Essay/Politics & Government

Age of sincerity

In politics, as in militant religion, the performance of sincerity is everything, no matter whether right or wrong

Faisal Devji

Former British prime minister Tony Blair in 2017. Photo by Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg/Getty

Faisal Devji

is a university reader in modern south Asian history at St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford, where he is also the director of the Asian Studies Centre. His latest book is Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (2013).

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3,600 words

Edited by Sam Haselby

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A generation ago, the philosopher Judith Shklar at Harvard argued that hypocrisy is one of the ordinary vices. By mimicking virtue, Shklar pointed out, the hypocrite tacitly acknowledges and helps to maintain the moral order in public, even as he betrays it privately. Indeed, the hypocrite can even be congratulated for refusing to tolerate any outright infractions of this order. Precisely because it is so commonplace, hypocrisy rarely assumes any real political importance.

On occasion, however, the problem of hypocrisy takes on a spectacular role in politics. Now is such a time; hypocrisy is making a lot of people very angry. Today, in the United States and in western Europe, anger over hypocrisy, especially that of liberals, is driving politics. Both the Left and Right in the US and Europe mobilise support by calling attention to liberal hypocrisy. Liberals, both Left and Right allege, have ignored the economic or cultural consequences of immigration and globalisation for working-class people. To anyone who raises questions about globalisation or immigration, liberals shout accusations of bigotry and ignorance.

Critics of liberalism claim to counter its signature hypocrisy with their sincerity. If hypocrisy is bad, even fatally bad, sincerity is good. Sincerity, in this formulation, is tantamount to free and honest speech. It is possible to be sincere only when one is joyfully liberated from liberals’ supposedly stifling ‘political correctness’, a synonym for hypocrisy dredged up from what Americans call the ‘culture wars’ of the 1980s.

The reappearance of ‘political correctness’ (a strangely dated reference) as the enemy of sincerity is telling. Both terms seem a bit old-fashioned. After all, in contemporary usage, the most familiar appearance of sincerity is the formulaic ‘sincerely yours’ in correspondence. There, ‘sincerity’ implies nothing more than cool politeness and is not taken as being hypocritical.

However old-fashioned the conception of sincerity, it is crucial to today’s politics. But sincerity, importantly, is not concerned with the agreement between word and deed, or theory and practice, which determines hypocrisy. Sincerity rather depends on the relationship, the harmony between word and belief. Far more important than what one says, in other words, is whether one believes it. The former British prime minister Tony Blair has provided perhaps the first contemporary example in the West of the return of sincerity to politics. In a rambling press conference in July 2016, he defended his key role in the invasion of Iraq. As a defence, Blair invoked the genuineness of his belief, on the eve of the Iraq War, in the imminent threat he thought Saddam Hussein’s regime posed to the West. He did not rest his case on the rightness or wrongness of his views, nor on his consequent actions.

It is facile to see Blair’s emphasis on the state of his own beliefs, his quasi-religious faith, merely as a self-serving evasion.

Blair’s statement is representative of our age. Not only does it concern the historic Iraq War, it presumes throughout that when ‘facts’ are either unavailable or doubtful, sincerity reigns. Sincerity becomes more important than one’s position, more important than whether one is promoting or repudiating facts. Of course, our media-saturated, or ‘mediated’, age has not brought clarity of facts, but something closer to the opposite. All facts can now be questioned, precisely because outside such media they seem to possess no verifiable existence. Truth is therefore made in decision as a kind of wager, rather than discovered by knowledge in the form of certitude.

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Amid the doubtfulness of facts, sincerity is not for everyone. It involves its subject taking a heroic risk. To be sincere fixes the subject to a position, in an inherently unfixed world. Such decisions acquire an important sacrificial character. Sincere commitment to a position, after all, inevitably exposes one to scorn if not attack. Often, these attacks come from some ‘establishment’ or another. Having apparently been oppressed and silenced by such ridicule or assault, the sincere thus experience an exhilarating feeling of transgression. After all, they are voicing forbidden words and sentiments. During the long US presidential campaign year, these exhilarating transgressions especially included negative views about African Americans, Hispanics and Hispanic Americans, Muslims, and immigrants generally.

Importantly, the sincerity of such moments of liberated speech are not tied to any strong attachment or deep belief in what is said. So both Donald Trump’s affirmation and subsequent withdrawal of his ‘birther’ views about Barrack Obama’s non-American origins was therefore irrelevant to his popularity. More important was the sincerity of his changing beliefs. People thought him sincere, for ‘post-truth’ politics isn’t actually concerned with lying. In that regard, ‘post-truth’ is a poor phrase, for the driving force is not lying but simply a compelling display of sincerity. This sincerity can be temporary. The bizarre excessiveness of a view like ‘birtherism’ might even demonstrate the sincerity of those who hold it.

