I’ve been watching the wrestling with my two younger cousins since they were wee guys: just as I was entering my teens, they were starting to get into it. It was the early 2000s, just the tail end of the big wrestling boom of the turn of the century, the age of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock, Triple H, the Hardy Boyz, the Undertaker. We enjoyed the pageantry, the grand guignol, the spectacle of this utterly preposterous theatre presenting itself as a competitive sport. Staying up to ridiculous hours to watch what amounted to modern gladiatorial combat-cum-telenova soon became a family tradition.
“But it’s fake,” you cry. “It’s so clearly not real.” And I just sigh, and continue enjoying the bonding experience with my cousins.
But the continuing insistence of some quarters to use the “it’s fake, you know” cry as if it was some sort of stunning revelation more than 28 years after Vincent Kennedy McMahon testified to its true nature at the New Jersey State Senate reminds me of nothing so much as the mainstream media confusing its role of journalism with a self-appointed role as educator.
Nick Rogers has an opinion piece on The New York Times with what he believes is a startling and pithy realisation:
Alex Jones, the conspiracist at the helm of the alt-news outlet InfoWars, used an unusual defense in a custody hearing in Texas last week. His ex-wife had accused him of being unstable and dangerous, citing Mr. Jones’s rants on his daily call-in show. (Among his many unconventional stances are that the government staged the Sandy Hook massacre and orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.) Through his attorneys, Mr. Jones countered that his antics are irrelevant to his fitness as a parent, because he is a performance artist whose public behavior is part of his fictional character. In other words, when he tells his audience that Hillary Clinton is running a sex-trafficking operation out of a Washington pizza parlor (an accusation for which he has offered a rare retraction), he is doing so merely for entertainment value.
Many of his liberal critics have since asked whether Mr. Jones’s devoted fans will abandon him now that he has essentially admitted to being a fraud.
They will not.
Alex Jones’s audience adores him because of his artifice, not in spite of it. They admire a man who can identify their most primal feelings, validate them, and choreograph their release. To understand this, and to understand the political success of other figures like Donald Trump, it is helpful to know a term from the world of professional wrestling: “kayfabe.”
Allow me to pinch the bridge of my nose with my index finger and thumb in the commonly-used expression of exasperation.
Although the etymology of the word is a matter of debate, for at least 50 years “kayfabe” has referred to the unspoken contract between wrestlers and spectators: We’ll present you something clearly fake under the insistence that it’s real, and you will experience genuine emotion. Neither party acknowledges the bargain, or else the magic is ruined.
I’m going to say something that’s going to blow your mind. There is another term for “kayfabe,” one that people have been practising and exercising for thousands of years. It’s called “willing suspension of disbelief.” Mr Roger, surely you’re a cultured man who knows of the great Samuel Taylor Coleridge?
During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbours, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination. The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sun-set diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both. These are the poetry of nature. The thought suggested itself (to which of us I do not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life; the characters and incidents were to be such, as will be found in every village and its vicinity, where there is a meditative and feeling mind to seek after them, or to notice them, when they present themselves.
In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographica Literaria, Chapter XIV
When you go to the theatre to enjoy the pantomime, at no point do you turn to the enraptured crowd and say “you do realise Widow Twankie is clearly a man in drag, and so cannot, by definition, be a widow?” When you buy a ticket to The Avengers, you do not demand a refund when it later transpires that alien invaders did not, in fact, devastate New York in the year 2012. When you listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the Nth time, people would look at you funny if you question how anyone could possibly believe Freddie Mercury’s claims about confessing a murder to his mother. So why do people do this with wrestling, whose scripted & predetermined nature is part-and-parcel of the product itself?
Back in the early days of professional wrestling, it was a very different affair. It was a sideshow act – a moneymaking scheme masquerading as something it isn’t, in this case a genuine athletic competition. It was no more an actual physical contest than any of P.T. Barnum’s monstrous menagerie or the Cottingley Fairies were truly representative of scientific discoveries – but unlike film, television, or other fiction, there was no “contract”: the secret of professional wrestling was kept tightly, because otherwise, why would people bet money on a predetermined outcome?
Professional Wrestling, then, had two broad “phases” in its history: the first, where it was effectively a seedy hoax aimed directly towards tricking people out of their money. After knowledge of the hoax became widespread, it could easily have died out: folk could’ve just gone to any number of other sports. Instead, it adapted, with a shift in tone and purpose – it retained its earthy, carny atmosphere (for the most part) and the pomp of gladiatorial combat, but took on the new direction of performance art. It was about this time the manoeuvres became more elaborate, the characters more spectacular, the stories more outlandish. In doing so, it moved from the sideshow, to the circus itself.
