Cringe culture comes at the cost of our humanity

There’s nothing like the internet to bring out the worst in people.
I’m pretty oblivious when it comes to online trends, seeing as how I generally try to avoid social media at all costs, but I’m not a saint. I’ve seen the YouTube comment sections; I’ve seen the Reddit posts. Everywhere, all I can see is the same phrase, over and over again like a mantra, spreading like a plague: “that is so cringe.”
From what I can gather, the definition of “cringe” is similar to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio: you can’t quite explain it, but you know it when you see it. Some common examples of online “cringe” include overenthusiasm, underenthusiasm, anger, membership of a fandom outside of the approved list, being too talkative, being too shy, dancing weird, dancing well, posting too much, posting too little and committing the cardinal sin of displaying a wider emotional range than an anthropomorphic zucchini while in public.
The cool-to-cringe pipeline seems more like a Slip ‘n Slide — something can go from publicly adored to the pits of fashion in a nanosecond. Let’s do a case study. Take a look at Hamilton, or more specifically, its creator. Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer and star, went from internet darling to Twitter pariah within a span of two years. I noticed the shift, disengaged though I may be. After a grace period, the internet began to view Miranda’s earnest enthusiasm for his work and, well, life in general, to be embarrassing. His boundless energy became a target rather than a trait to be admired. (For the record, some of Miranda’s cringe offenses include his motivational good morning and good night Twitter poems, his outspoken love of his work, his public support of his friends, starring in his own musical and acting like a Broadway fanboy around personal heroes.)
I struggle to understand this leap to condemnation. There are plenty of things which one could constructively critique about “Hamilton” or Miranda — the treatment of slavery in the musical and some of Miranda’s personal politics, for instance. It’s important to voice reasonable, well-thought-out dissent; that’s how important conversations and collective growth happen. Unfortunately, the internet is quite possibly the worst venue imaginable for important conversations and collective growth, and we consequently seem to have collectively lost our ability to rationally deal with anything through a computer screen.
Anonymity is the lifeblood of the internet. The reason that cringe culture (or, let’s call it what it is: weird group bullying) has become so prevalent is because it’s a faceless form of projecting your own insecurities or anxieties onto other people. People think the books they read in middle school are “cringe” because they have matured past the target audience age. They think overly happy or earnest people are “cringe” because they are too afraid to confront strong feelings or publicly emote. They think that caring too much is “cringe” because we live in an era that preaches apathetic cynicism alongside performative involvement, an era in which displaying support or solidarity often goes no further than Instagram stories.
And that’s what worries me so much about cringe culture — it’s not mindless internet mockery. It’s a mirror that shows us just how ill-equipped we are in the internet age to reckon with ourselves as humans rather than machines.
The most disturbing part of the modern social internet is the extent to which it seeps into the real world. Politicians rave about cancel culture. Brands advertise with memes. It’s no wonder we’ve brainwashed ourselves into thinking that the internet and real life are the same place, and what’s more, that we can act the same way in both venues. I very rarely see “cringe” online because I’ve almost completely disengaged from the social internet. Yet, I know about it. How can this be?
Easy: it’s not just a Twitter exclusive anymore.
Somewhere along the line, we gave ourselves permission to act like this all the time — not just behind a Twitter handle or YouTube account. I’ve seen people interrupt someone who is talking about their interests to inform them that this topic (and, as it is implied, their behavior) is “cringe.” Even worse, I’ve seen people self-censor in the fear of being deemed “cringe,” cutting themselves off from a discussion for fear of others finding their ideas or interests embarrassing. Whether we want to or not, we are all subscribing to cringe culture in an alarming way.
This is how we become a one-thought society, a herd. It’s also how we finally throw off the yoke of emotion — joy, sadness, love, all of the things that make us human — and become automatons. It all seems terribly dangerous to me. Why should we cower from earnestness? Why should we run from freely expressing our thoughts and opinions and sharing them with others? Is this not the sole basis of human connection? Ironically, it seems that the more we rely on the social internet, the more distant we become.
On a recent episode of the podcast “Dear Hank and John,” Hank Green, longtime online personality, briefly examined cringe culture after a young listener wrote in asking how they can stop being called a “try-hard” in school. Here was his reply: “I think that ‘try-hard’ means, ‘I would be embarrassed to try that hard; it is cringey to care that much.’ That is about them, not you. Don’t kill the part of you that is cringey, kill the part of you that cringes.”
I, for one, think that’s pretty good advice. The world is a tough enough place as it is. Cringe culture, however entertaining it may be to a certain breed of internet-dweller, only compounds this harshness, villainizing individuality and promoting a cruel civilization. I am certain that this is not who we are, but my certainty is not what matters. It is not until we can embrace our perceived flaws as humans — passion, awe, and even bad dancing — that we can escape this trap.