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A Case Against Sincerity

With Wade Goodwyn in for Tom Ashbrook.

Why sincerity isn’t all it’s cracked up  to be.

Life-sized masks meant to resemble U.S. presidents, from the left, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton, appear in a store-front window, in the downtown section of Oak Bluffs, Mass. (AP)

Life-sized masks meant to resemble U.S. presidents, from the left, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton, appear in a store-front window, in the downtown section of Oak Bluffs, Mass. (AP)

One of the most important qualities we look for in our dealings with others is sincerity. Whether it’s our significant other or our doctor or the president of the United States, a measure of sincerity is important. Right?

Well maybe not. In a new book , sincerity is  depicted as a vastly overrated quality that has inspired religious wars and gotten in Americans’ way of seeing other people, especially their politicians, clearly.

This hour, On Point.  Are exaggerated claims of sincerity simply a new form of throwing the proverbial dust in the air?

-Wade Goodwyn


R. Jay Magill, author of Sincerity: How A Moral Ideal Born Five Hundred Years Ago Inspired Religious Wars, Modern Art, Hipster Chic, and the Curious Notion that We All Have Something to Say (No Matter How Dull). You can read an excerpt here.

From The Reading List

Boston Globe “Our obsession with sincerity is understandable. It’s clearly a virtue we want in our friends and family, and one that the world would be much worse off without. We want to be able to trust people to do what they say and to stick to what they promised.”

Salon “We yearn for sincerity, on both sides of the aisle, even though we know it’s all a game. An expert explains why.”

Wall Street Journal “There is good reason for caution. Extreme frankness is often called “brutal,” after all, and unbridled truth-telling at all times and in all places would probably result in bloodletting. Despite such doubts, sincerity is a cherished trait. We admire it and feel badly treated when a comment or action, assumed to be heartfelt, turns out to be insincere. Sincerity—broadly speaking, the alignment of outer and inner selves—would seem to be essential to the modern conception of a virtuous life.”


Are you Sincere? by Andy Williams

Honestly Sincere by Marty Wilde

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  • Mike Card

    We want to rely on what we were taught while we were growing up:  play fair, share, tell the truth, help one another.  As soon as we get that high school diploma, people start with:  there are no guarantees, life isn’t fair, what have you done for me lately?, is that all you’ve got?

    After we’ve spent 18 years learning one set of truths, why do we need to spend the following few years learning that everything we think we know is exactly wrong?

    • Robertleelucas

      What is the difference between sincerity and honesty?

      • Mike Card

        I think learning that is probably the core of education, but nobody earns any A’s for learning it.  What young student can tell the difference between an honest teacher and a sincere teacher?  For that matter, what adult can?  The problem is that sincerity masquerades as honesty.

  • JustSayin

    From Dr. Zhivago- The cafe scene where Victor has met Petrov.

    Komarovsky: [speaking of Pasha Antipov] Lara, I am
    determined to save you from a dreadful error. There are two kinds of
    men, and only two, and that young man is one kind. He is high-minded. He
    is pure. He is the kind of man that the world pretends to look up to
    and in fact despises. He is the kind of man who breeds unhappiness;
    particularly in women. Now, do you understand?Lara: No.

    We all learn the truth of this… Nice guys don’t just finish last, but people secretly detest them… especially women.

    • Mary

      Ok that’s high minded.. what does that have to do with sincereity???

    • Julia

      The only truth is see here is that you don’t understand the subtly of that scene. It’s not about “nice guys”, it’s about the difficulties of choosing an idealist as a life-partner.

      And the truth is… nice guys finish last because they put their ladies first!

  • Stillin

    Sincerity can be viewed through action, not words. A phone call is not made…I was going to call you…a funeral is a no show…I was going to….a meeting is botched…we meant to tell you…action is so revealing it’s how I navigate the adult world, which is pretty ugly.

  • Vandermeer

    Sincerity??? No way… We just need good sound bites!

  • Pancake Rankin in NC

    A powerless person without property can’t afford the luxury of sincerity. (Circumstances created by authority pre-empt choice.) It is a affectation of relative privilege. As Stillin has observed, the expression of an intent to care amounts to nothing without the means; and the shirker with the means who makes excuses is mocking those appealed to with nihilism and confidence of power. I think human nature has not changed over time, just the way those in charge utilize it.
    The big thing this past century was to isolate the individual. 
    (Just me and my guns in a tiny apartment, but boy oh boy, am I ever f**king sincere!)

