Part 1: What is Cringe?
We’ve all felt it.
We’ve all felt that horrible feeling. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that makes you grimace like you’ve just been socked in the chest. The one that makes your chest crumple like a paper bag. The one that makes you want to tear your eyes out almost as much as you want to kill yourself.
I’m talking, of course, about cringe. We feel many things throughout the course of our lives, but cringe is among the most impactful of these feelings. It is also particularly powerful today, as “cringe culture” — the practice of reacting to people being cringey and making fun of them— is arguably more widespread than it ever has been. People have been made fun of for being weird forever, of course, but today this process has the weight of the entire internet behind it. Functioning as amplifiers, platforms like YouTube and Instagram have made cringe into a commodity: something that we consume for pleasure.
What is it about pointing and laughing that we love so much? Yes, we hate people who are cringe; but why do we so love to hate them? What is it about them that attracts us, that as a digital culture we can’t get enough of?
There are two basic types of cringe. Let’s explore:
- The first type of cringe is self-cringe. In other words: embarrassment. Self-cringe is the feeling of realizing that you have just made a fool of yourself. It is that horrible sensation you get in the pit of your stomach when you become aware of how silly you look. On an AskReddit thread entitled “What things REALLY make you cringe?” someone shares a story that exemplifies this well: “This happened about two years ago. I ordered some Pizza Hut online and when it was delivered, the lady handed me the pizza boxes. I said thanks and she told me my shirt was inside out. I said oh, and then she hands me the receipt to sign and leave a tip, and I spend 30 seconds trying to get the pen to work. She looks at the pen and says ‘you have to click the pen.’ I said oh, and then she reaches to get the receipt and tells me the pizza smells good. Then I said ‘you too’ and then I closed the door and killed myself.” As is evident from every one of its excruciating details, this story is a quintessential example of self-cringe.
- The second type of cringe is the cringe we feel when it is others who are getting embarrassed, rather than ourselves. While self-cringe is almost always a negative feeling, the cringe that we feel when we see others making fools of themselves can be either positive or negative — or, as is more commonly the case, a complex mixture of both. Sometimes the secondhand embarrassment of watching someone shout “Chrissy wake up!” at the top of their lungs makes us sympathetic toward the person who shouted it: we can put ourselves in their shoes, and therefore feel just as horrible as they should be feeling. Sometimes, however, we can extract great joy from seeing someone act this cringe. We see the freak, the outcast, the circus clown, and we can’t help but be moved by the jest of his ways.
In this post, I will discuss both types of cringe. It is useful to make a distinction between them, however, so that we can be clear about just exactly what we’re talking about.
Part 2: The Use and Abuse of Cringe
One of the best examples of the way that cringe functions online is Nicholas Perry, a man better known by his online pseudonym, Nikocado Avocado. If you don’t know who Nikocado is, I encourage you to check him out before reading the rest of this post. In short, he is an overweight man who post YouTube videos of himself gorging himself on food and screaming about immature things, often busting into tears and wails over a spilled french fry.
The reason that Nikocado is such a great example of the way cringe functions online is that he is symbolic for his viewers. He gorges himself on food, to the point where what he is doing is considered by some of his viewers to be self-harm. His viewers, however, are often obsessed with him. They gorge themselves on his content, and I would argue that, like Nikocado, they do this to the point of self-harm. (The idea of content consumption as a form of self-harm may seem oblique at first, but it is really just an abstract extension of the idea that self-harm can go beyond physical lacerations.) They are entranced by him because he is cringe, and because the consumption of cringe scratches many of our psychological itches as human beings. And they are also entranced by him because his is a symbol of them, though they do not consciously recognize this. Man creates stories because he yearns to see himself within these stories. Man consumes cringe because he unconsciously recognizes himself in the object of his ridicule.
