Articles & Essays


Julian Baggini

In 1977, British space rock band Hawkwind released a song called ‘Spirit of the Age’. Lyricist Robert Calvert, a child of the sixties, captured one of the deepest fears of the counter-culture: that an age of mass production and mass media would lead to stifling conformity. The song’s second verse is sung by a clone who says ‘if you had ever seen us, you’d rejoice in your uniqueness and consider every weakness something special of your own.’ His final wish, shared by his ‘test-tube brothers’ is ‘Oh, for the wings of any bird other than a battery hen.’

Calvert’s dystopian vision has deep roots in the psyche of the 20th century West. It echoes Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World written in 1931, George Orwell’s 1984 from 1948 and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange in 1962, all of which in their different ways warned against the stamping out of individual will.

To know someone’s deepest fears is to know what matters most to them. The fear of a uniform world arose because the modern West was the product of the European Enlightenment, which gave the individual an importance unprecedented in human history.  Michel de Montaigne captured this more subtly, memorably and frequently than anyone else. His Essays have given us aphorisms such as ‘The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself,’ ‘A man of understanding has lost nothing, if he has himself,’ and ‘I care not so much what I am to others as what I am to myself.’

In this worldview, state, church and society were seen not as the foundations of civilisation but as potential threats to personal autonomy. Individuals, not groups, became the primary bearers of rights. The US Declaration of Independence made this clear, stating that people have ‘certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ and that the role of government is to ‘secure these rights’ with ‘the consent of the governed’.

The greatest threat to human wellbeing was therefore the erasing of this individuality and the assertion in its place of an authoritarian sameness. And since technology had given potential despots the most powerful tools for oppression ever known, these fears could not be taken lightly. ‘Men who are sincere in defending their freedom, will always feel concern at every circumstance which seems to make against them,’ wrote Paine, and future generations have shown him to be right.

From the perspective of the third decade of the twenty-first centuries, these worries might now seem unfounded. Instead of a regimented, ordered march of the masses we have seen the proliferation of myriad personal paths and journeys. Although there have been some reverses in the spread of liberal values, most obviously in parts in Eastern Europe, for the most part the trend has been for ever-increasing acceptance of personal choice in lifestyles and ethics. Countries which insist on the practice of one religion are becoming rarer, and the object of criticism from the rest of the world. Personal morality is widely seen as being none of the state’s business, unless it impinges on the rights of others.

One of the more recent expressions of this has been the remarkable acceptance of personal sovereignty in matters of sex and gender. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, no country in the world had legally recognised same-sex marriage. Following the lead of the Netherlands in 2001, by 2022 such unions had been legalised in 30 countries. Such is the pace of growth in acceptance of diversity that our vocabularies are struggling to keep up. The battle for gay rights has broadened into one for LGBTQIA+ rights, even though most people don’t know what the latest acronym is or what each letter stands for. (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, Ally or Asexual.)

Part of the growth of the celebration of difference is an increasing celebration of things that have traditionally been thought of as defects or imperfections. Calvert’s plea to ‘consider every weakness something special of your own’ could now stand as a motto for our time. The closer we come to a time when genetic engineering could be used to create a generation of ‘perfect’ babies, the more the very idea of ‘imperfection’ is being questioned. For example, where we once automatically talked of ‘disabilities’ we are now being asked to think instead of ‘different abilities’. Many deaf people advocate to defend a distinctive deaf culture and argue that eliminating deafness would not be a humane cure but a kind of genocide. As one academic paper argues, ‘Under international law, an activity that has the foreseeable effect of diminishing or eradicating a minority group, even if it is undertaken for other reasons and is not highly effective, is guilty of genocide.’ Much of what was recently called ‘mental disability’ is now framed as neurodiversity. Instead of thinking of the likes of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome as conditions, we are told that they can be ‘superpowers’ that enable people to see the world in ways others cannot.

One way of interpreting this apparent triumph of unique individuality is that that the prophets of clone doom were not wrong to cry wolf, it’s just that their warnings worked. Thanks to artists, writers and musicians, we did not let this homogenisation of peoples to happen. Inspired by their idiosyncrasies and counter-cultural work, we not only preserved but expanded our individuality.