    • Vasco DeGrabya

      Great incite.  Expressions of sincerity are dangerous in a poor economy for “At Will” employees in “Right to Work States”.

  • J__o__h__n

    Both the left and the right can agree that Mitt Romney is not sincere.  Even his top campaign staffer admitted this with his Etch-a-Sketch comment. 

    • Pancake Rankin in NC

      Mittens is an Etch-a-Sketch and Obedient is a Slinky.
      I prefer a leader who can walk the stairs, but too much flexibility is as scary as the ability to erase history. I vote for Hula Hoop.

  • Vasco DeGrabya

    Being blunt and confrontational is being mistaken alot for sincerity nowadays in politics.

  • Gregg

    Why are masks of Presidents Obama and Clinton featured? Obama doesn’t have a sincere bone in his body. Clinton has but one.

    • Benjaminorart

      i can tell you are being sincere, which is sad…

    • Worried for the country(MA)

       LOL.  You didn’t buy it when Clinton bit his lip and rasped out “I feel your pain”?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Sincerity is a fine thing on a personal level, but when we’re dealing with positions of power, I prefer facts.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    In our gods we trust.  Everyone else pays cash.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    Sincerity is worthless when it’s based on Insanity or Personal Gain.

  • Caitlin

    Can we really ask for sincerty from anyone? Isn’t that paradoxical?

  • AC

    A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. Oscar Wilde

  • Mary

    Sincereity..” This is the most sincere pumpkin patch I know.. ”  Linus van Pelt – as he sat and waited for the Great Pumpkin on Halloween…

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Um, the point of politics is to do good for the country.  People who only go after votes are deliberately missing the point for their own gain.

  • jimino

    Sincerely stated claims based on ignorance and stupidity are still ignorant and stupid.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Sincerity–in Palin’s case, for example–is easy when you’re not bright enough to lie.

    • DrewInGeorgia

      Or informed enough to tell the truth.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         I don’t doubt that she believes what she says.

        • DrewInGeorgia

          And neither do I. Ignorance is Bliss.

  • BHA in Vermont

    Sarah Palin – sincere? LMAO

    • DrewInGeorgia

      She is sincere…Sincerely Crazy.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    “Does that mean that if I’m trying to be sincere that I’m being insincere?”

    Brilliant question Wade!

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    If you have to work at it, is it sincere?  Of course, if you are working toward what you want to be, that’s who you are.  This is why I’m more interested in what someone does, rather than the attitude that the person has about it.

  • Npr Listener

    How is sincerity different from earnestness?

  • J__o__h__n

    Tip O’Neill wrote in his autobiography that he picked up Carter’s suitcase (that he made a point of carrying himself during the campaign) and it was empty. 

  • joan

    We require our politicians to be “just like us” so that we can identify with them, trust them, and vote for them.  We also require that they be more patient, more intelligent, more diplomatic, more willing to enter conflict, more faithful, and in many other ways, UNlike us.  No wonder they–and we–get confused in the “sincerity wars.” 

  • Gary Witnauer

    “I don’t think you want too much sincerity in society. It would be like an iron girder in a house of cards.”
    –W. Somerset Maugham

    • DrewInGeorgia

      Maybe an Iron Girder is just the thing we need. At least that way when we rebuild we can use bricks and mortar and choose a construction site composed of something other than sand.

  • Don W.

    I don’t consider someone wearing a trucker’s hat, large glasses, sincere by their appearance.  Just could be another lemming following what they see as trendy. 

    • Matt

      I have a similar reaction whenever I see a political candidate wearing a flannel shirt.

  • Brad

    Does the conscious projection of sincerity have to be inherently insincere. Could it not be a sincere desire for people to understand a sincere passion and belief in what is being said?

  • Info

    Projecting an image of sincerity based on classist and anti-intellectual stereotypes sounds like demagoguery to me.

    It’s depressing to realize that usually it’s the “truthiest” argument that wins a public debate, rather than the most truthful one. But unfortunately, this fact is at the heart of our dysfunctional “democracy”. Voters may be “smart”, but smart people fall prey to emotional and ideological appeals, too.

