How Did We Get So ‘Cringe’?

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Take a tweet from the week after the Capitol riot in January 2021: “A Liberal insurrection would have looked very different. We would have escorted the original Broadway cast of Hamilton into the galleries. They would softly sing … as members of the GOP spewed their lies.” This was apparently intended as satire of a certain type of extremely online and cringe-inducing liberal smugness, but it came off as the thing itself and then produced more of the same. “I’ve literally been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack at work for days now,” wrote one woman. “This is EXACTLY what would’ve happened. ALL the theater kids everywhere” wrote another.

Then the joke became real. Last week, as part of a series of public events marking one year since the January 6 riot, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduced a prerecorded performance by the cast of Hamilton, singing “Dear Theodosia.” Pelosi read aloud from the song’s lyrics: “We’ll make it right for you. If we lay a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you; we’ll give the world to you.” There was no need to debate whether this was cringe (which is now an adjective, as well as a noun and verb), because cringe is a you-know-it-when-you-see-it type of thing. And these days, you can see it everywhere.

As a term, cringe took off in forums in the early aughts, when the practice of humiliating oneself online was still somewhat novel. If it’s now mainstream—as a meme and an entertainment genre and an incredibly cutting insult—that’s not because human beings have become more cringe as a group. It’s because we’ve been given more opportunities to display our cringeworthy characteristics, and also to point out the cringe-worthy behavior of others. Whereas people used to feel secondhand embarrassment on behalf of their friends and family, or wince at their own awkward behavior, they are now exposed to the potentially embarrassing behavior of entire social networks.

After spending years in that environment, our sense of cringe has been heightened to truffle-pig levels of sensitivity. We can sniff out the tiniest flaws in someone else’s public performance, dig them up, share them around. We’re connoisseurs of cringe. Maybe we’re even gluttons for it. Wikipedia


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