Some would argue that it worked too well. The title of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone has become a shorthand for the decline of community and the corrosive fragmentation of society. We have become ‘atomised’ to borrow the title of Michel Houellebecq’s bleak state-of-the-world novel. In such a world, ‘human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movements of the elementary particles. … All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.’ Our problem is not a lack of autonomy but an excess of it. Instead of Calvert’s line ‘I am a clone, I am not alone’ we can now say ‘I am not a clone, I am too alone’.

However, I would argue that our problem is not that we have too much individuality but we have the wrong kind, an ersatz version that leaves us closer to the dystopia of uniformity than we dare to believe. I call this a condition of faux-authenticity or ‘fauxthenticity’. What we see as uniqueness is too often a shallow simulacra of genuine individuality, not the real thing.

Fauxthenticity is manifest in the seemingly benevolent imperative to ‘be yourself’. This injunction is a curiously narcissistic twist on historical calls for self-cultivation. Every major ethical tradition has emphasised the need for work on the self, to shape and fashion it into its best form. The Dhammapada says ‘Engineers lead the water wherever they like, fletchers make the arrow straight, carpenters carve the wood; wise people fashion themselves.’ The temple at Delphi commanded ‘Know thyself’ because this was a prerequisite of such improvement.

Such self-cultivation required the development of virtues, such as courage, temperance, generosity. Good people were expected to study hard and learn, to become accomplished orators, archers, scholars, musicians. ‘The sovereign may not neglect the cultivation of his own character,’ instructed Mencius. ‘Character is to be cultivated by his treading in the ways of duty,’ said his master, Confucius. Virtue was hard to achieve, which is partly why it was so admired.

But in the contemporary world, the primary virtue of authenticity requires no effort at all. Instead of having to work to become your best self you have the ease of simply being yourself, as you are. The message is that we are already good enough and our only task is to realise that and stop being hard on ourselves. In this context, religious and ethical teachings that talk of how debased and fallen humankind is looks like cruel attacks on self-esteem rather than a necessary call to action.

One reason why being yourself is considered to be so important is that it is highly democratic. If everyone is already good enough as they are, there is no possibility of some people becoming better than others and so creating the kinds of hierarchies that trouble officially egalitarian cultures. This kind of comforting levelling of society was one of the features of democracy Nietzsche so powerfully criticised. In his typically exaggerated language he warned of the dangers of a society in which equality meant mediocrity. ‘Liberalism’ was for him ‘in other words, herd-animalisation’.

Nietzsche’s critique points to the paradoxical effect of celebrating individuality as something innate and in no need of modification. Far from creating a society of distinct individuals it in fact breeds a kind of herd mentality in which people are more, not less, like each other. To become a great painter for example, you need years of apprenticeship and only then can you create genuinely distinctive style of your own. Without this, an artist’s work is only derivative. It is only when we work hard to become the best versions of ourselves that we distinguish ourselves from others. Self-cultivation makes each person unique, self-acceptance leaves us less distinguishable.

There is, however, a more subtle way in which ‘being ourselves’ makes us more like others. In practice, being yourself rarely means what it seems to mean. The call to ‘be yourself’ in reality is often a demand to present ourselves in ways which conform to expectations of what authenticity looks like, which turns out to be very similar for everyone. So in order to appear authentic, you have to follow the rules and conventions of contemporary authenticity.

I’ve seen this most vividly for myself in the domain of what is often called personal branding. As a freelance writer I am among an increasing number of people who work for themselves. We are all under increasing pressure not just to be good at our work but to handle our own promotions and marketing. Writers, for example, used to write books and it was left to publishers to sell and promote them. Now writers are encouraged, and sometimes contractually obliged, to undertake promotional work such as maintaining social media accounts or blogs and attending book festivals. Other self-employed people, from therapists to tradespeople, used to simply put their names in telephone directories and place the occasional advert in a local paper. Now, they are on listings sites where they have to work hard to make sure they stand out from competitors, and have websites that look ‘professional’.

The result of this is that whole classes of people now have to think hard and work on their public images in ways that they never had to. People who advise on such things tell them to think about their personal ‘brand’, as though they were soft drinks or clothing labels. But at the same time, the most common advice given as to how to create this brand is to ‘be yourself’. You are your brand, so your brand is simply you.

But of course if all you had to do was ‘be yourself’ you wouldn’t even have to think about your brand, and often you wouldn’t be very successful. For example, being myself would mean doing very little on social media, not promoting my own work very heavily and not being particularly social. For one therapist I know, being himself would mean telling potential clients that he feels ambivalent about psychotherapy and his own skills and that the client should not expect results. Put simply, for many of us – perhaps most – ‘ourselves’ is a very weak brand. Genuine authenticity doesn’t work.

