A terrifically astute article by Stephanie Rosenbloom appeared in this past weekend’s NY Times on the subject of Authenticity. Specifically, how “authentic” has become the buzz word de jour in US politics and newsmedia, and how its meaning has changed as a result.
Who doesn’t want to be thought of as authentic, after all? It’s a wonderful quality. We could all use a little less spin, with both ourselves and others, and not just because of how it opens up the ability to love/be loved. Yet as the article wisely points out, authenticity is not really something that can be cultivated. At least not directly. Like, say, humility, the moment you “try” to be authentic, you cease to be. It is simply not an active attribute; it’s more of a fruit, or by-product, of a deeper set of emotional conditions, and rarely a matter of degrees. As Elaine is told in that classic episode of Seinfeld, “You can’t have ‘a little grace’. You either have it… Or you don’t.”
So everyone wants to be authentic, or, more precisely, be thought of as authentic – churches are often the worst offenders, btw – so much so that the word has begun to work against itself. Sound familiar? The command to “be authentic” is simply the latest iteration of what we call the Law – make no mistake, whatever shifting target we’re trying to hit with our Facebook profile or campaign platform (or blog post!) is Law – and like any Law, it produces its opposite. Perhaps we should not be surprised that those who speak most loudly about authenticity are the least authentic:
Legions of marketers and social networking coaches are preaching that to succeed online — on Twitter, Facebook, Match.com — we must all “be authentic!” A proposed panel at next year’s South by Southwest interactive conference promises to teach attendees “how to be authentic and human without embarrassing yourself.” On dating sites like OkCupid, the word pops up with remarkable frequency in people’s self-descriptions; on eHarmony.com, users can browse dating tips where they are advised that in a healthy relationship, “both individuals feel free to be authentic.”
Authenticity seems to be the value of the moment, rolling off the tongues of politicians, celebrities, Web gurus, college admissions advisers, reality television stars. In recent months it’s been cited by the likes of Katie Couric (“I think I love to be my authentic self,” she said on CBS); Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (“I believe in being as authentic as possible,” she told Glamour magazine); former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania (who on Fox described himself as “being authentic”), even Pope Benedict XVI (more on that in a moment).
The word has been bandied about for ages, be it by politicians or Oprah Winfrey, who popularized the notion of discovering your “authentic self” in the late 1990s after reading Sarah Ban Breathnach’s “Something More.” But “authentic” is enjoying renewed popularity in an age of online social networking and dating, in which people are cultivating digital versions of themselves. The theme is so pervasive that even one of the oldest institutions in the world has weighed in. In a June statement entitled “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age,” Pope Benedict XVI said that increasing involvement in online life “inevitably poses questions not only of how to act properly, but also about the authenticity of one’s own being.” He added that “there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”
Yet more intriguing than the proliferation of the word “authentic” is the self-conscious way in which it’s now being used.
“What you can’t do is be told by a social media guru to act authentic and still be authentic,” said Jeff Pooley, an associate professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. He said authenticity today is more accurately described as “calculated authenticity” — a k a stage management.
“The best way to sell yourself is to not appear to be selling yourself,” Professor Pooley said. Politicians do it. Celebrities do it. And you, reader, do it every time you tap out a status update on Twitter, Facebook, Google+.
Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. After all, scholars say people have always maintained multiple selves: there’s the version that you present to your family, the you that you are with your colleagues, the you that you are with members of your poker club. They are all, in some way, “you.” It’s what the sociologist Erving Goffman was referring to in the late 1950s when he likened all human interaction to theatrical performance.
Life online is no different. As one of Professor Baron’s students told her: Facebook is “me on my best day.”… The more people shill their authenticity, Professor Pooley said, “the more we want something real.” Or at least some acknowledgment of the artifice.
So if talking about one’s authenticity by definition involves “using” it (inauthentically), if positioning yourself as “authentic” automatically short-circuits the attempt, what is to be done? Well, as they say, God will not be mocked. There is such a thing as authentic authenticity: it flows from defeat and grows out of love. It’s found on the other side of all attempts to “be” anything other than what we are. It’s born in the giving-up, the acknowledgment of the artifice, as it were. It’s not engineerd, it’s given. We know it when we see it. And even if we don’t, one truly authentic person per couple thousand years is enough. At least for me.