If you spend enough time reading all the junk that people write about relationships and manners, you will usually come to someone who teaches that it’s good to want to be ‘authentic’ all of the time. What this usually means is that one should be open and honest about all the thoughts and feelings that come to your head. It also means that a person should not hide different parts of their lives from others.
Part of Facebook’s mission statement, which it adheres to, is to make the world ‘more open and connected,’ to discourage through technology and design the keeping-away of separate, private selves which older internet applications used to encourage. America Online, Facebook’s direct predeccessor, used to discourage the use of real names in their signup process.
This variety of authenticity is really more like immodesty and incontinence. It makes it so that the public self is less of a work of craftsmanship, and more like a haphazard, improvisational explosion of color, like a Kandinsky painting.
This sort of rhetoric tends to be used by the carefully composed to enhance the credibility of their speech. What they do is speak very honestly about a particular, carefully-cultivated segment of their life experience.
It’s also a well-known gambit in sales and public speaking called the ‘damaging admission.’ Shortly after the introduction, the speaker recounts a short story in which they failed or were inadequate somehow. The typical one is “I was a broke loser, and one day, the electric company shut off the power… in January… and it was -10 degrees… and then my car broke down… and then my boss fired me.”
The gambit works better if the story is true. But it’s still a story, and stories tend to be shorn of context in the same way that a photo must be cropped.
The story then transitions into the method that the salesperson used to get themselves out of the difficulty, which is often conveniently for sale at the end of the talk. There’s nothing morally wrong with this gambit. Overly credulous people will tend to mistake how it works. The ‘damaging admission’ is not damaging at all to the speaker. It is only made in the context of a trust-building exercise with the audience, calculated to effect.
Emotional honesty and ‘intelligence’ tends to be praised, rather than personal composition. This occurs at the same time as manners in dress and speech have become more informal, both inside the home and outside of it. Rather than different members of the family being bound by roles and rules of etiquette, we instead have everyone being ‘honest’ and ‘authentic’ within the family, even when that routinely results in confused dramatic rancor rather than peace.
Composing your self for being useful and enjoyable for others is to be at least somewhat self-sacrificing. The left portrays this sort of calculated presentation as dishonest, repressed, and authoritarian, rather than what they consider to be spontaneous and free.
The benefit to self-composition is that other people absolutely love the effects. A beautiful woman who spends more than an hour a day preparing her face and hair makes it appear effortless, and people are happy to lie to themselves that she is so lovely in an effortless way, but everyone who sees her through the day benefits from her preparation and care. The people don’t care how many soaps, lotions, conditioners, and make-ups it took. They only see the final result, and are indifferent to all the inputs.
It should be the same way in private and public expressions of the self.
Self-control, discipline, manners, a careful management of emotion, and calculation are good things, not bad. Spontaneity is good when it serves a purpose — like kissing the girl without begging for permission, like in this award-winning ad from a French agency:
It’s not good when spontaneity becomes a sort of incontinence — when the person simply acts and acts and acts and speaks and speaks without thinking about what the effects are on other people. In reality, people hate what they call authenticity. It’s why what’s called reality television is, in fact, scripted by producers, usually performed by low-grade actors. People want the illusion of ‘authentic’ life, because the real thing is ugly and mockery-worthy.
People want to hear honest speech from people with authentically cultivated experience, but they despise the free-spontaneous person who is full of feelings and empty of knowledge or real thought.
Holden Caulfield, who has been forced upon the last couple generations of hapless Americans, is an avatar of this progressive attitude towards the personality. Holden is authentic, useless, and a burden on just about everyone around him. He hates ‘phonies,’ mainly for their cultivation and superiority. The hatred derives from envy of superiority. To be superior is to be ‘fake,’ to be verbally, morally, and physically incontinent is to be ‘real.’
The free-spontaneous ideal also has egalitarian pretenses. Artists and other creative people who are, in reality, enormously cultivated, tend to downplay craftsmanship, and instead try to portray themselves as ordinary and identifiable. This is key to mass-culture — people have to see the figures raised high as almost interchangeable with themselves. They want to believe that they themselves could be just like the model or actor, that nothing really separates them, that their bodies and souls are interchangeable through the powers of the glowing screen.
The screen has no such powers: you are you and the actor is the actor. You can be moved, internally, perhaps transformed in outlook, but one can’t become the other from the act of watching.
You see this tendency especially with mediated young people whose lives revolve around the television set and the lines spoken by their favorite actors and actresses. They mimic the vocal tones and moral intuitions of the stories which move them, emotionally, and they tell themselves that this is to be a real person. They’re cultivated, but cultivated by other people, most of whom live in New York and Los Angeles, by farmers of minds rather than of crops.
That’s the fantasy, that to see something the person can come to possess that thing in some way. Spectator and voyeur culture is a palliative, as people without self-control or composition hope to gain those qualities through osmosis. It doesn’t work that way. It can only come from acts of will, reason, and self-construction.