Sincerity doesn’t create but rather destroys subjective depth. All intensity remains on the surface

Sincerity, it is important to note, is not the same as transparency. While sincerity is ascendant, transparency, like lying, belongs to a superseded ethical tradition. Hillary Clinton, for example, released her tax returns during the US election campaign, and demanded that Trump do the same. Clinton’s act respected the conventions of transparency. Transparency involves the opportunity to ascertain veracity as judged by external evidence and authority. In this way, tax returns are like birth certificates. They document, they substantiate, yet only according to the ‘system’ that produces such pieces of paper.

Sincerity has no need for such external authorities. Sincerity requires no external validation. It must be judged in an entirely self-referential way. Curiously, this means that it doesn’t need to adhere to any deeply held belief either. It can be shallow, it can even be withdrawn from any previous claim. For, based as it is on fundamental doubt, sincerity is most important when it is concerned with relatively minor and lightly held beliefs, such as that regarding Obama’s birthplace.

The current British prime minister Theresa May provides an interesting example of the way in which neither depth of belief nor, indeed, belief itself have any bearing on the politics of sincerity. Before her election, May was known to be against Brexit. Since her election, she has sacrificed her conviction, and even subjective being, to ‘obey’ the referendum’s results, repeatedly uttering the tautological formula ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ She has never said whether she believes in it herself. Whatever the personal duplicity or political opportunism involved, May illustrates how sincerity doesn’t create subjective depth. Rather, sincerity destroys it. With sincerity, all intensity remains on the surface; in May’s case, as an act of self-abnegation. With belief rendered formal, what becomes crucial in the politics of sincerity is the purely internal or immanent manner in which it is matched with its declaration.

The first time that hypocrisy entered western European political life in some important way was with the Reformation. Medieval Catholicism had simpler, and sometimes rougher, practices – for example, the physical ordeal and confession under duress – to determine the proper relationship to belief. Its demand for ritual statements of obedience and assent neither presumed nor required the speaking out of some inner truth in sincerity.

The term sincerity came into the English language with the rise of Protestantism, in order to name the internal agreement of statement and belief it required. Ascertaining sincerity, however, was tricky. It could be demonstrated only theatrically; in other words, performed. The fear that facility of performance might just as well indicate duplicity as sincerity was always present. And so, in the trial as much as the theatre (itself a ‘secular’ new product of the age), sincerity rather than truth had to speak out by deploying the vocabulary of compatibility or coherence with itself rather than the ‘objective’ veracity of its claims. Both the actor and the martyr are judged by how true they are to what they say – rather than by the truth of what they say.

The French Revolution brought the politics of sincerity to a new milestone. According to the philosopher Hannah Arendt in On Revolution (1963), the glaring disparities of the Old Regime made sincerity crucial to the politics of the revolution. In circumstances of such iniquity as the Old Regime, terror became a radically efficient way of rendering men equal. Terror could rip off the masks of privilege and conspiracy. In such a society, then, only sincerity could guarantee equality. This meant that men and women had not only to reveal the hypocrisy of the Revolution’s enemies by acts of violence, but also constantly keep their own possible or creeping hypocrisies in check by equally violent means.

In the show trials, so important to Stalinism, the innocence or guilt of the accused was incidental

Arendt argued that the terror tactics of the French revolutionaries eliminated the public or legal person himself. In other words, the masks they ripped off their targets had also sheltered all that was personal or private. To remove this mask also exposed and so destroyed all inner life and, with it, the possibility of autonomy, and even resistance to the state, something that Arendt thought a precondition for totalitarianism. For without an inner life that is opaque to the public or to government, no freedom of will or independence of opinion is possible.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt traced the repercussions of the Terror to what she called the totalitarian dictatorships of Nazism and Stalinism. Like the French Revolution, Nazism and Stalinism formalised the hunt for concealed traitors as part of the laws of history. Their ideologies called for and predicted the emergence of traitors who had to be unmasked and punished in order to fulfil their respective historical destinies. The nature of the show trials, so important to Stalinism, required no particular belief in the guilt of the accused. The innocence or guilt of the accused was incidental. The understanding of history itself, in Stalinism, called for class traitors. The trials demonstrated this consciousness. They confirmed an understanding of history.