To compare Jones’ following with modern wrestling fandom is thus completely missing the point, because they are different audiences. Case in point:
To a wrestling audience, the fake and the real coexist peacefully. If you ask a fan whether a match or backstage brawl was scripted, the question will seem irrelevant. You may as well ask a roller-coaster enthusiast whether he knows he’s not really on a runaway mine car. The artifice is not only understood but appreciated: The performer cares enough about the viewer’s emotions to want to influence them. Kayfabe isn’t about factual verifiability; it’s about emotional fidelity.
Although their athleticism is impressive, skilled wrestlers captivate because they do what sociologists call “emotional labor” — the professional management of other people’s feelings. Diners expect emotional labor from their servers, Hulkamaniacs demand it from their favorite performer, and a whole lot of voters desire it from their leaders.
This definition of “emotional labour” (which is different from the actual definition, which is that the worker is meant to manage their own emotions) is hardly confined to wrestling – it’s a feature of all forms of fiction. If you ask a comic reader whether an action scene was scripted, the question will seem irrelevant. You may as well ask a theatre-goer whether he knows “Hamlet” isn’t a real Danish prince holding a real Danish skull. Although their athleticism is impressive, skilled authors captivate because they do what sociologists call “emotional labor” – the professional management of other people’s feelings. Why is it Mr Rogers compares wrestling not to other forms of fiction, but less “cultured” entertainment and amenities like roller-coasters and “diners”?
Rogers almost gets it in that last sentence, then completely mucks up his own point in the next paragraph:
The aesthetic of World Wrestling Entertainment seems to be spreading from the ring to the world stage. Ask an average Trump supporter whether he or she thinks the president actually plans to build a giant wall and have Mexico pay for it, and you might get an answer that boils down to, “I don’t think so, but I believe so.” That’s kayfabe. Chants of “Build the Wall” aren’t about erecting a structure; they’re about how cathartic it feels, in the moment, to yell with venom against a common enemy.
Voting to repeal Obamacare again and again only to face President Obama’s veto was kayfabe. So is shouting “You lie!” during a health care speech. It is President Bush in a flight suit, it is Vladimir Putin shirtless on a horse, it is virtually everything Kim Jong-un does. Does the intended audience know that what they’re watching is literally made for TV? Sure, in the same way they know that the wrestler Kane isn’t literally a demon. The factual fabrication is necessary to elicit an emotional clarity.
I would not say it is “in the same way” at all. Kayfabe, and its more reputable counterpart Willing Suspension of Disbelief, is an utterly essential ingredient in the very art of storytelling, and actually requires effort on the part of the human mind to switch off its analytical faculties. That’s why it’s called “suspension of disbelief” – it is a conscious act which humans have to learn. An accomplished author or creator will work very hard to develop an internal realism to foster that suspension to such a degree that the reader might not even notice the suspension at all. In all this – and this is extremely important – the creator and the viewer have the same purpose, which is to follow a narrative and experience the emotions & aesthetics that narrative evokes.
Alex Jones’ lawyer is presenting him as a “performance artist,” his radio appearance a “character,” precisely because to do otherwise would be to jeopardise his case in a custody hearing. Superficially, this sounds no different from Vince McMahon claiming that professional wrestling is predetermined purely to take advantage of tax breaks from athletic state commissions – but, and I can’t believe I have to point this out, wrestling is not journalism. Investors don’t consult real estate and literal giant Mark Calaway in character as The Undertaker, however awesome that would be. Pundits don’t ask John Bradshaw Layfield to comment on business analysis on Bulls and Bears in character as the cowboy/cult member/brawler-for-hire/Texan tycoon (well, ok, maybe that last one). People don’t share “Big Poppa Pump” Scott Steiner’s debate with genuine Harvard Graduate Christopher Nowinski on Facebook when US foreign policy comes up in their Facebook feed. Though to be honest, you could do worse than share this video from Zeb Colter and Jack Swagger – who are explicitly parodies of the sort of people Mr Rogers associates with Trump supporters – responding to Glenn Beck’s criticism:
I would guess that most people who share Alex Jones videos do so because they are actually concerned about what Alex Jones is talking about in earnest. People share stories which are presented as news – be it genuine or otherwise – because they think there’s something to it, and they feel it is important to spread this information. “Ask an average Trump supporter whether he or she thinks the president actually plans to build a giant wall and have Mexico pay for it, and you might get an answer that boils down to, “I don’t think so, but I believe so.”” Sorry, man, but citation needed.