So the ‘true self’ people project in their personal branding is more often than not a highly curated version of the self, one that may bear little resemblance to the reality. We show ourselves as we want others to see us, not as we truly are, which usually means confident, friendly, empathetic, positive. Moreover, this process is insidious, often not even conscious. Take social media. People learn from a series of negative and positive feedbacks (likes, shares or being ignored) what others respond to and what they don’t. Hence people gradually over time form an online persona, a ‘social media me’. This self is not necessarily comprised of lies. The unintentional deceit comes more from what is left out. Attractive traits are spotlighted or exaggerated while unattractive ones are left out.

The genius of this fauxthenticity is that on its surface it embraces imperfection and the ‘whole person’. To convincingly ‘be yourself’ online or in the public eye, you have to make sure that you display some flaws. But these too must be carefully selected. They have to be of the right kind.

For example, one of the most popular ways to humanise ourselves is by admitting to our vulnerability. One of the 25 most watched Ted Talks advocates just this: Brene Brown’s ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, which has had an incredible 57 million views. Brown’s talk is sincere and its core message is true. We should acknowledge our vulnerability. The problem is that once this message has received uptake in the world, the nature of this ‘should’ subtly changes. Instead of ‘where we are vulnerable, we need to recognise that’ the moral becomes ‘it is good to show vulnerability’ irrespective of how vulnerable we actually are. In turn, that means it is bad not to show vulnerability, since it is assumed we are all vulnerable and therefore not to show it indicates inauthenticity.

And so the display of vulnerability becomes a means of projecting authenticity, regardless of how vulnerable you actually are or how relevant that vulnerability is to your work or social interactions. Although some cynically and self-consciously try to make themselves appear vulnerable in order to appear more real, most people simply absorb the rules and do so without guile. It starts to feel good to show vulnerability because when you do, friends – in real life or online – reward you by saying how brave you are for being open and encourage you to keep going and so on.

It is not only that the rewards of displaying vulnerability have become socially constructed. There are also implicit rules about what kinds of vulnerability it is indeed ok to show. Sharing grief, regret or the suffering of illness is warmly received. What you don’t hear is people admitting to feeling financially insecure even though there are currently better off than most, or being concerned that other people are more successful than them, or admitting they are emotionally insecure and therefore clingy or overprotective. The flaws that people admit to are always mild, common and perfectly understandable. They do not acknowledge that they are too controlling, arrogant, insensitive, disloyal or mean.

One consequence of this is that the ethical dimension of having flaws is increasingly marginalised. Instead, they are accepted to the extent that that are ‘relatable’: people can understand and empathise with them. This has the perverse effect of making people who are flawed in the ‘right’ way more attractive than those who don’t display many flaws. Take the previous British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. To his critics, including many in his own party, he is the most incompetent, egotistical, venal leader the country has had in living memory. But throughout his career it is precisely his flaws that have built his brand, down to his deliberately unkempt hair, which he paradoxically has been seen to deliberately ruffle if it looks too tidy. Johnson’s imperfections are taken as signs that he is ‘authentic’ and therefore preferable to people who present a more polished, professional image. The irony of course is that this ‘authenticity’ is careful cultivated.

Donald Trump similarly relished his ‘gaffs’ and mistakes. Whenever he said something stupid or false, it was taken as evidence that he ‘shoots from the hip’ and is not the kind of career politician whose every word is tailored to gain votes. It is no coincidence that Trump talked endlessly about the ‘fake news’ that contradicted his world view. It was part of a broader narrative in which he stood for authenticity and truth against a dissembling, image-obsessed world. Except, of course, that he took great care to create this image for himself.

To become relatable you need to show your flaws, but only those ones that the people you want to relate to share. This is why so many popular characters on television are very far from the ideals of traditional heroes. Take the eponymous/nameless protagonist in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s play and TV series Fleabag. She is insecure, dates badly and struggles to do the right thing. Viewers love her not because they look up to her but because they look across at her, seeing themselves in her, perhaps even feeling reassured that they aren’t quite as flawed as she is.

