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Wednesday, April 26, 2017


Belief is truth

by Tom Sullivan

Photo by Christopher Daniels via Creative Commons.

Sociologist Nick Rogers just introduced me (via the New York Times) to a term I'd never heard. I'd never heard it because it is slang used by professional wrestlers. He uses it to explain why listeners eat it up when Alex Jones rants that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged by the government or that Hillary Clinton runs a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor. It explains why no amount of fact-checking or voter education will correct their misapprehension.

The word is “kayfabe.” Oxford added it to the dictionary in 2015:

Syllabification: kay·fabe
Pronunciation: /’ka?fab/


1. (In professional wrestling) the fact or convention of presenting staged performances as genuine or authentic:
“a masterful job of blending kayfabe and reality”
“he’s not someone who can break kayfabe and talk about the business”
Oxford believes the term originated in American traveling carnivals. (You see where this is going, right?)

Rogers writes:
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.

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.
Alex Jones gets that. Ann Coulter gets that. Donald “truthful hyperbole” Trump gets that. Hollywood gets that every time it presents a multi-million dollar kayfabe that allows paying customers for two hours to immerse themselves in an alternate reality in which good triumphs, hope returns, the music swells, and you walk out of darkness back into the light. Horror fans pay good money for a good, safe scare. Trump rallies are free.

Hence, Rogers writes:
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.
Push audiences only so far and it's entertainment, spectacle. Push them too far and you have a violent mob. In wrestling, the American hero taking on the "foreign menace" is a staple; the Iron Sheik or Ivan ‘The Russian Bear’ Koloff, for example. At Trump rallies, the "foreign" menace is Hillary Clinton. ("Lock her up!") Barack Hussein Obama is still the foreign menace.

In certain Christian circles, it's just not church without a preacher who can whip up a congregation until they feel the holy spirit and a cathartic release. Today's radio carnies have harnessed daily spectacles in the tradition of the evangelical altar call. Ostensibly to spread the conservative gospel, they provide fans with their daily fixes, a kind of "two minutes hate" that lasts three hours at a stretch. Good for your daily vent at the Other and good for selling penis pills and incontinence treatments. The rules of kayfabe are that no one acknowledges the line between sincerity and salesmanship.

Kayfabe, Rogers insists, is not satire. Satire involves a nod and a wink that the audience is in on the joke. Kayfabe is just the opposite:
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.
That feels about right. Of course, it does. Truthiness satirizes kayfabe. But kayfabe packs more emotional punch. And that's what fans return for each week.

Back when professional wrestling was more of a local auditorium and high school gymnasium event, I went once for the hell of it. But what I recall more from the days of "Nature Boy" Rick Flair is from a coffee table book of black and white photos of Greenville, SC from the 1970s when this happened. The image burned into my brain is of an older woman at Monday Night Wrestling, standing at ringside screaming and shaking her fist, the gold cross on her chest blazing as the flash caught her. They pay money for that experience. They know it's fake and they don't care. And they'll vote for it. Donald Trump knows. He used to own a piece of WWE.

"Don't make them feel dumb for spending their money to see you." Al Snow Explains "Kayfabe" to trainees.