The past few years have been difficult to navigate for anyone who values sincerity and straightforwardness. We’ve had a trial that hinged on whether the most famous professional wrestler in the history of the sport habitually lies about the size of his genitalia. We’ve seen a custody battle determined in part by whether a jury believed that a radio host’s inflammatory conspiracy-theorizing is performance art. We’ve been instructed not to believe the president of the United States when he speaks and tweets, and to disregard Bill Cosby when he acknowledges giving illegally prescribed Quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with so he wouldn’t have to gain their consent.
Trying to sort through what’s true, and what’s a performance or a troll, is exhausting. And it’s worse when attempting to reassert the value of honesty and straightforwardness leave us vulnerable to a kind of emotional hacking: The harder we try to defend our values and engage sincerely with our opponents, the more they make us out to be patsies and fools. If we can’t stamp out insincerity, we can at least manage our own response to it in ways that make trolling and empty posturing less fun and less profitable for the people who engage in it.
To take one example, when alt-right provocateurs crashed the Public Theater’s performance of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” this weekend, I started mentally composing yet another piece about the play’s condemnation of political violence and the hypocrisy of those who have gone from condemning supposedly hypersensitive college students to treating theatrical productions as intolerable.
But as I walked into work this morning, I changed my mind about writing that piece. It’s not that I’ve given up on that message: If I reach a point where I think no one is interested in what’s actually going on in movies, television shows, novels and theater, I’ll quit working as a critic, because what’s the point?
Instead, I realized that I don’t believe that the folks who crashed the stage at Shakespeare in the Park are sincerely offended by the performance, at least not to the extent that they say they are. I don’t believe that Laura Loomer, one of the crashers, believes that “New York Public Theater is ISIS,” because that’s an obviously ridiculous sentiment. I believe that she and the other protesters want attention, the $1,000 bounty an alt-right figure offered to pay to anyone who disrupted the performance, and to limit the range of sentiments that are considered acceptable in the Trump era. But I am unconvinced that they genuinely believe that performing Shakespeare plays will lead to political violence.
Trying to conduct a nuanced debate about the meaning of Shakespeare and the virtues of critical media consumption is, in this environment, the equivalent of bringing a cupcake to a gunfight: absurdly beside the point.
So what’s a critic to do? Part of the reason that insincerity and trolling are such powerful weapons is that it can be difficult to craft a rational response to them that makes any headway.
When people don’t mean what they say, or fully intend to apply their stated principles inconsistently, it’s hard to illustrate the contradictions in their behavior in a way that discredits them. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) doesn’t appear to be feeling a lot of psychic torment over the fact that he’s pushing through a wildly unpopular health-care bill in exactly the fashion he decried in 2010 when Democrats were passing the Affordable Care Act. Maybe the folks who call youthful protesters hypersensitive and then are felled by their own attacks of the vapors have constructed an elaborate mental infrastructure to distinguish their grievances from everyone else’s. Or maybe they just don’t care.
But on a more personal level, rampant and persistent displays of hypocrisy and insincerity can be useful and clarifying. A person who flaunts their lack of core values and consistent views is a person you never have to to take seriously ever again.
That may sound like a harsh statement, especially after the results of an election that led to a sharp debate about whether liberals need to listen more closely to the grievances of Trump voters, or to cut them off entirely as irredeemable. But there’s a difference between trying to understand the sincerely held motivations of a person you disagree with so you can try to persuade them, and getting lured into expending time and mental energy on someone whose sole goal is to exhaust you.
While it might be tempting to point out when someone who months ago was grumbling about “snowflakes” is now behaving in a hysterical fashion about a theater production, or to track the almost uncanny fashion in which President Trump’s old tweets appear to predict his future flip-flops, such efforts are a waste of time. You can’t restore constancy to people who have never possessed it and have no sense of why it might be honorable or valuable. What you can do is stop making an effort to reconcile the irreconcilable, and get back to whatever you truly care about. The folks at the Public Theater knew this to be true: Trolls may have crashed their stage temporarily, but the show went on.