  • http://profiles.google.com/filmi.girl Filmi Girl

    This is totally not “on point” but I have to say that Wade is the BEST replacement for Tom you all have had on so far. Nobody can replace Tom – who has the best radio voice EVER – but Wade is a great guest host. Please bring him back again!

    • DrewInGeorgia

      Tom’s been on a downward spiral, in my opinion, the past couple of years. I don’t know if he’s just getting cantankerous in his old age or if there’s something else going on but either way Wade has my vote going forward. No offense intended, like I said it’s just my opinion.

      • Ben

         Nice try Wade.

        • DrewInGeorgia


  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    James Carse wrote a fascinating book a couple of decades ago called “Finite and Infinite Games.”  His point is that life is a game with lots of smaller games contained within it.  We enter into those seriously, but he wants us to understand that we’re assuming a role.

    • Rei

      Thanks for mentioning that book.  I’ll be reading it. 

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         It’s hard to find it new, but check used bookstores or the used section of on-line sellers.

  • Melanie

    Sincerity is inextricably linked with honesty and integrity.  It’s not a characteristic that someone can just “turn on” in the expediency of the moment. I believe it is also “kind,” which takes the brutality out of honesty.

  • Beta

    Sincere ignorance and stupidity is still just ignorance and stupidity.

    Sincerity (the alignment of the outer and inner self) is better judged by actions (or omissions) than words. 

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    The caller from New Orleans is talking about acting, not sincerity.

  • truth is power

    The bottom line is a sincere person is an honest person.  I don’t want any person who is not speaking his/her truth to represent me because what is said is relied upon to be the truth and that is what a person uses as a guide to make a decision about that person. 

    Romney’s out and out lying disgusts me.  He cannot be trusted in anything he says as he gears his words to the audience in front of him.  He is not a person who can be trusted.

  • Josey

    It depends where you live. In an urban center of ignorant know it alls sincerity is frowned upon. In rural parts where people have better manners and aren’t concerned with having an answer for everything sincerity is always welcome.

    • Rei

      I found sincerity easier in an urban center because a less homogeneous population and the greater potential for anonymity in an urban center v. a small town.

  • Tina

    There is a phrase used a lot around here that I really dislike:  “To be honest with you….”!!!!!

    I always wonder:  would you NOT be honest with me??

  • Connie

    We often use sincerity as a lazy, or passive, way to measure honesty. For example, to determine if a politician is being honest actually takes knowledge of the world, the politicians policies, positions, track records and actions. This takes work and an effort to be reliably informed. To passively believe a political ad that has sincere voice overs will not necessarily reveal honest information about the person.

  • Sangita

    I believe that you are missing the point about sincerity.  I think sincerity can be faked, and that true sincerity has more to do with integrity and honesty than anything else.  Then secondly how you convey your thought.  If you don’t agree with someone, you can either keep your mouth shut or simply tell them in a courteous way that you disagree.

  • Rei

    Sincerity as a moral v. an ethic?  I’d love for the author to distinguish how he sees the difference.  Great topic.  Curious: Can sincerity be sold (literally) if the buyer needs or wants the seller’s specific variety (of truth/humanity)?

    • Steve_T

       To your statement brings the thought, of a used car salesman.

  • R.

    We have this myth that suggests it is good to “be yourself.”  Being myself, I wouldn’t have gone to work this morning.  I probably wouldn’t have a job.  I wouldn’t keep the house reasonably clean, and I probably would have never been married.  “Being yourself” is over rated, at least in my case, and probably for many others that are honest.

  • http://profiles.google.com/camillenapierbernstein camille napier bernstein

    Re: fiction writers: Tim O’Brien’s book _The Things They Carried_ was poorly received by some of my students because they felt “tricked”: although the main character was named Tim O’Brien, the stories were categorized as fiction.  One of the stories explores this very idea of lies/fiction/emotional truth directly by suggesting that the scene described (death of a baby water buffalo) needed to be fictionalized to help express an emotional truth.  That is, the scene, which “didn’t happen,” evoked the emotional “truth” created by war, whose scenes and experiences could not be accurately rendered to evoke such emotions. 

