People protest at the Legislative Building in Regina on Sept. 2, 2023, against a recent government policy that says schools in Saskatchewan must seek parent or guardian permission when changing the preferred name and pronouns used by students under the age of 16. (The Canadian Press/Michael Bell)

The Crying Game Rife in Our ‘Feelings’ Culture Is Nothing but Manipulative Kitsch

According to the 2018 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, a full 86 percent of 15-year-olds had trouble distinguishing the difference between opinion and fact. That won’t surprise most older journalists. We were schooled in our craft when the news of the day ran in the news section of newspapers like this one, and opinions about the news in the editorial section.
Such publications are now few and far between. But most 15-year-olds don’t read any newspapers, let alone those that hew to the traditional rule. At school, they are not taught critical reasoning, but are “editorialized” on social justice. They are not required, as we were in our youth, to write persuasive essays on one or the other side of an issue, freely chosen. They are rarely aware that there are two or more sides of an issue, except insofar as one side is right and the others are wrong. Rather, they are required to write short regurgitations of the settled truths they have imbibed over the term.

If one doesn’t know the difference between a fact and an opinion, then one becomes habituated to responding to opinions supported by evidence with opinions supported by emotion, convinced that expressions of personal feelings constitute a rebuttal of equal or greater value. Our “feelings” culture tells young people that words can be a form of violence. It follows logically that if published words can be violence, then published tears are a viable shield, or—as we see in demonstrations, ratcheted up into sobbing and even screaming as if in deep pain—a genre of force majeure to be deployed against the “violence” of prohibited ideas.

Only once that I can recall did I mention in a column that some or other injustice had caused me to weep. My excellent editor at the time removed the allusion, counselling me quite sternly, “Never ever use your own emotional reaction as a rhetorical weapon in a column. It’s lazy, and irrelevant to the case you’re supposed to be building.” I could see at once that he was right, and never did so again. The lesson had the effect, over the years since, of sharpening my radar for instances of “the crying game” so frequently engaged in by identity politics hacks.

For example, in a recent op-ed in the Toronto Star, a contributor, self-identified as the parent of a “transgender” child, argued against Ontario Educator Minister Stephen Lecce’s decision that schools must inform parents when their children request a pronoun change at school. She writes, of trans children, “I’ve cried often for those kids and their parents and I’ve cried for fear these baseless laws will make their way north of the border.”
My immediate response was deep skepticism. Does she actually cry real tears for these unknown children? The implied emotion is disproportionate to her entirely hypothetical alarm, and a distraction from the reason the minister made this objectively moderate and prudent judgment call: namely, that parents have a right to know when their children announce their embarkation on a potentially life-altering journey. Her alleged tears act as a rhetorical cudgel to shame those who would make a rational case for parents’ rights. The subliminal message is that anyone who supports parental rights on this issue isn’t merely wrong, but is also heartless. She on the other hand is the embodiment of compassion for children, and therefore a commentator whose authority the reader can trust.

This crying game—weaponized sentimentalism—is kitsch journalism, an editorial analogue to the art world’s velvet dogs playing poker. In his book, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Milan Kundera described kitsch as "the second tear." The "first tear" is private and unfiltered, the genuine, spontaneous response to strong emotion. The second tear is public and self-reflexive, summoned rather than greeted. Unlike natural tears, second tears act as a purgative for the shedder only when mirrored in the eyes of others. Social media are an ideal conduit for wide distribution of “second tears.”
Critics of art and literature have long struggled to winnow great art—not bad or mediocre art, that’s easy—from kitsch, which can mimic great art. Oscar Wilde famously said that “you need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell (the child protagonist of Charles Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop”). Unpacking this dictum, philosopher Roger Scruton explained that Dickens’s “unscrupulous stirring up of sentiment conceals a total lack of it. Dickens … used all the clichés of compassion in order to disguise the fact that he is more interested in his own compassion than in the poor little excuse for it. If he felt what he claims to feel, he would find it hard to write; the words would come from him tarnished with the pain that prompted them. ... In short, he doesn’t care. The heart of stone is there on the page.”

For an example of kitsch closer to home, consider the May 2021 exhibit of children’s shoes on the steps of Vancouver’s art gallery, a project conceived as a metaphor for the then-alleged “mass grave” of 215 residential school children in Kamloops. The inspiration for the display came from Holocaust museum displays, where the little shoes are not contemporary Crocs and sneakers on loan from living children, with no connection to any specific children, but the scuffed and worn shoes that encased the feet of actual child victims of the Holocaust. Not only was the Vancouver project lacking in originality or imagination, the appropriation of the shoes image to suggest—purposefully—a similar genocide (for which there is so far not a shred of evidence) cheapens and demeans the “first tears” of those who encounter the shoes at Holocaust memorials.
Kitsch can be the virtue-signalling politician’s (short-term) friend. Those who reach for it understand “tableau vivant” as a form of action. Justin Trudeau’s family’s dress-up tour of India was full-blown kitsch, so it was safe for all Canadians to laugh at. Less so the photo of Trudeau clutching a teddy bear and kneeling, head bowed, as if holding deep emotion in check, at an anonymous, unexceptional grave site in a residential-school cemetery. That too was kitsch (general rule: all teddy-bear accompanied gestures are kitsch), but laughter involving sacred victims, as with the little shoes, can be dangerous.
Still, both meet Scruton’s simple guide for recognizing kitsch: A visceral “yuk” response, he says, is called forth from the words or images. “If you think it might be [kitsch],” he asserts, “then it is.”