A New Sincerity
This piece was first delivered orally at ‘Writers with Drinks’ at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco.
One of the most fundamental problems of our ages is that we’ve lost our trust in the very idea of truth. The loss of ‘truth’ corrodes every aspect of our societies and lives and it’s something we must actively fight against if we want a better world…
I believe we need a New Sincerity. I believe we need a new focus on ideas so basic and fundamental to our lives and to our public discourse that they affect everything else we do, but which have drifted, been co-opted and now stand to be abandoned as old-fashioned, even naïve.
I think we need to get past our current cynicism and ironic detachment, drag the best out of the ideologies of the last hundred years and form something entirely new out of them. Something solid and lasting and boring and brilliant. Sincerity.
For me Sincerity is really two things.
Firstly—and this may be a tough idea to swallow—I believe Sincerity is a deep and profound commitment to the idea of truth. It’s not just about saying what you feel. It’s not trying really hard to believe in what you say. It’s much more important and fundamental than that. It’s about believing that there is such a thing as truth, and believing that truth matters. I say it again, Sincerity is a deep and profound commitment to the idea of truth.
And secondly—as much as possible—I think Sincerity is a belief in the honest and open expression of that truth. It’s a belief that it is important not just to acknowledge the existence of truth, but to express that truth appropriately and as well as you can.
These statements may seem self-evident—that truth is real and good and that we should attempt to express it honestly—but I’m no longer sure that they are. In fact, I think these views are increasingly seen as old-fashioned and naïve, even stupid. And I believe that this is because that both of these ideas have been under systematic assault for decades.
And I believe that without a belief in sincerity and truth, our political debates, our media, our way of life becomes nothing more than a place where arguments are played against one another like Pokemon. Everything becomes a strategy to win the debate—gotta catch ‘em all—no matter the effect on the world. It’s cock-fighting on the Hindenburg.
A short story about truth
So what is the shape of the assault that sincerity and truth are subject to? Where is its origin?
At one level, you could go back to any political thinker throughout the centuries—back to Plato perhaps—to see the background of this particular story. Or maybe you could take another tack, and explore the emergence of public relations or advertising.
But part of me sees our current situation as the particular result of a particular moment in time, and that’s when ideas that emerged in the political left and the humanities departments of our major universities—both groups that I’ve had a significant stake in—start to get appropriated and abused.
This is one way in which that story might have unfolded.
Over the last century, people from all kinds of different backgrounds—people historically discarded or sidelined by society—gradually started to rise up and demand rights and visibility.
And in the process they demanded access to the narratives and histories of our world. Was an ‘Intimate History of Sex’ really a history of sex at all if it only talked about straight people? Could you have a history of Europe when half the population wasn’t even mentioned?
These questioning voices managed to expose the traditional writing of history as having been written by a very narrow group of academics with an equally narrow set of preoccupations. These were people actively—if unconsciously—tracing a path from the past to the present to create arguments or justifications for the way things were. They were explaining their own inevitability; their rights to power. These narratives of the past needed to be put under pressure, and when they were, they exploded.
And from there the divergent voices moved on to attack the grand narratives of previous ages: everything from Manifest Destiny, the Civilizing West, the Natural Superiority of some races, Victorian morality, all the way through to Capitalism and Communism. And these new perspectives revealed these narratives to not just be natural truths of existence simply described by impartial men, but as new ways of creating and enforcing control on the world.
And having done that they fought for a pluralisation of voices, a rejection of the very idea of the Grand Narrative, and a radical re-examination of history itself. Churchill said (or may have said), “History is written by the victors”, but this new generation believed that it should be revised and expanded and criticised and opened up for everyone.
And this new approach to history was just one of the new stories that collectively challenged all of our assumptions and orthodoxies to the extent that we even began to question the ground upon which we stood.
Derrida and deconstruction, post-structuralism, postmodernity. Fascinating ideas that pulled our thinking away from the physical and directly political into a world of language and discourse, where thousands of voices and ideas resonated and competed and intermingled with one another endlessly through a real of symbol and concept.
We seemed to be moving into an environment composed of polyphonous voices, brands and narrative mixed with the numinous and magical. And that was before the internet came with its new set of promises and dreams. Universities were full of people aspiring to a Philosophical Singularity or Rapture - eager to shed the fixed, stolid ideas of the generations that came before them, combust into intellect and finally embrace the divine.
And somewhere in the middle of all of these discussions, believing in truth—that things actually happened, that there are facts, that argument can only be made on evidence, that having a strongly held belief is simply not enough to build public policy upon—somehow truth became unfashionable.
