How the new sincerity can make caring cool again

The new sincerity, the short version

Much of the last several decades, if not longer, have been characterized by a marked cynicism, pessimism, and ambivalence in Western society. In a sense, a pervading belief is that detachment and cynicism are not only the only sensible response to our world, but that they are helpful or perhaps even “cool.”

The new sincerity is a movement in the arts and culture returning us to focusing not on deconstructing and critiquing what we deem shallow, but on constructing and supporting that which we find valuable, meaningful, and true. To simplify, you might think of it as “making caring cool again.”

The new sincerity, the longer version

Let’s look at the trajectory of three TV shows that defined American culture in different decades.

Leave It To Beaver portrayed an idealized 1960s suburban community. It showed a happy family, who experienced modest drama, which then get wrapped up neatly and nicely within 30 minutes. It painted a picture of the wholesome, idyllic life people wanted or thought they might want or thought that others must have, but never really had themselves. It helped people imagine what could be, what should be. Some would call this a “modernist” show – it earnestly called its viewers toward the new ideals and values of its time.

Decades later, Seinfeld offered a stark contract to Leave It To Beaver and shows like it. Increasingly, the earnest messages of these shows rung hollow for many viewers. Life was more complicated and compromised than they portrayed. That life never really existed. It was always a way to obscure what really is and to sell houses in cul-de-sacs and laundry machines in the process. Seinfeld, a “show about nothing”, was the cynical, ironic reaction. Its characters didn’t really care about each other or anyone and i’s episode had no real point or message.  You might think of this as a “postmodernist” show -it deconstructed and critiquing the alleged values and ideals that came before it, revealing them to be empty and phony.

The American version of The Office is something different. It captures the absurdity of the “Seinfeld” era in the shallowness and monotony of the office everyone works in. But it also creates an escape from and solution to that monotony through the human connection of the characters. Jim and Pam yearn for and find meaning in one other. Jim and Dwight bicker with one another, but eventually become something like brothers. You might think of this as the “new sincerity.”

The New Sincerity is a movement that aims to strike a balance and harmony in modern life: one that blends an awareness of the hollowness of modern life with its antidote in human connection and creative expression. It acknowledges the lies and veneer spouted as us by mass media, politicians, and entertainers, while also asserting that there is something worth living for.

This is not to say that The Office is better than Leave it To Beaver or Seinfeld, or that the New Sincerity is better than modern or post-modernism. It is to say that the needs and perspectives of society change drastically from generation to generation. In the 50s and early 60s, we may most have needed an idyllic respite from decades of depression and war. In the 90s, we may have most needed a recognition of the hollowness and ulterior motives of much of mass media. And today, perhaps what we need most is a reminder that beyond all the many reasons for cynicism, skepticism, and despair, there is something worth living for, something to sincerely hold close to our hearts.

The new sincerity, in practice

Usually in this section of our weekly Next Systems article, I try to highlight an organization or change agent who is actively making the system a reality. That’s a bit tough with something as nebulous and ill-defined as the new sincerity. But that’s not to say it’s not happening all around us. Shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, or Modern Family and the works of David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen and others are often labeled as manifestations of the “New Sincerity.”

I also like to think Kindling itself is another example. The mainstream media outlet bombards us with what’s going wrong with the world – all the conflicts, all the ugliest moments, all the most worrying possibilities. And at the same time, they are usually run by massive corporations who are first and foremost interested in making a profit and therefore prioritize the sensational and divisive over the accurate and the helpful. It’s hard not to become overly cynical in this environment. Kindling tries to offer a counterpoint, showcasing good news and positive possibilities, earnestly trying to be at least a small part of a brighter future.

What else might be considered part of the New Sincerity movement?

Recommended reading

Infinite Jest

by David Foster Wallace

Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human – and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.

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