“Cringe” is truly one of the most interesting cultural and linguistic phenomena specific to our generation. Cringe, as an emotion, is just an intense second-hand embarrassment, something that might make you want to “shrivel up on yourself” (the verb’s original meaning). But we moved beyond that meaning a long time ago. Cringe is now primarily used as a descriptive word; when we exclaim “That’s so cringe!” we’re not indicating that something is making us cringe. In fact, most of us, when we type that sentence, aren’t even feeling remotely embarrassed. Instead, cringe has become a signifier for a category of actions. What that category of actions constitutes is incredibly interesting due to its infinite variety, but for the most part, we use it in a derogatory manner. We use it to mock and laugh at the person who is doing something we know better than to do. This use is not particularly empathetic and we should dive deeper than merely accept cringe to mean something that makes us, the viewer, feel embarrassed.
There are two other meanings that the phrase can then have. One, a normative claim, implying that the doer should feel embarrassed about their actions. Or two, that the actions are embarrassing simpliciter. In the second case, the embarrassment caused doesn’t need to fall on a particular person but can fall on a collective as a whole. In this case, the actions are considered “shameful,” where shameful doesn’t mean “shame-causing,” but implies actions the collective disapproves of.
In these two senses of this word, I think cringe culture has its most pernicious effects. When cringeness enters the social and political sphere, coupled with a constantly lowering threshold of what is considered cringe, it becomes a tool for social self-segregation and political gatekeeping.
In the social sphere, it becomes something synonymous with “uncool.” Cool, as an aesthetic term, has incredible nuance, and could be dissected endlessly, but the simplest and most accepted meaning of how we use it currently is “a trait or an action that is socially accepted, admired and considered desirable.” And in that sense, “cool” is one of the most important criteria for social self-segregation. You like people that you consider cool, you want to hang out with them, and you want them to be your friends. And you do not like people you consider cringe.
Arguably, social self-segregation isn’t harmful in and of itself. No one should be forced to be friends with people they do not want to be friends with; friendship with a specific person isn’t a fundamental right. But self-segregation becomes problematic when it impedes important social intercourse and reinforces social inequality.
Interacting with people who are different to us is not just important for a better society but also for personal growth. It opens avenues for unexpected friendships and new experiences. Universities are supposed to be places where you step out of your own social sphere for the first time and interact with people who are socially and culturally distinct from you. It is meant to be a place where you learn how to navigate differing views while still treating people with respect. You should be learning how to grapple with the fact that people actually lead very different lives than what you assumed was the bog-standard when you were in school, where everyone was from the same social, economic and geographical background. Self-segregation prevents that.
Yes, social self-segregation has always been happening, but cringe culture makes it worse by cloaking the more insidious reasons behind those preferences in “silly, goofy” wrapping, and by making people give disproportionate importance to trivial things when socialising. Should I really be having such a negative response to someone just because they made an unfunny joke? Maybe if cringe culture had been less popular, one cringey incident would have taken up less real estate in my head and I would have been more inclined to let it slide.
Coming back to the purported “insidious reasons,” what we consider cringe or cool is not objective. Attributions of social value cannot be divorced from social inequality. We fundamentally admire what we consider better, and what we consider better is almost always what the socially superior class, race, and gender are partaking in. People who didn’t go to rich private schools will not be aware of the social intricacies of that class and will undoubtedly commit faux-pas that are considered cringe.
This is doubly bad in the political sphere because the immediate social rejection faced by people committing cringe-inducing acts makes the very people who have the highest stakes less likely to engage in those spheres. It is most important for people from marginalised backgrounds to be present, heard, and prioritised in political, especially student political spaces, but the social stigma accompanying the different ways in which these students talk, engage, convey their ideas and express themselves disincentivises them from ever asserting themselves in these spaces.
Political awareness, like all else, is a result of your privilege and access to resources. An education in an expensive private school with access to well-trained teachers and high-quality curricula undoubtedly makes you better equipped to engage with political discourse. But when that capability makes you talk over the very people you claim to be fighting for, something has gone wrong. Even if their views may be contradictory to their own emancipation, as someone who has had privileged access to epistemic resources, the obligation falls on you to engage with them even at the cost of your own comfort. There are people who have their hearts in the right place but haven’t had the resources to develop their political ideologies and are still learning. They might have come from a background that never allowed them the time and space to care about non-immediate issues. They shouldn’t feel hesitant to voice their opinions in political spaces when their engagement is in good faith, nor should they be lumped in the same category as people who had the opportunity to learn and chose not to. A university is supposed to be a safe space for them to come across and engage with new ideas to grow and expand their worldview. Political engagement (of all things) shouldn’t feel more difficult by virtue of being from a disadvantaged social position.
I do want to conclude by saying I’m not entirely pessimistic about cringe culture. I do not think that cringe culture is an incomprehensible evil that causes grievous harm to people. Cringe culture can be used in progressive ways, especially to shape public perception of what they should be supporting; cringe culture, when used to hold bigoted people in positions of power accountable, is very good. Nevertheless, we need to be a lot more critical of cringe culture than we currently are. We need to better understand cringe culture in all its nuances and use it with careful consideration.