    O’Brien explained in a talk to Brown U students that emotional truth is often more important than happening truth.  He said, for example, we don’t spend the whole of _Huck Finn_ reminding ourselves, “This is not real.  This did not happen.”  We FEEL the story, we FEEL for the characters. 

    Sincerity comes in when the book billed/sold as “happening truth” is not (Frey’s memoir, which was certainly successful in emotional truth, but not fact).

  • rosesubotnik

    I’m surprised Mr. Magill hasn’t mentioned Lionel Trilling’s book Sincerity and Authenticity (Harvard UP, 1972), one of the great books of the 20th century in my opinion. Trilling makes an important distinction between sincerity and authenticity, the latter of which has come to replace sincerity as a cultural ideal. Just a few days ago, on July 18th,  John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s Magazine, paid homage to this book in a column on his eulogy for Earl Shorris that was widely syndicated.

  • Olivia

    Are we taught to be insincere?  Are little kids who are ‘too honest’ simply being sincere?  What about the kids who are always encouraged to ‘be themselves’– as opposed to kids who find themselves on the margins because of their socioeconomic status, background, or race– are advantaged kids’ sincerity nurtured?

  • sprocket

    I have a real problem being sincere when I do not believe what I am saying.  For example, someone brings a cake and it is not very good, I can say thanks it is great, but my face is saying the real story.  So it has come to the point that unless the person I am talking to is someone I really care about I just say what I think, everyone feels bad but at least I am not lying.

  • Michael Shapiro

    There’s a very deep irony here.  A talk show, any talk show, yes, including On Point, depends day in and day out on guests whose entire professional talking life consists in advancing insincere (disingenuous? lying?) talking points.  (For example, I turned off your last hour because the reporter you interviewed claimed not to know if Republican voter ID laws were motivated by voter suppression.)  A real commitment to challenging these could make On Point an exciting show, a real experiment in honest journalism.  Without it, a show on sincerity is, well, more disposable talk.

    • truth is power

      I agree.  I turned it off as well as I was highly offended by the promotion of propaganda from the Heritage Foundation which is a well-known puppet of the Koch Bros and other elites.  Couldn’t stomach it.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         Are you ever disturbed by the sincerity with which you wear leftist ear plugs?

  • freefromfreedom

    Where is the sincerity from people who protect the 2nd Amendment to no end, but turn a blind eye to many other infringements of our rights?
    The right to own guns does not come from our Constitution.  It is in the Constitution, yes, but the right to own a gun comes from the Bill of Rights. It is a slight distinction, but I feel it is an important one because people seem to forget that we the people have the right to change our Constitution. (cough, cough, slavery)

    Why do 2nd Amendment supporters predominatly not get outraged when other rights are trampled on? The 5th Amendment allows for due process, the 4th amendment is supposed to protect us from unreasonable search and seizure. The 8th amendment is meant to protect us from cruel and unusual punishment. The 1st Amendment is meant to protect our freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. The 14th Amendment protects the country’s ability to have debt, but that didn’t stop any gun right supporters in Congress from refusing to raise the debt ceiling. “The validity of the public debt of the United States… shall not be questioned,” reads Section 4 of the 14th Amendment.

    Where is the sincerity there?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       You don’t talk to many gun rights supporters, I suppose.  I support all of our contitutional rights, among others.  And by the way, the Constitution doesn’t give us any rights.  It recognizes rights that we have by virtue of being human.

      • DrewInGeorgia

        Which is why we should revert to it (The United States Constitution) and try again.

    • truth is power

      This is the tragedy of the gun lobby and the marketing of guns by the gun industry.  The “explosion” of gun sales has happened because the gun industry latched on to  American consumerism and by marketing the idea that everyone “needs” a gun to be safe, just as people think they have to have the latest phone or other gizmo, gun industry sales have skyrocketed.  And therein lies the incentive for pumping up the 2nd amendment rhetoric.  It’s all about money and the NRA cares nothing for the human loss that has resulted in gun-owning frenzy.

      Thirty years ago, the only people with guns were hunters and cops.  Nobody needed a concealed weapon.  It’s insane.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         You mean the way that no one needs books or wine or music or pets or the Internet or whatever else you care to name that isn’t food, water, and shelter?

