Thursday, October 24, 2013


The Hegemony of Authenticity

Authenticity is the new hegemony these days. "We" desire authenticity in our leaders, and leaders are complimented (and often rewarded) for their "authenticity." Often, this so-called authenticity is celebrated in comparison to the less authentic presence of previous leadership or generations.
In one sense, it is Generation X that is to blame for the colonizing energy of the shift to authenticity. Prior to Generation X, irony was out, so in order to be real, you had to be fake, albeit in a non-ironic posture. If you were speaking in public, you needed that big smile, the sculpted hair, the overall presence of the public speaker. 

It was also expected that you would represent not yourself but your office. No one wanted Steve Jobs up there at the podium. They wanted--THE CEO.

Along comes Generation X, with their hyper-attention to "the real." Just keeping it real. Here enters irony. If you are presenting something that is glitzy, flashy, or hyped, it needs to be presented with an awareness of said "hype." Keeping it real, after all. It's okay to be fake if you draw attention to the fake you are being.

But Gen Xers didn't make authenticity a mantra. They just lived it. Gen Xers just wake up in the morning being authentic. It wasn't until the next generation, in their anti-mimicry of Gen X, that authenticity became a buzzword and a battle-cry.

This is the difficult to perceive but crucial shift from being authentic to expecting authenticity.

Job interview question: Who are you? 

Answer: Well, I think I'm authentic. When people meet me, they meet the real me, not somebody else. People like me for who I am.

Question: But what's the real you? 

Answer: The real me? Well, I just told you, I'm authentic.

Along comes digitally socially mediated everything, and the next generation after Gen X has to begin narrating themselves into existence in all kinds of contexts. You can't just be you in one place, you have to "present" yourself, your "you," in all kinds of places. So there's the real "you" on Facebook and the real "you" in a chat room and the real "you" on Pinterest. You can't just be authentic, you have to present as authentic.

I am so tired of being authentic

All this cultivation of authenticity becomes rather complicated and even psychologically enervating the more one carries on with it. Trying to always be "real" can be exhausting. What begins as a liberating process of letting yourself be yourself in all kinds of contexts suddenly becomes the new proliferation of personae, because you always have to keep your authentic self out there in front of everyone, and you aren't allowed to be fake some of the time.

This is a disaster of identity inherent in authenticity hegemony. No one is allowed to let their fake self shine through. You can't be fake on stage. You can't be fake at home. You aren't even allowed to be fake on Facebook. People want and demand the real you all of the time, and you expect the real you to show up wherever you really are.

The Authentic Leader

Let me give an example from everyday life, from the life of ministry. There is this pastor. He's young, he's hip, he knows clothes, he wears them well. He doesn't really mean to, it just comes naturally. The peers he meets are naturally attracted to his look. They join his community at least in part out of an attraction to how he presents himself (even though he does not intentionally "present" himself any particular way). 

What attracts at least some people to this community is the perceived authenticity of the leader. 

However, things get complicated. The leader is more interested in the community focusing on the community and the message of the community than on the leader himself. He wants it not to be about "him." But in striving desperately to get out of the way, to not be in the way as the authentic centering self, he puts himself even more in the way. By disappearing, he becomes even more visible.

Compare this to the other pastor, of the large church down the street, who very carefully cultivates an image. He also wants the message to be front and center, but he makes sure that he is dressed like a hipster, dresses in a way that looks authentic to the community he is seeking to reach, even though deep down he would rather wear a suit & tie to work (the classic suit and tie look, which can never quite be hipster). In his "inauthenticity" he may actually be more authentic than the inauthenticity of the authentic hipster, because he presents himself as who he wants himself to be in spite of himself, which is his real self, whereas the hipster in not noticing he is himself in the community that makes him himself is less himself than he himself recognizes.

Got it?

All of which is why I believe we have gotten to the point where authenticity is the new hegemony, and anyone who claims to be authentic, or demands authenticity out of others, is most likely to be exercising a form of inauthenticity. The first sign of true authenticity will be to appear as inauthentic.

Or as Heidegger has it:

Authentic Being-one's-Self does not rest upon an exceptional condition of the subject, a condition that has been detached from the ‘they’; it is rather an existentiell modification of the ‘they’ ” (Being and Time 27: 168). So authenticity is not about being isolated from others, but rather about finding a different way of relating to others such that one is not lost to the they-self.

Because we all know the most complete way to be authentic is to quote Heidegger.


  1. Well, every church fad is a church fad I guess. Most disciples are just trying to relate together and with those outside the Christian family in positive life-giving ways. Every faithful generation has its own popular patterns for initiating and growing Christian relationships. Patterns change, then change again as generations age. Can't get away from it.

  2. Character and purposiveness. Missing terms in this discussion. And "character" is especially necessary, because it encompasses real and fake. I have a character that is the gestalt "me." I play characters that are the "me" in situations. But I am the "me" that I enact. And we've gotten out of the habit of making maps for that territory. "Who are you?" "I'm me." Useless answer. "Where am I?" "You're here." It's a useless answer. It's no answer at all.

    I think we've been forced into a sort of "Tropic Thunder" over-abstraction here, where we have to say of ourselves "I know who I am! I'm the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude." The person behind the "man of parts" is me. It's no longer enough to glory in virtuosity; we also have to shoot the behind-the-scenes reel for our own life.

    It's not surprising to me that the quest for authenticity is also a quest for an identity, and generally on the part of those young enough not to have one. And as such it's a quest among white folk. You talk to black folk about authenticity, it doesn't mean what you're describing here. We aren't pulled in major, externally-imposed directions; the closer we are to conformity, the more we drift aimlessly. It's a libration point. "Authenticity" among white folks is meaningless, because it doesn't have an outside pole. It's self-referential, circular, pointless.

    If it's going to be otherwise, it needs to be a discussion of ethics, which among us also suffers from self-referential meaninglessness. But at least as Christians we technically have an outside pole, even if we've denied that it's outside. You can only really have a meaningful discussion in this field if you're willing to acknowledge your subordination to external forces that you do not control.

    1. Thank you, Matthew, for broadening and deepening the discussion.

  3. Anonymous11:56 AM

    I suspect that the emphasis on authenticity is a result of what sociologists like Bellah and ethical philosophers like MacIntyre would call a therapeutic culture.

    If we believe that the biggest obstacles to our happiness are knowing what we want and how to express our desires, then being authentic in who we are, and communicating that, is incredibly important. The problem is that authenticity then doesn't have any particular content. And, it's self-referential (thanks Matthew March), it may be meaningless.

    If I am authentically a jerk (which I am sometimes), expressing that doesn't necessarily help, depending on the situation. If I have screwed-up desires, knowing and expressing them well probably doesn't make me or my community better.

    The assumption that authenticity is good, at least in an individualistic culture, is based on the assumption that people are basically good and that people's desires are basically good.

    In other words, the quest for authenticity (at least in an individualistic culture), doesn't take into account what theologians call "sin." Whether we think of "sin" as missing the mark, failure, evil, rule breaking, being subject to the power of evil, or as a condition of separation from God, authenticity by itself offers no solution, unless one has been authentically freed from the behavior, power or the condition. Even then, the solution is not the authenticity. Instead the solution is whatever freed the individual from the behavior, power, or condition.

    And all of that happens in community, not simply in individuals seeking their own private "authenticity."

    1. Anonymous11:57 AM

      The above was posted by Jay Egenes. Don't know why your site turned me into a url. ??? I'm evidently even less tech-savvy than I thought.