When I was at the university in the late 1960s, the campus revolution was just getting under way. Although it was mainly fueled by anti–Vietnam War protests, the student demands spread in all directions, calling for a virtual redefinition of the university structure and of society itself. In coursework, the new demand was for “relevance”—meaning politicized teaching of the correct sort—and started the movement to dump the collected works of William Shakespeare for the collected works of Eldridge Cleaver. In addition to “relevance,” the other spiritual demand of the time was for “sincerity.” This would be in preference, I suppose, to blatant hypocrisy.
One of my former philosophy professors, when questioned in a student-led colloquium, stated: “Sincerity is a trivial virtue.” I knew immediately what he meant: many other human virtues are far more important. I would prefer a person who keeps promises, pays debts, abides by contracts, performs acts of kindness and public service, takes care of family members and friends, treats other people with respect, smiles politely, and otherwise behaves in concrete ways. Whether the person “really means it” or is “faking it” is far less important to me.
This preference is, of course, from my own point of view. If a person says “Thank you” when I give them something or perform for them some small service, it makes me feel good. Whether or not the person actually means it, or feels truly grateful—that is, is sincere about this minor politeness—does not matter to me. Surely, if the person is grimacing, making faces, rolling their eyes, or using a sarcastic tone, to imply that no thanks are actually involved, then I know that the words are not meant sincerely. But my hurt comes not because of their lack of sincerity, but because of the implied mockery, as if my small action was really beneath their notice, or not kind and helpful at all, and thus deserving of their scorn. Otherwise, if a person says “Thank you,” even if it’s a murmur and there is no eye contact or other sign of heartfelt emotion, I can accept this as an empty politeness from an obviously well-trained, civilized individual.
Politeness is the verbal grease that keeps us descendants of howler monkeys from screaming in rage and trying to kill each other.
From the speaker’s point of view, the sincerity—or lack of it—in the exchange is a small measure of the state of that person’s soul. The saint or the deeply feeling person who says “Thank you” with sincere gratitude, virtually blessing my small gift or act of service with reciprocated good wishes, is expressing their own feeling of being at peace with the universe and gladness upon recognizing and being recognized by a fellow human. The hurried person who murmurs “Thanks” out of pure reflex, the ingrained habit of good breeding, and is unconscious of any felt gratitude, is at least practicing that verbal grease which keeps us all functioning. And the snarky person who sneers and rolls their eyes, to laden that “Thanks” with double meaning, is spreading their own bile and cynicism, fouling the gears of civil discourse. That little bit of intentional meanness is hurting them, corroding their soul, much more than the momentary confusion and pain might cause me.
In human interactions, the measure of sincerity is much like the Turing test for artificial intelligence.1 If you cannot tell whether the person is being sincere or not, it doesn’t matter who’s typing on the other side of the wall. You accept the person’s statements or intentions at face value and move on.
A society that valued sincerity as a primary virtue would be far different from our own.
Yes, I know the intent of those early student demands. By rooting out hypocrisy—the evil of paying lip service to popular principles but then regarding oneself as free to act in accordance with private intentions—the promoter of sincerity hopes to bring those hidden intentions to the surface. When you demand that people act sincerely, you expose falsehood and can then hope to enforce proper action. People who can say one thing and do another would be revealed as perpetrating a hoax on the society around them.
But the purpose of the exercise will backfire. A society of people who are forced by cardinal values to always say and do what they mean and what they are feeling at the moment will be a harsh and abrasive society. “Gee, Grandpa, that’s a measly five dollars you put in my birthday card.” “No, lady, you don’t get any ‘thank you,’ because it’s your job to pour my coffee.” “You men all think I can’t open a door for myself, you bastards!”
And we have before us the example of the most strongly politicized societies—which are usually the goal of those who would most earnestly promote the virtue of sincerity—as hotbeds of rampant insincerity. There people will loudly proclaim the party line, sing the party songs, and march in lockstep with the party cadence, while secretly loathing the party and all its purposes. And the more the party demands of them proper feelings of allegiance and respect, the greater becomes their popular hypocrisy—but always well hidden, driven underground. People are just ornery that way.
No, people still own the real estate inside their heads. They need the space, the personal freedom, of being able to think one way and act another. They need to smile when they are tearful, to force a polite response when they want to scream at you, to turn away with a murmured courtesy rather than engage and share their deepest thoughts. Humans have always been a bi-level species. We have always used meaningless courtesies to smooth over differences between individuals that would otherwise have us howling all the time. Similarly, we use formalized, ritual diplomacy to moderate relations between nations that would otherwise have us always on the brink of war. Hypocrisy and insincerity let us pick and choose our battles. They allow us to live.
So yes, while we would like to think that our friends and family are always sincere in their expressions of love, gratitude, and contentment, that the barista at Starbucks is doing us a favor that deserves our thanks, and that corporate executives mean in their hearts every word they put in a press release—it is not always so. And our indulging the small hypocrisy of not really noticing—that, too, is part of the social grease that makes life tolerable.
1. Computer pioneer Alan Turing in 1950 proposed that, to test a computer for artificial intelligence, we station a person on one side of a wall and have them communicate with a respondent on the other side through typewritten messages. The first person does not know if the other is a real human being or a very fast and well-programmed computer. If the person on this side cannot tell after about five minutes whether the respondent is human or not, then the responding machine is artificially intelligent. This test has since been superseded by others that measure specific outputs and performance in more dimensions than simple chat, because mindless, confabulating language processors, like ELIZA in the mid-1960s, easily passed the Turing test but were hardly intelligent.