Despite superficial similarities, it is useful to distinguish kayfabe from the concept of satire. Satire depends on the constant awareness that what’s being presented is false. It requires frequent acknowledgment of that: winks to the camera, giggling breaks of character. The meaning comes directly from the disbelief. It depends on two conflicting mental processes happening at once, rather than the suspension of one in service of the other. It employs cognitive dissonance, rather than bypassing it. In that way, satire and kayfabe are actually opposites. Kayfabe isn’t merely a suspension of disbelief, it is philosophy about truth itself. It rests on the assumption that feelings are inherently more trustworthy than facts.
Satire requires the audience to be an intelligent human being who can form their own conclusions without overt cues: if they require “winks to the camera, giggling breaks of character” and whatnot, then it’s not doing its job. Remind me of when Winston Smith breaks the fourth wall in 1984. But that’s beside the point.
Donald Trump rode kayfabe from Queens to Trump Tower to “The Apprentice” to the White House. Alex Jones may find it is as effective in the courtroom as it is on AM radio. Cultural elites can fact-check these men and point out glaring rhetorical contradictions until they are blue in the face; kayfabe renders it all beside the point. If you’re among the three million people who have chuckled at the viral video of a crying man addressing his wrestling heroes at a Q. and A. session, you know how succinctly he summarizes the mind-set: “It’s still real to me, dammit.”
Are truth and kayfabe, then, irreconcilable? In some contexts, probably. But devotees of the former might be well served to think of the latter as complementary rather than competing. Rationalists can and should make the case that empirical data is more reliable than intuition. But if they continue to ignore the human need for things to feel true, they will do so at their political peril.
Now we get to the nub of it: the idea of emotional fidelity not necessarily being incompatible with factual verifiability – and glory of glories, it’s a great argument that turns the whole article on its head. In his urge to promote empiricism, rationalism, and truth, Mr Rogers was dangerously close to putting precedence of his own intuitions, emotions, and rhetoric over those which he aims to support.
You might wonder why I’d get all bent out of shape: it’s just wrestling, after all, who cares? Well, I’d like to think it’s for a similar reason that Stuart Campbell talks about football on Wings Over Scotland – it illustrates an issue far wider than itself. Here, the issue is the Mainstream Media’s chronic Dunning-Kruger effect – perfectly intelligent folk thinking they have an understanding of a given subject, and then proceeding to discuss that subject with all the authority of an expert when they have no such authority. In the New York Times piece, Mr Rogers uses professional wrestling to illustrate his point, despite displaying a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of kayfabe, especially in regards to what it means.
Now, I do think there’s much in the piece that merits attention – in particular, that “I don’t think so, but I believe so” sentiment. There is a significant minority of Trump voters who absolutely do think he’s everything his opponents say he is – but they feel so betrayed by successive waves of politicians & administrations that they wonder, “why vote for the lesser evil?” They know he lies, that he’s a rich jerk, that he’s ultimately only out for himself and his cronies – but they believe precisely the same about his opponents, if not the entire system in general. Likewise, wrestling fans know wrestling is “fake” – but they also know films, television, theatre, radio, literature, comics, practically all art is no less “fake.” They understand their own situation, while the mainstream media continue to goggle their eyes in disbelief. The mainstream media continue to fret and sputter at how this could have happened, and the worst part is, they have no idea how much they have contributed to this situation in the first place. But like so many journalists, Mr Rogers speaks on a subject he only thinks he understands, and ends up undermining his entire prospectus as a result.
I’ve seen it all the time, and even if it’s regarding something like wrestling, dinosaurs, or some long-dead Texan pulp writer, it’s always infuriating for the exact same reason as I find misinformation about history, politics, or current events exasperating – because truth & accuracy is not up to someone’s opinion. I became a sceptic of opinion pieces from a very early age, as far more often than not, I’ve found those opinions are not the informed variety which Harlan Ellison suggests is the only sort of opinion anyone’s entitled to.
Treating people like they’re idiots, or willingly deluded – that they are complicit in a con where they are the mark – is not the best way forward, as so many parties and politicians have found to their ruin. Sometimes, you have to acknowledge that you aren’t always the expert.