        But you might want to look at the numbers before you jump to conclusions.  Homicide rates and rates of other violent crimes have been falling since the nineties.  At the same time, concealed carry laws have been loosening, and gun control just about everywhere is going away.  That says to me that guns aren’t the problem that you make them out to be.

  • Beta

    I like the German approach to politicians as described by the author. They see them as people hired to do a job, implement certain policies. I’ll take technocrats over demagogic strongmen any day.

  • TGG

    “Always be sincere even if you don’t mean it.”
    Mortimer Snerd — Snerd’s words for the birds

  • Jill

    I love Wade Goodwin and would love to have he be the host of this show. Wade you have the best voice. Love ya.

  • Kairos

    I have a two year old who is learning sincerity from her parents.  Theatrum mundi: I watch the news and say, “Oh my god.”  She then turns to the television and says, “Oh my god,” without understanding what is actually happening.  She patterns her reactions after her parents–what I find as grave, she finds as grave.  This has certainly lead me to question the authenticity of my reactions.  And perhaps, true sincerity exists in a place that is not often reached. 

  • Bob

    I’m remembering a story I read about the code breakers of WW II.  After they broke the Japanese “Purple” code, there was one (Japanese) word they still weren’t sure about.  The context where it occured was always something like, “This nation IS xxxxxx,” or “That nation IS NOT xxxxxx.”  The best anybody could figure out from broader context was “xxxxxx” = “pro-Japanese.”  After the war, when the code books were examined, it turned out that “xxxxxx” meant “sincere.”

  • Eggshumane

    This show blew my mind! Thank you! I’ve been pondering for quite some time whether some of people’s behavior was based on selfish interests or if people are truly capable of altruism. People are, in general, horrible at loving each other, which many perceive as a true need. That’s why we need dogs (and other domesticated animal companions, of course).

  • Emitr

    “What matters is that the food gets there.”  That pretty much sums it up.  Life’s too hard to add too many layers of moral complexity.  As long as life is working, that’s good enough.  But what if a politician isn’t sincere about “getting the food there”? If, for example, Germans care about policy rather than sincerity, don’t they care whether a politician is sincere about what he or she is saying about policy?  At some point it seems that if you care about what a politician delivers, you have to care about whether he or she intends to deliver it.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/J7LU3TFXLHTP5IYTPTG62VUZRY Ann

    I was puzzled by the claim that sincerity was only introduced as a moral idea 500 years ago, since sincerity is an important concept in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad said 1400 years ago, “Religion is sincerity.” The author should specify that he’s only considering Western European Christianity.

    As for the example of the Haiti earthquake survivors who need aid, we would say that maybe to the needy person, all that matters is that the food gets there. For the donor, though, what matters is his or her intention. As an extreme example, if he or she uses stolen money and makes a big show of donating,  simply to make others say, “Oh! What a generous person”, then there is no reward.

    • bobf

       and St. Paul wrote ~1900 yrs ago, “Love must be sincere.” (Romans 12:9). 

      • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/J7LU3TFXLHTP5IYTPTG62VUZRY Ann

        Thanks… I didn’t know that quote, but it seems to me that sincerity would probably be an important concept in any religion. 

        I found his whole thesis not very convincing. I guess it all comes down to how you define sincerity; often what he was talking about seemed to me to be insincerity..

  • Renee

    Loved this show! So so interesting. And I just want to say, Mr. Wade Goodwyn is the first guest host that doesn’t make me miss Tom, good job Wade, your an awesome host! 

  • DBC

    This was certainly okay, but if you’re going to tackle a topic that’s sort of obvious and confusing at the same time you really have to knock it out of the park if you’re going to make the discussion worthwhile and I thought this fell short.  The author noticed things, but did he help us to understand them?  I dunno.  The topic was probably tackled with more success on Fresh Air, as an ancillary part of the discussion of religion with the author of what happened to sophie wilder or whatever a couple days ago.

  • CAR

    Very interesting and thought-producing discussion to use in my AP English class–my main discussion point is the assumption we make that sincerity, honesty, and truth are synonymous terms.

  • midori

    Hi there. Can anyone please tell me the woman mascot in the sky blue dress with a comb on her hair in the picture?? thanks. I’d like to buy it. :)

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