I have just finished reading Abraham Josephine Riesman’s excellent biography of Vince McMahon, called Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America. I also very much enjoyed listening to the An Unscripted Spectacle podcast episode with the author, a podcast which I was privileged to appear on a little while ago too to talk about my book Philosophy Smackdown (amongst other things) – the hosts Sara and Marshall are awesome!
The book has some fascinating narrative of McMahon’s life, particularly his childhood as Vinnie Lupton in North Carolina, which I don’t recall anyone describing in such detail before. It also rivetingly accounts McMahon’s rise to power in the wrestling world, and the connections between Vince McMahon the person and Mr McMahon the wrestling character.
There’s so much to talk about, but one thing that stood out to me straightaway was Riesman’s account of what she calls ‘neokayfabe’, which is the reality that pro wrestling has inhabited since McMahon’s destruction of kayfabe in the late 90s. She also talked fascinatingly about this with Sara and Marshall on the aforementioned Unscripted Spectacle podcast. Given my work on pro wrestling and truth, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to comment on how I think this relates to philosophical debates about truth, particularly as it struck me that there is a clear relationship between neokayfabe and what philosophers call ‘bullshit’.
So, I know it’s been a while. But who doesn’t love a great return in wrestling? The Philosophy Smackdown blog is re-entering the fray!
To rehearse, in pro wrestling terms, ‘kayfabe’ refers to events and characters in a pro wrestling storyline. With kayfabe in place, you have a clear distinction between what is part of the show, and what is real.
Pro wrestling in the late 90s broke with this tradition to blend fiction and reality in such a way that audiences had a hard time working out what was real and what was not. The catalyst for this in the WWF was the Montreal Screwjob in late 1997, where Vince McMahon screwed Bret Hart out of the WWF title in an unscripted finish to a match.
This ultimately led to what Riesman calls, neokayfabe: a situation where the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred, and where pro wrestling storylines and characters incorporate both real and fictional aspects. All that matters is getting the story across, and reality and fiction will do just as well.
This is of course super-interesting in itself, but what piqued my interest was how it seems to map onto distinctions made in philosophical discussions of truth and honesty. Think first about the difference between a truthful person and a liar. The truthful person represents reality as it is, whereas the liar tries to mislead. We have a distinction between reality (that the truthful person aims to represent), and fiction (which the liar puts forward). This parallels to a large extent the distinction between reality and kayfabe. There is a third competitor in this triple threat, though: the bullshitter.
As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt discusses in his famous 2005 essay On Bullshit, the bullshitter is not the same as the liar as they don’t deliberately try to mask the truth, and they don’t always fail to tell the truth. What’s distinctive about the bullshitter is that they don’t care about what’s true: they just say the things that they think will help them get what they want, or help them project the image of themselves that they want other people to see. They will say whatever helps them achieve their ends – some of these things might be true, but they simply do not care whether they say things that are true or false.
What I think this gives us is a relationship between the philosophical distinctions between truth, lies, and bullshit, and the pro wrestling distinctions between reality, kayfabe, and neokayfabe:
Truth ———— Reality
Now, this may be interesting to a philosophy and wrestling nerd like myself, but where can we go with it? Riesman discusses the negative impact that McMahon’s version of neokayfabe has had on American society, particularly through its influence on McMahon’s friend Donald Trump, who uses it to great effect. As Riesman says:
“There’s little difference between Trumpism and Vince’s neokayfabe, each with their infinite and indistinguishable layers of irony and sincerity. Each philosophy approaches life with one goal: to remake reality in such a way as to defeat one’s enemies and sate one’s insecurities.” (Ringmaster, p.345)
Interestingly, Trump is also frequently cited as the archetypal bullshitter in recent philosophical discussions of bullshit, which adds to the kinship between these notions. This also adds to the idea that both neokayfabe and bullshit are intrinsically bad, in that they fundamentally undermine the pursuit of truth in a civilized society.
Now, certainly we can point to the bad effects that McMahon’s friendship with Trump has had, and the latter’s use of pro wrestling neokayfabe to bullshit their way to an American nightmare (more on this later), but does this mean that neokayfabe – or bullshitting for that matter – is bad in itself?
This is where I get a little stuck. After all, there is no denying that neokayfabe is now the predominant presentation of American pro wrestling, whether it be WWE or AEW. And, the move to neokayfabe in the late 90s was perhaps essential to pro wrestling’s survival heading into the 21st Century, where traditional kayfabe was not going to cut it.
So, it could be that pro wrestling only still exists because it is carried out in neokayfabe, and a large part of its success has been the intrigue that neokayfabe causes with its blending of reality and fiction. And, because I’m a pro wrestling fan, I am glad that pro wrestling still exists. But if pro wrestling’s existence depends on neokayfabe, does that mean that neokayfabe, and perhaps bullshit, are good after all?
On this issue I am somewhat torn. There is no doubt that bullshit has detrimental effects: obscuring the distinction between reality and fiction makes it harder for us to work out what’s true. But – as pro wrestling demonstrates – it can also be very entertaining, and make life more interesting. Indeed, as Oscar Wilde’s famous essay ‘The Decay of Lying’ provocatively argues for the value of lying, one could make a similar case for bullshit. It also may be somewhat necessary in many social situations: how often do we really want others to know what we actually think of them, or to know what they really think of us? Politeness and coexistence seem to require some level of bullshit.
Perhaps the answer is that bullshit and neokayfabe have their proper place. In entertainment and interpersonal relations, they may be good, and even necessary. But in public discourse and scientific enterprises, they can be very harmful. As a pluralist about truth, who thinks that different domains of discourse need different treatments, this idea is tempting.
Unfortunately, as the last few years have shown, these domains cannot be kept separate, and bullshit and neokayfabe have been infused into politics, news, and public views of science and medicine. Stories on some ‘news’ sites sometimes look eerily close to stories on spoof sites like The Onion and the fantastic Kayfabe News. Much ‘news’ is now ‘neokayfabe news’. This lack of clarity on the truth leads to a serious breakdown in trust and community, fostering instead suspicion, conflict, and polarization. This benefits the few sowers of such mistrust (like McMahon and Trump), but is to the detriment of everyone else.
Pro wrestling is an amazing and unique form of entertainment, but even us dedicated fans can agree that it should not be the model for our political system and public discourse. Riesman’s fabulous book shows though how the McMahon-Trump axis has strived for precisely this to screw America.
Reflecting on their success, I can’t help wondering: are we all now Bret Hart in Montreal in 1997?