By making fun of someone cringe, we separate ourselves from them. We say to ourselves: “Wow, this person is so pathetic! I could never be like them!” Yet if we didn’t recognize ourselves in this person, they wouldn’t have such a pull on us. Say a man cosplays anime characters, then stops out of fear that it is cringe. If this man later watches “cosplay cringe” compilations on YouTube, he has not really escaped from his predicament. Rather, he has simply psychologized it. His role as cosplayer has become, as Nietzsche might say, “spiritualized”: it has become a matter concerning fundamental identity formation (through the exclusion of various parts of himself from his conscious identity), rather than simply something he does. As Nietzsche writes:
All instincts which are not discharged outwardly turn inwards. This is what I call the internalization of man. With it there now evolves in man what will later be called his soul. The whole inner world, originally stretched thinly as though between two layers of skin, was expanded and extended, and gained depth breadth and height in proportion to the degree that the external discharge of man’s instinct was obstructed by… terrible bulwarks.… Our primary instance of this kind of bulwark had the result that all those instincts of the wild free roving man were turned backwards against man himself: animosity, cruelty; the pleasure of pursuing, raiding, changing, and destroying. All this was pitted against the person who had such instincts. That is the origin of bad conscience. Lacking external enemies and obstacles, and forced into the oppressive narrowness and conformity of custom, man impatiently ripped himself apart, persecuted himself, gnawed at himself, gave himself no peace, and abused himself. This animal, who battered himself raw on the bars of his cage and who is supposed to be tamed man, full of emptiness and torn apart with homesickness for the desert, has had to create from within himself an adventure, a torture chamber, an unsafe and hazardous wilderness. This fool this prisoner consumed with longing and despair became the inventor of bad conscience.
Thus the former cosplayer’s strange desire to watch cosplay cringe compilations can be seen as an extension of Nietzsche’s concept of “bad conscience”; it can be seen as a way in which man batters himself raw on the bars of his cage.
It can also be understood through the lens of Jungian psychology. In the early twentieth century, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung split the human psyche into five parts: the ego, the persona, the shadow, the anima/animus, and the capital-S Self. According to Jung, the ego is the portion of yourself that is conscious, and the persona is the part of that conscious self that you choose to show to the world. The shadow is the part of you that you don’t know to the world, or even to yourself: it operates below consciousness. The anima/animus and the Self are cool too, but I won’t get into them in this post.
The way to interpret the situation discuss above from a Jungian perspective would be to say that the man’s role as cosplayer is initially part of his ego, as well as his persona. Due to the cringe nature of this role, however, it gradually fades from both of these portions of the psyche. Repressed psychic contents do not simply disappear, however, so this role eventually finds itself squarely within the realm of the shadow. It then rears its still-existent-head through the pleasure that the man takes in watching cosplay cringe compilations.
Fundamentally, cringe is a form of empathy. It is a way of feeling someone else’s pain, and then either a) defending against the pain with ridicule, or b) accepting the pain with the accompanying urges to suicide that intense cringe can produce. The “use” of cringe is as a tool for empathy: as a root to a deeper understanding of someone suffering, whether or not this suffering is deserved. The “abuse” of cringe is as a tool for self-flagellation and self-denial: as a way of making fun of someone in whom we see ourselves.
Part 3: “I am Cringe, but I am Free”
Human beings are the only animals that are self-conscious. While other animals may be sentient — they may have experiences and even emotions — none of them can reflect upon themselves in the way that human beings can. And none of them can scrutinize themselves in the way that a human being terrified of being cringe can.
While cringe culture on the internet has no doubt brought joy to many through their enjoyment of other people’s cringiness, it has also caused suffering. Not only are the people who are made fun of in cringe compilations often just expressing genuine interests in things that they enjoy, but they may later abandon these interests out of fear of being (or being seen as) cringe.
A certain amount of cringe-avoidance is good, and part of being a socially functional person. But too much cripples us. So if you truly love something, don’t worry about whether or not its cringey. If what you’re doing is morally wrong, then obviously you should stop, but if the only crime you’re guilty of is being a bit cringe, then by all means keep doing what you’re doing. Genuine interests are what make people genuinely happy, not social conformism.
Cosplay is cool. Being emo is cool. Being obsessed with Five Nights at Freddy’s is cool. And watching Nikocado Avocado is cool too, in its own fucked-up way. Whatever floats your boat, floats your boat. Who am I to tell you what’s ok and what isn’t? And, most importantly: Who is anybody else?