And the graduates of our universities went out into the world with new skills and techniques to interrogate the world with, and a slightly woolly sense of the value of everyone’s voice and a deep suspicion of anyone attempting to argue for the real, the true, the solid, the definitive. And they look at the world at an ironic distance, enjoying things or critiquing them at arms length as if they weren’t quite real.
And slowly and horrifyingly in the background, political operators from every party and background spotted the power of these new ideas and intellectual techniques. Perhaps they even believed in them too. And they cherry-picked the most potent and they started to employ them without mercy.
A loss of sincerity
Today then, it looks to me as if great swathes of public institutions, politicians and media, academics and public intellectuals have given up on truth, and see no value in sincerity.
For them, sincerity is now simply about arguing earnestly for what you strongly believe. But it’s belief unsupported by facts in defiance of knowledge and information. It’s belief that rejects truth. How can politicians be considered ‘sincere’ when they stand up and deny climate change?
If—when confronted with massive evidence from reputable sources—you still choose to go with what your gut says, then you must be a person with no respect for truth. And if you no longer believe in truth, then how can you be sincere?
Our press too are not sincere when they dredge the muttered effluvia of our representatives for material with which they can manufacture controversy.
They’re not sincere when they present a debate between two sides of an argument that only truthfully has one side. They’re fabricating conflict, and they’re doing so for the spectacle. They have no respect for truth.
You can see this even more clearly in the experts they get to speak in opinion pages or on TV. They’re all representatives of political parties or advocates for them in one way or another. They no longer believe in the impartial expert who can present an argument fairly. Apparently everyone is biased now. No one is trustworthy. With such beliefs, how can they be sincere?
That poisonous imp who took over from Larry King on American Television has expressed on a number of occasions how he believes that news is just another branch of the entertainment industry.
Perhaps he finds that depressing. Perhaps he’s gone along with it because he thinks it’s inevitable. Perhaps he thinks that’s just the way the world works now: the best story wins.
To me that’s the larger crime. It’s a declaration that truth is now just the trellis upon which you grow your stories, until—that is—they reach such a point where they’re capable of supporting themselves.
Sincerity and craftsmanship
What I do for a living is try and work out the shape of the near future. I do that by looking at the technologies that are emerging and I try and combine that information with a sense of the kinds of things that normal human beings want to do or find fun or are useful. From these combinations come products. Some of those products get made. Some of those products are better than others.
The thing I’m trying to find, and which exists for all good products, is what I call the ‘hard nub’ in the middle of the idea. The ‘hard nub’ is the core, solid, ‘true’ thing about the product. It’s the bit that expresses what it’s for, and can normally be expressed to someone relatively simply.
Finding the nub is far from an easy process though. You really have to dig into how people operate, what they care about and when you’ve found the nub, you’re still only a hundredth of the way through the process of trying to find a way to express that truth honestly and clearly.
One of the reasons I love the technology industry is that—for all the crap that goes on around in the media and Techcrunch and all the blogs and the gossip stuff, and for all the bloody corporate speak crap that actively works to mine all potential meaning from language in order to avoid any potential liability—at its heart, there really are people with a passionate belief in trying to build interesting and useful new things. They believe in quality. They believe still in progress. They love making stuff.
When a product manufacturer cuts through all superfluous style and decoration and brings out the heart of a product, you guys know it. You can feel it. And when they do we love their products as a result. They just feel right.
They feel solid, real, functional and beautiful. The beauty is a result of function perfectly expressed. Without the function the beauty would be fake. And the function would be useless or buried, without the simple expression.
So it is, I think, with our culture. Without a commitment to truth, our words are hollow. Without an attempt to express the truth honestly and openly, our arguments are cheap and shoddy and false.
The New Sincerity
So what is the New Sincerity? It’s a belief and commitment to truth. It’s arguing for truth, not aggressively as a weapon, but in order to illuminate. It’s thinking critically. It’s being fair. It’s being open to having our own ideas questioned and to incorporate what we learn into our world view. And it’s holding public figures and journalists to the same standards. It’s about attempting to abandon ironic detachment and embarrassment and embracing the world for what it is. But most importantly, it’s about abandoning the idea that the truth is something bendable, flexible, relative, unreal.
Truth is not something that everyone has their own particular special equally appropriate version of. It’s much more than that.
It’s one very real, beautiful thing, unfathomable in scope, unknowable in its totality, revealed in part by the combination of our billions of perspectives and by the employment of our minds. It’s one thing with a beauty and wonder that we all deserve access to, and which enriches all of us. It’s the keystone of our civilisation and there is nothing more important.
And I mean that sincerely.
This piece was first delivered orally at ‘Writers with Drinks’ at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco. There is a video available from the event. It’s unlike anything I’ve written before or since and I have no idea whatsoever how good it is.