The confessions and recantations of the Stalinist trials introduced to modern politics the sacrificial aspect of sincerity. It’s still with us. In the anti-Clinton chants of ‘lock her up’ that enthralled supporters at Trump rallies, we saw this anxiety about an autonomous inner life. The presence of such an autonomous and inner life rendered its public counterpart insincere by definition. Clinton’s separation of her public and private life, for instance symbolised by her use of a private email server, contrasted with Trump. He refused to separate his public or political life from his private existence as a businessman, indeed the head of a family business. At every opportunity, he signalled the seamless continuity between his name, his family, his brand, his life and his politics.

In Sincerity and Authenticity (1972), the literary theorist Lionel Trilling argued that authenticity had replaced sincerity. According to Trilling, in the 19th century, authenticity superseded sincerity as the system to signal the alignment of outer life and inner belief. Authenticity, he claimed, destroyed sincerity’s logic of conformity and coherence between inside and outside, the self and the world. Instead, authenticity privileged the way in which such factors as love, hate, fear or contempt, which really shaped human beings, broke through the artifice of everyday life and transformed it. In other words, rather than sincerity’s task of matching practices with beliefs, authenticity was about acknowledging deep and primal forces, even allowing them on occasion to destroy social norms, so as to create altogether new ones.

The rise of authenticity makes perfect sense for a capitalist age dominated by teleologies of history and revolution premised on ceaseless social and economic change for, like capitalism or freedom, it was understood as destroying what existed to create an unprecedented future. What does the return of sincerity to our political life indicate?

Today, sincerity is no longer defined by conformity. Sincerity rather presupposes the elimination of an inner life, the same inner life required for generating either authenticity or conformity. With the disappearance of inner life, one of the traditional hiding places of truth has also ceased to exist.

The disappearance of an inner life, in one sense, fits well in a world dominated by media and spectacle. It also suggests, in another sense, a capitalist order no longer structured by distinctions between owners and workers, capital and labour, commodities and things. In a fully visible economy where nothing escapes the logic of commodities, inwardness and opacity signal something unavailable for commodification. They can only pose a threat and, if not, can only have become redundant.

with the equivocal statements ‘Not!’ or ‘Just saying’, the possibility of belief in one direction or another just doesn’t matter

The logic of sincerity in political life today operates by a kind of short-circuit. Being true to oneself refers neither to conformity with a social ideal nor to some authentic break from it. Sincerity instead requires the willful belief in something unproven or uncertain. The testing grounds of sincerity, where it is assessed, lies in one’s ability, indeed enjoyment, in sacrificing for one’s belief. The pragmatist philosopher William James, especially his essay ‘The Will to Believe’ (1896), helps us to understand the situation. The slighter, or weaker, a claim is, the more important and excessive a challenge it poses for sincerity. False or weak claims can gain political life if they marshal sufficient sincerity. But this also means that any claim dependent on sincerity can just as easily be abandoned. It’s not, as some commentators have claimed, a ‘post-truth’ politics. It’s rather the politics of sincerity. The truth, or falsehood, of a claim is less important than the sincerity with which a claim is made. That’s what counts.

A currently popular kind of equivocal statement illustrates the authority of sincerity. In social media, as well as in face-to face communications, following a claim with the exclamation ‘Not!’ or ‘Just saying’ indicates more than negation or prevarication. As mere negations or allegations of prevarication, such statements already possess familiar idiomatic forms, and would not require this new kind of locution. Instead, with the equivocal statements ‘Not!’ or ‘Just saying’, the possibility of belief in one direction or another remains operative. It just doesn’t matter.

To put it in terms of contemporary US politics, the apparently incomprehensible enthusiasm of Tea Party or Trump supporters (and more recently of Democrats espousing conspiracy theories about the US elections) for ridiculous claims should be attributed neither to their stupidity, manipulation, disingenuousness nor malice. The key instead is skepticism, doubt, uncertainty and the reduction of life to its surface. After all, it is only in the absence of belief in any authoritative knowledge that superficial issues such as birtherism can assume such importance. Indeed, they take on the appearance of depth or rather replace it with the allegation of a cover-up. In our post-bourgeois age, suspicion of inwardness has returned, though in a quite different way than under totalitarianism.

The history and logic of sincerity in western Europe or the US possesses its own integrity. But the phenomenon is global as well, and the politics of sincerity are particularly vital in the Middle East. There, we again see a supposed establishment hypocrisy pitted against a resurgent sincerity. It is, of course, the supposed hypocrisy of ordinary Muslims regarding the duties of their religion, especially those having to do with jihad against heretics and infidels. Today, ordinary Muslims find themselves challenged and denounced by the terrible sincerity of militancy in the name of Islam.

