Become too authentic and you simply rule out self-improvementby Daniel Callcut / June 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
If the fashionable idea of the 1980s was upward mobility, then the buzzword of this decade is authenticity. This ruling ideal of being true to yourself and “keeping it real” is rarely criticised. But what if the message deters individual transformation and encourages everyone to stay in their place? Is the ethic of authenticity in some ways more conservative than the Thatcherite yuppie message it replaced? I think it’s time to consider how authenticity stands in the way of progress and aspiration.
We’ll begin with moral philosophy, touch on my journey from working-class kid to university academic, and consider everything from Pride to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. We’ll even consider why authenticity can lead to problems getting up in the morning. Here we go.
Imagine your partner asks “can you drive to Peterborough to pick up my passport?” and you reply, as positively as you can, “I’d be happy to do that.” You’re not really happy about it: you want to help, but you’d much rather come straight home. You could say that in this moment you are being inauthentic. In fact, we can imagine your partner calling you out on it: don’t say you are happy to if you are not. Perhaps an argument ensues.
The philosopher Aristotle thought that people ideally did the right thing with pleasure. But he also thought it was a good thing that people aspired to act ethically even when they don’t feel like it. When you say to your partner that you are happy to help you are trying to act as if this were the case. Aristotle thought that this is how the ideal state of virtue is achieved: you keep trying to do the right thing in the right spirit and eventually you get there. Some people express the philosopher’s ideas in a slogan, “fake it till you make it.” Aspiration involves trying to be something you are not until you eventually get there.
Here is the danger with authenticity: it has a tendency to make aspiration look fake. You are trying to be something you are not. But aspiring to be a better person—or better at anything—often involves trying to be something you are (currently) not. Hence the problem. Authenticity is often so bluntly insisted upon that all efforts at change or self-improvement appear phoney.
This has deeply conservative social effects. If aspiration involves a period of pretence, then authenticity encourages people to stay as they are and not get ideas above their station. Authenticity, to allude to a less well known verse of the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” encourages the rich man to stay in his castle and the poor man to stay at his gate.
I grew up playing on a council estate and ended up becoming a philosophy professor. It’s unlikely that you will go through psychological and social changes like this without periods of conscious intention to change who you are. You are almost bound to go through significant phases of imposter syndrome. But what’s an imposter if not a fake and what is a fake if not someone lacking in authenticity? I could not have become an academic if I had thought only of being true to myself and not of making something of myself.
Perhaps I should begrudgingly accept, as one of my friends has it, that I am one of Thatcher’s children. That I owe my career to that “upward mobility” I mentioned earlier. So should we simply abandon authenticity and return to the yuppie spirit of the 1980s? That would be no better. The 1980s ideal tended to focus on class aspiration rather than intellectual transformation. It was radical in its individualism but deeply conservative insofar as it encouraged working-class kids to aspire to become Sloane rangers. And even its radical individualism was conservative in the way that studies of social mobility have convincingly pointed out: a few people moving up and a few people moving down doesn’t change the unequal structure of society.
“As Foucault put it, ‘the main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning’”
If the upwardly mobile ideal involved changing to fit in, then the ideal of authenticity celebrates being who you are. To be proud of who you are when much of the world wrongly disapproves is to be brilliantly authentic. New York University law professor Kenji Yoshino has rightly made the case that the workplace still tends unjustifiably to force people into covering up aspects of their identity—when it requires people to hide their tattoos, remove their cornrows, or take off their yarmulkes.
There’s still a lot of work to be done in the name of authenticity and social freedom. Moreover, the insistence on authenticity has been a powerful force in exposing bogus brands and phoney politicians. There is, on top of that, a hunger for authenticity in a world of corporate speech that is entirely drained of spontaneity. When authenticity misunderstands aspiration, however, it contributes to a demoralising environment in which all efforts at ethical behaviour are seen as suspect.
If moral aspiration is always construed as fake, and therefore to be distrusted, then it can come to seem that only jerks can be trusted. Trump, so many of his supporters say, might be an arsehole but at least you know where you stand with him. He is who he is. Boris Johnson might be an irresponsible opportunist but at least he’s authentic. This is an example of where the ideal of authenticity is not just conservative but regressive. It encourages people to accept and even revel in their worse qualities rather than make efforts to change them.
The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is associated with a famous motto (one that he took from the ancient Greek poet Pindar): “Become who you are.” The motto elegantly captures what has become one of the key ideals of our time: it’s so popular that it’s the stuff of fridge magnets. It’s a beautifully succinct invitation to live in a way that expresses one’s true character. And that can be a great thing. But what needs to be remembered is that for some people to be authentic is to be a shit. Gauguin followed his deepest impulses and was a terrible human being.
Then there is the issue that self-improvement is hard work. In reality, most people do not have much “me time.” Work, for almost everyone, takes up most of our energy. Parenting, on top of that, typically runs people ragged. If you come back from your job exhausted, then you might find yourself unwilling to make an effort once you are home. The adverts on TV are unlikely to encourage delayed gratification. Perhaps, rather than go for a walk, you order a pizza and check Facebook. It’s easy to become less interested in how to improve yourself and the wider world and more concerned about the thread count of your sheets.
It doesn’t help to heap blame on already over-burdened shoulders. We need to think about ways to liberate people from overwork. But people also need liberation from misguided ideas about always being themselves.
If efforts to change involve determination and self-overcoming, then an attitude of being yourself can reinforce the tendency to stay in the comfort zone of your current desires. If you don’t really feel like dressing up, put your jogging bottoms on; if you can’t be bothered to put jogging bottoms on, just stay in your pyjamas; if you don’t feel like getting out of bed, just lay there. Being true to yourself can, in some cases, contribute to a downward spiral.
The irony is that authenticity, a defining goal of the personal growth industry, can end up artificially limiting a person’s development. If you are just true to the self as it is, then you cut yourself off from all that you could be. It is worth giving some thought to the words of the French philosopher Michel Foucault: “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.”