Sentimentality and cynicism

Recently I encountered this photo on Facebook with the caption “Make love not war”. It started a debate and was eventually deleted, but I gleaned something from it before it passed.

Make love not war

The first response was a comment that the photo is deceptive because the couple is not kissing. The woman was injured and was assisted by her boyfriend after a riot following a hockey game in Vancouver (they take hockey really, really seriously, like Detroit).

The next response was “who cares? It’s the sentiment that counts!”

Another man said “Every woman thinks this is romantic”.

Unfortunately I’m a a bit of a gadfly. I responded that romanticism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and posted a short screed on sentimentality. I noted that the wikipedia entry on sentimentality even cites “make love not war” as an example of romantic sentimentality from the 60s.

Someone else posted that it is OK to be deceptive with photos like this unless it is a corporation or government doing it. I had a realization at that point. Sentimentality pressed in service of the state is called propaganda, while sentimentality pressed in service of profits is called advertising.

Sentimentality is a cheap appeal to canned emotions lacking depth to the exclusion of the intellect for the purposes of making people feel good about some work of art.

Propaganda uses that same method for the purpose of making people feel bad about their enemies.

Advertising uses that same method for the purpose of making people feel bad about themselves until they buy the advertised good or service.

The chief reason that sentimentality in art is dangerous is that it increases our susceptibility to propaganda and advertising. It also makes for poor art.

Earlier that day before this “make love not war” discussion, I’d been watching the speech by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator:

I took a second look at it after thinking about the relationship between sentimentality, propaganda and advertising. This bit in particular stood out:

We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in:
machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.
Our knowledge has made us cynical,
our cleverness hard and unkind.
We think too much and feel too little:
More than machinery we need humanity;
More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.
Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

I note carefully his assertion that we often think too much and feel too little. Sentimentality and cynicism are both pitfalls, and it would be easy to recoil from one pole only to wind up at the other.