In the history of Islam, hypocrisy emerges as a political threat with Muhammad’s establishment of a state in Medina. Hypocrisy or nifaq was the term used in the Quran to describe those who converted for reasons of convenience. Their hypocrisy threatened to betray Islam from within. It grew to be associated with heresy (as had been the case in Christianity), and especially with the Shia. Even today, numbers of Sunni Muslims often accuse the minority Shia of concealing their identity, and therefore their purposes. In the longer-view history of the Middle East, such allegations of dissimulation and hypocrisy have rarely been politically important. But today, just like in the West, hypocrisy has lost its status as a minor vice. Today, in the Middle East, as in the US and western Europe, hypocrisy has become a cardinal sin. Islamic militants in particular, like members of the US Left and Right, allege it to great affect.

As a minority amid Sunni Muslims, Shia Islam has developed a complex metaphysical doctrine known as taqiyya, meaning concealment, which evolved as an esoteric form of spiritual observance. In our age of sincerity, taqiyya has been made equivalent to nifaq or hypocrisy. The militants from Al-Qaeda, as well as the otherwise very different ISIS, consider the Shia the original representatives, and still primary bearers, of the sin of nifaq.

The sincerity of militancy is a wager, and must be proven, sometimes even posthumously as in a suicide bombing

But nifaq also represents all their enemies – including potential traitors within their own ranks of militant Islam. As within contemporary US and western European politics, sincerity in militant Islam is sacrificial in its courting ridicule and even violence from the establishment. The tactics might be different than their Western opponents’, but the strange rhetorical regime is the same. They too are compelled to prove their truth not by reasons, much less facts, but instead by demonstrations of sacrificial violence with which no enemy can compete. Of these, the suicide bombing or so-called martyrdom operation is the most prominent. But equally important is the deployment of cruel and hitherto undreamt-of punishments for enemies, such as ISIS casting homosexuals from buildings or burning a captured Jordanian pilot in a cage, as if to demonstrate that militants really mean what they say. Such performances of sincerity can usefully be contrasted with the US focus on shocking or proscribed speech and, increasingly, actions supposedly liberated from the hypocrisy of political correctness.

Sincerity among militant Muslims does not require the existence of a single truth. Indeed, it is not even belief itself that the hypocrite betrays. For a generation, since the days of Al-Qaeda, this militancy has after all focused not on the singular truth of Islam but rather on being true to oneself. Militants test the truth of their beliefs by exhibiting their joy in enduring suffering, and even death in its name. Militants further set this form of sacrifice against that of their allegedly weaker or more corrupt enemies, in a contest of superior beliefs. In this way, the rhetoric of militancy is not only pluralistic but also founded upon doubt and uncertainty. It must be proven by personal sacrifice, not reason or revelation. Theology, much less theological reasoning is unimportant. The sincerity of militancy is a wager, and must be proven to oneself as well as to others, sometimes even posthumously as in a suicide bombing. Given the extraordinarily rapid conversions and radicalisation of so many militants, it is clear that there is no personal or ideological depth to their practices. In fact, it is the very absence of depth to their commitment that makes such quick, mass radicalisation possible.

In militant Islam, the claims to sincerity require more serious sacrifices than in European or US politics. With Al-Qaeda and ISIS, we see the complete fragmentation of the militant subject. As is now well-known, many of these young men enjoy the most ‘un-Islamic’ lives, while nevertheless being willing to die for their ‘Islamic’ beliefs. At issue here is not some kind of guilt about their contradictory existence, but instead the way in which a virtual life on television or social media ends up destroying its off-screen ‘reality’. The militant can be sincere only virtually, in a theatre of cruelty and sacrifice, which must finally destroy his other increasingly impoverished life, and in so doing render him a good Muslim, often only posthumously. It is no longer Arendt’s mask that must be ripped off the hypocrite’s face. Now, militants instead wish that individual Muslims would always act as faithful subjects of Sharia – in essence, as cartoon masks of ‘Islam’.

The careful curation of a media or virtual persona as a Muslim militant helps to diminish the contradiction of his quite different ‘off-screen’ life, which has little to do with ‘Islam’. The two lives of the militant are united and the contradiction is resolved only in the act of sacrificial violence. That sacrifice destroys one life, the ‘off-screen life’, creating a purely virtual subject entirely lacking in depth. Crucially, what has been destroyed is the very possibility of an inner life. In this way, the militant resembles the confessional subjects of reality television, whose ‘real’ life is subordinated to and eventually overshadowed or even transformed by an appearance on some television show devoted to anything from singing, dancing, cooking, dating, partying, cleaning, gardening or adventure.

Indeed, in our age of hyper-visibility and surveillance, it might be only in the secret data which states and corporations hold about us that old-fashioned inwardness, or privacy, continues to exist. We have outsourced, and resigned, these aspects of ourselves to them, leaving us free to enjoy a life on the surface, one for which sincerity has become the most important test.

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