Authenticity is a Con

Is authenticity just a way to make a fast buck?

Put authenticity’ into YouTube and an amazing world scrolls down forever. Many of these talking heads are, of course, American; most are busking for their own tiny store-front churches and want to tell you how to be a better person if you sign up. The majority of them are offering all-purpose help to get your mind–body–spirit alignment nicely set up through authenticity. Others are saying, if you’re authentic – and here’s how – you can be a better leader, as in CEO, and make masses more money. And other, more gym-rat types, are telling men how to be authentic and charm women into bed: ‘Show her a little of your vulnerability.’ And then there’s a fascinating sub-set for high-spending micro-connoisseurs, explaining how to spot fakes of everything from mid-century modern designer furniture to Prada bags and socially significant sunglasses.

I have to say some of these people look or sound a teensy bit inauthentic to me. A lot of the women are heavily cosmeticised and the men have very contrived dental configurations and disingenuous little tropes, bits of business with all that ‘hey guys’ stuff. There are open-neck shirts, stubble and tees everywhere, or the occasional tie pulled down to show a relaxed, unscripted moment. But the most inauthentic part is their message. One – – is offering an on-the-spot authenticity formula for strengthening your personal whatever. There’s a routine. This guy, more designer stubble, white tee under dark shirt – does warm-up exercises:

Just feel the energy coming into your hands – this is
who I am right now. You’re planning your cosmic order
… this is who I am. Now I hold out the left hand – the
receiving hand. This is our authentic selves, this is who
we are. Feel this beautiful energy.

He goes on like that for twenty-four minutes! What’s the deal here?

What all the therapists – the change-your-life merchants and the motivators – say is that you need to get in touch with your true self; when you do, absolutely everything will click into place, but if you don’t, all your relationships and initiatives will founder and you’ll hate yourself on a daily basis. The world, they all say, has conspired to divorce us from our authentic selves. ‘Society’ and family expectations, institutions and media have set impossible standards and pieties that we’re all trying like mad to mimic (there’s lots of ‘we’; these people are terribly inclusive).

‘Only connect to yourself’ is the message. Or only re-connect. Set your wiring straight. And do those little exercises. Say how you feel – how you really, really feel – and people will relate to you. You’ll be so resonant. As they’re talking, these insanely confident coaches and spirit guides, gushing enough snake-oil to fill a tanker, and going on for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, I’m shouting at the screen – ‘just tell me your business model!’

One thing almost all these authenticity ramblers share is the astonishing level of generality in which they deal. They’ll be standing up there with their props – typically a flip-chart with a lot of important-looking word clusters, a vase of luridly naff flowers, a Buddha head or an Indian fretwork screen – without saying anything with any real world traction. No physiological, demographic, economic or political references allowed; lots of mentions of ‘today’s society’, but nothing sociological. It’s completely, head-bangingly content free. (There’s a Southern trans woman interviewed in one filmette, who’s achieved her authenticity through changing sex, but this is a glorious exception.)

To an English middle-class eye it looks completely idiotic. (It’d look pretty idiotic to an English working- class eye too.) But there’s a logic to it; it’s about knowing your audience. This kind of low-end life coaching simply can’t afford to be too focused, so all that generality – that ‘hi folks’ implied commonality – looks like the safest approach. Don’t mystify or exclude, just keep to the human condition. And, of course, there’s a religious sub-text to all this. In the most religious country in the Western world, Americans can rely on audiences of other ordinary Americans feeling the faith in what they say – whether its ultimately about hitting marketing targets, getting laid or healing the hurt. This is why, quite irrespective of the audience concerns, the patter across an enormous range of these funny relationship entrepreneurs and microcelebrities seems practically the same – word for word. Yet they always present it as an exclusive, a revelation.


Taken from Authenticity is a Con by Peter York (Biteback Publishing, 2014, £10)

Image credit: Lawrence OP

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