“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”
- Richard Feynman
Fakery & The Suspension of Disbelief
ONLY IN AMERICA, or so I hear, do people cheer and shout during cinema screenings. Upon purchasing their tickets, they have all agreed to buy into this collective experience. They will, more explicitly than any other culture, be sure to play their individual part in the performance. In many ways, this can be seen as an example of ‘kayfabe’, a word which has spiraled down to us into English from the marginalised cultures of society.
‘Kayfabe’ is an old word with it's earliest roots tracking back to “ake-fay”, a Pig-Latin language variant meaning ‘fake’ or ‘be fake’. Kayfabe refers to illusions of reality that people agree to partake in as reality, despite being aware that the thing in question is in fact an illusion.
Diagnosing true examples of kayfabe is a fuzzy business. Strangely enough, the term kayfabe today is almost exclusively associated with American professional wrestling. Here, the phenomenon plays out in the relationship between America's World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and it’s fans. According to the E-Wrestling Encyclopedia, “pro wrestling can trace some of its stylistic origins back to carnivals, where the term "kayfabe" is thought to have originated as carny slang (adopted from the Pig-Latin) for ‘protecting the secrets of the business.’”
In the kayfabe world of WWE, the wrestlers-come-actors, the raving ring-side crowd, and the spectators watching on TV, all agree to enjoy the performance as if the hurt inflicted were fully legit. Everyone knows the performance is scripted and staged, but for the duration of the performance, the collective disbelief is deliberately suspended. After all, to better enjoy your fight night, you will want to believe that the chokeslam by Hulk Hogan on The Undertaker was just as real as it looked.
A Healthy Dose of Kayfabe
Once upon a time, the WWE chose to experiment with breaking kayfabe. This would be the movie equivalent of an actor breaking character on screen. The WWE decided to reveal to their TV spectators more behind-the-scenes footage on fight night. They showed the wrestlers in cordial conversation with their arch-enemies of the ring. They showed them pre-fight, discussing their scripted moves and the opponent’s optimum reaction. The WWE even revealed to the viewers the 'revelation' of the wrestlers getting paid by WWE founder Vince McMahon.
What happened when this previously confidential information was revealed? The fans voted with their feet: viewing figures plummeted and subscription rates nosedived. WWE profits took a real-life sucker-punch. Robbed of their ability to suspend belief, the spell of the ring-side drama was broken for the fans. They lost interest. Later, realising his sacrilege, and the importance of maintaining a healthy dose of Kayfabe, McMahon reverted to his former (less revealing) format. Lo and behold, viewing figures and profits bounced back.
“Some of them want to abuse you.
Some of them want to be abused”
- from ‘Sweet Dreams’, by ‘The Eurythmics’ -
What Happens in Trumpistan...
Speaking of Kayfabe and the voluntary submission to delusion by millions of fans, Donald Trump has been a friend of McMahon since the 1980’s. The Donald has made several televised appearances on WWE, and in 2013, was inducted into the ‘WWE Hall of Fame’. In the event that he hadn’t perfected the make-believe tricks of the Kayfabe trade before his foray into WWE, his exposure to that world would surely have helped him blur the lines between reality and delusion.
WWE chairman Vince McMahon prepares to have his head shaved by Donald Trump and Bobby Lashley while being held down by ''Stone Cold'' Steve Austin after losing a bet in 'The Battle of the Billionaires' at the 2007 World Wrestling Entertainment's Wrestlemania at Ford Field on April 1, 2007 in Detroit, Michigan.
When people’s beliefs, ways of life, or at least their perception of reality, is threatened, they will often go to any length to protect that perception. Take the itinerants, travelers and tinker people of Central Europe. These fringe groups developed a whole language called Rotwelsch over the centuries to help them communicate secretly among themselves, and avoid being understood by police and even regular citizens.
Or take another fringe bunch if ever there was one - “carnies”; carnival folk. This group, who, as well as having “very small hands” according to Austin Powers, are, like the WWE, very much in the business of entertaining. In an effort to preserve their tricks of the trade and to conceal their ways from us normies, the carnies long ago adopted their own variation of pig-latin. Whenever an authority figure approached, or whenever ‘normal life’ threatened to encroach on carnie life, the carnies would whisper a word in each other’s ear: “Kayfabe”, they forewarned; their very own word for ‘be fake’.
"He’s not just some guy Marge; he’s a carnie...and part of a noble tradition. Carnies built this country. The carnival part of it anyway. And though they may be rat-like in appearance, they are truly kings among men”. - Homer Simpson
Beware! Our Tendency to Kayfabe
While the etymological roots of the word kayfabe may be only a few centuries old, the desire to delude and be deluded has been around since ignorance itself. As long as there are humans, there will be an inherent tendency to be led somewhere without having to think too much for ourselves. And this has always been a key ingredient in true kayfabe, where, by definition, the delusions bought into are mutually intended.
Carnies wouldn't admit to it, but we suspect many of their carnival games (e.g. ‘ring toss’, ‘the basketball shoot’, ‘spin the wheel’) are somehow rigged. Still, when we are immersed in the fanfare of the funfair, we submit to the kayfabe. In ‘the right dose’, the blissful ignorance of kayfabe provides a functional and welcome distraction. So enjoy the season of the funfair; take a pot-shot at the carnie’s ring toss; temporarily give your reason up to the kayfabe world of WWE.
But the dose makes the poison, and it is truly easy to over-dose and get lost in a world of kayfabe. There are endless ways to do this, with every technological advance making each pathway more seductive than the last. But the forfeit of total submission to the external thing is an insidious undoing of your internal faculties: your powers of attention, mind-body awareness, discriminatory thought, etc. Like excess sugar in your blood initially damaging the tiniest, most peripheral nerves, you don’t realise there’s a problem. Later, walking along as normal, you step on something sharp and penetrating, but by then you have lost the sense of feeling in your foot. You walk on unawares.
A much darker side of kayfabe plays out when 'big-time' orchestrators of the game become drunk on the deluding power of kayfabe. Whether the game to capture our hearts and minds is fought in virtual reality (increasingly immersive technologies; companies acquiring our ‘data’), or whether the kayfabe orchestrator wields his power directly through ‘legit organisations’, we play their game at our peril.
We have heard of the soul-robbing forfeit in making deals with the devil. For those that have been had, the devil never revealed himself as goateed or hooved; he was - very deliberately - never obvious in any way. Only in hindsight might a soulless victim realise how the devil was in the detail.
So if you do catch yourself signing up to a contract with kayfabe, buyer beware. Be aware that you may very well be the product; leased for an unspecified period. You may well be the consumed. If there is a release clause in the contract, it will be in the smallest print, already fading, barely legible.