our guard, make us more sceptical. With poselessness though, we come with our guards lowered, impressed or touched by the apparent openness with which someone reveals themselves. The pose of poselessness not just carries the dangers of the pose, but also deactivates the guards that shield against those dangers.

Because insincerity is easier to guard against, it succeeds far less often. Sincerity with a motive is far more subtle and difficult to ward off. It’s so subtle that you can’t even be sure what, if anything, is wrong with it – I can’t even criticize it without being aware it sounds like I’m making a fuss about nothing.

Calculated Sincerity

Speakers who are accustomed to figuring out what an audience wants to hear and then supplying it find out quickly that this particular audience does not want to be supplied with what someone else thinks it wants
The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. Irony-free zone. Same with sly disingenuous manipulative pseudo-sincerity. Sincerity with an ulterior motive is something these tough ravaged people know and fear

Gately’s most marked progress in turning his life around in sobriety, besides the fact that he no longer drives off into the night with other people’s merchandise, is that he tries to be just about as verbally honest as possible at almost all times, now, without too much calculation about how a listener’s going to feel about what he says

Infinite Jest, DFW

Probably the most visible examples of sincerity with a motive are public talks. The worst speaker is the phoney, the guy you know doesn’t mean a word of what he’s saying. Most of us can see through him, and so phoneys don’t go down well with audiences with any semblance of a brain.

But there is another kind of speaker who does much better. The ‘calculated crowd pleaser’, the sincerist with a motive. The motive being, of course, pleasing the crowd – finding out what it wants and supplying it. Saying something, which isn’t a lie, but saying it because you believe it’s effect is desirable, saying it for motives you won’t say (or, more meta – saying the motives as well, out of a motive – which is what this essay seems to be doing).

It is the truth, and yet it isn’t. Truth slanted and fortified, slanted because it’s offered up and revealed only to the extent and angle that the effect will be desirable, and fortified to conceal this fact, that the truth is revealed only to this extent, and for this reason.

Which is to say that sincerity with a motive perhaps isn’t really sincerity, at least not in its entirety, because the sincerity doesn’t extend to the motive. It’s sincerity in the sense that I do believe what I’m saying. But I only say what I calculate will go down well. And that I won’t say what I believe but calculate won’t go well. Whereas the liar will say what he doesn’t believe yet will go down well.

Or, putting it differently, imagine a bag containing what I believe. The liar will simply take things from outside the bag to say. Sincerity with a motive is different. It shuns the liar’s tactics of drawing outside the bag. It still draws from the bag, but before saying anything, it carefully calculates what the audience wants, then rummages the bag in search of something that will get the job done, assessing its potential before drawing it out and saying it.

Anything in the bag that doesn’t meet the criteria will of course, never be drawn out, will never see the light of the day. Which is why overtly sincere disclosures and reminiscences don’t ever reveal anything really embarrassing or damaging – the failures they do highlight are highlighted more to create the impression of frankness, sincerity, openness about failure than anything else. So the sincerist is brave, but within the limits of what goes down well. Kind of like the brave, bold person who’s brave but only within the confines of what his boss orders him to do – in any situation involving a conflict with them, you can witness his bravery go poof.

I’m aware of just how damn nitpicky this probably sounds. It’s one thing to have a bone to pick with insincerity, but whining about sincerity? The guy is sincere, but even that isn’t good enough for you, now the problem is he’s sincere with a motive – like who doesn’t have a motive? And that’s true – it’s not like speaking is drawing words at random from a bag of what you believe. There’s some thought, and that thought presumably involves some calculation – if there wasn’t, there wouldn’t be any coherence to what someone says.

But there is something that differentiates the thought process and calculation involved in ordinary sincerity from that of sincerity with a motive. The difference is that, ordinarily, sincerity is a means, not an end. It’s simply necessary to communicate something you feel worth communicating. It’s not even something you’d want to or need to try explicitly to be, just something that you’d do naturally without too much effort, to get the message across. The calculation isn’t about the sincerity itself, it’s about the message, about what to say.

Whereas sincerity with a motive is sort of an end and a means both. The sincerity is a calculated one, designed to produce the impression of being sincere – the calculation being how the audience will take it. In that sense, it’s an end in itself – the sincerist wants to be seen as this sincere guy. And it’s also a means because there’s some reason, some motive for which he wants to be seen as a sincere guy, and this sincerity with a motive helps him achieve it.

Virtue as a Prize Itself

For some reason now I am thinking of the sort of philanthropist who seems humanly repellent not in spite of his charity but because of it: on some level you can tell that he views the recipients of his charity not as persons so much as pieces of exercise equipment on which he can develop and demonstrate his own virtue. What’s creepy and repellent is that this sort of philanthropist clearly needs privation and suffering to continue, since it is his own virtue he prizes, instead of the ends to which the virtue is ostensibly directed.

Infinite Jest

Sincerity, or in fact any virtue with a motive, is suspect. It might be an overt motive – say Infinite Jest’s example of attracting a girl, or someone trying to sell something, or impressing your boss or an audience. The pose of poselessness, the impression of sincerity, is a means to achieving some end.

I said that sincerity with a motive is subtle, and it is subtle in another sense – that it isn’t necessarily ‘evil’, or even ‘bad’. It needn’t always be done with an intention to manipulate people, to try to make someone fall for you or make them do something for you. I think it might just be out of internal gratification, without an overt motive.

The virtue – or rather, the thought of being virtuous, or being seen as virtuous – is the prize. Sincerity, in order to obtain the feeling of being open, of being seen as being open. The philanthropist who donates and helps, not to help, but to be good, be seen as a good. Who ‘views the recipients of his charity not as persons so much as pieces of exercise equipment on which he can develop and demonstrate his own virtue‘.

It’s a very short step to deep-rooted cynicism, writing off all virtues as mere acts of self-interest, done to assuage one’s self-worth and affirm one’s notions of one’s virtuosity. But that’s not the conclusion at all. Just that true sincerity, true virtue of any kind, might be rarer than it seems.

Maybe I’ve made the idea of sincerity with a motive appear too convoluted to seem like it is actually a thing, that it isn’t simply the way people normally speak, over-analyzed to the point of delusion. But the reason I know it is real is that I’m aware how often I’m ‘guilty’ of it. It’s not uncommon, in the midst of being sincere, to know that there’s something driving the sincerity.

Perhaps one should be grateful for sincerity of any kind at all, be it motivated or not. And maybe it is just too much to expect from anyone, not simply that they be sincere, but they be so naturally, without any motive behind it. Particularly when you know how frequently you won’t meet that standard yourself.