It is hard to imagine a character with more idiosyncratic and unsympathetic flaws becoming such a cult figure. A young woman who was too chaste and moralistic would be unlikeable. A young man who was too aggressive and domineering would also be a plain villain. So it’s very clear that to be relatable you have to conform to an accepted standard of commonly shared and not too serious flaws.

This is because relatability is in essence about similarity. Put simply, we relate to people more when we can imagine having the same feelings, problems and joys as them. Hence relatable celebrities are the ones who seem to be normal in spite of their fame. Relatable sports people are the ones who still have tea with their mothers or see the friends they made at school.

The idea that we should be ‘relatable’ is a fairly recent development in the growth of fauxthenticity. Google’s Ngram viewer suggests this word has become more than six times more common since the start of the century. Relatability has become a kind of proxy for authenticity: if people can relate to you, that suggests they see you as genuine and like them. But as with ‘being yourself’, as soon as ‘be relatable’ becomes an injunction, it ceases to have anything to do with being natural and instead becomes something you need to work on. To seem ordinary you have to put in extraordinary effort, which is why there are whole books telling you how to be relatable, such as Relatable: How to Connect with Anyone, Anywhere by Rachel DeAlto, which adds to the subtitle the parenthetical ‘Even If It Scares You’, an obligatory nod towards the necessity of admitting vulnerability.

One more or less random website offering advice on the dos and don’ts of relatability captured the tensions between being yourself and carefully presenting an image with an astonishing lack of self-awareness. The don’ts are all about being your authentic self: Don’t put on an act, Be genuine, Don’t overdo it, Respect your audience. But the advice on the Dos explicitly says that you will have to present yourself very differently depending on who you are trying to influence: ‘Your audience is going to steer you in the direction of your chosen relatable method acting as an influencer.’ The clumsy phrase ‘your chosen relatable method acting as an influencer’ acknowledges, perhaps unintentionally, that being relatable requires acting. Partner with one kind of company and ‘you will have to present yourself as such’, partner with another and ‘you’ll have to present yourself in an entirely different manner’. The idea that either way we would simply be ourselves is ridiculous.

It should be obvious that on any reasonable understanding of the words, ‘relatable’ and ‘authentic’ are two very different things. Many of us are not naturally very relatable and many appear relatable only by not being themselves. Proof, if it were needed, is that you can learn to become more relatable, but you can’t learn to be more you than you already are.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that the cult of authenticity has led not to individuality and honesty but conformity and selective presentation of ourselves is seen in the norms of physical presentation. Never have so many been unable to present their authentic physical selves to others as now. We all know how people use filters to make their Instagram selfies look better and you only have to watch a typical person taking one to see how much care they take to look ‘good’.

But it goes much further than this. The pioneers of women’s liberation would be horrified to discover that in the 2020s, women feel under pressure to remove more body hair than ever before. A few decades ago, a bikini wax the furthest most women went with their intimate depilatory routines. Now, Brazilians are routine and many young women in particular opt for the ‘Hollywood’: full hair removal. In 2011, Indiana University researchers found that nearly 60 percent of American women between 18 and 24 and half between the ages of 25 and 29 were sometimes or always completely without pubic hair.

The name for this full wax is ironic, given that no Hollywood movie would show such a thing. The filmic driver of this trend is actually pornography. The fact that young men and women are now so used to seeing women depicted in porn without pubic hair is one of main drivers for its normalisation. One recent survey by a Canadian website showed that 41% of men thought women should have no pubic hair.

Men too have embraced depilation. A waxed chest is now extremely common, all the better for showing off the muscles sculpted by workouts that are aimed more at ideals of aesthetic  perfection than health. Skin tone is also more altered than ever. The white-skinned seek a bronze, tanned look while in many countries where darker skin is the norm people use skin-lightening creams and treatments to conform to ideals of beauty.

The evidence for the increased obsession with physical appearance can be counted in economic terms. In the UK, there were 8,677 beauty salons, including nail bars in 2019, a 73% increase from 2014. Over this period the number of hair salons grew by 21%, while the number of barbershops rose an even steeper 64%. This is not driven by a greater need to cut hair but by people feeling they need more frequent grooming to be socially acceptable.

* * * * *

Paradoxically, it seems the desire for authenticity and uniqueness has led to more sameness and conformity. To be the ‘true you’ is not good enough if that you is not relatable, if it is not flawed in socially acceptable ways, and if you do not conform to expectations around physical appearance. Similar things can be said about our political views, furniture, cars and phones. In each case the penalties for standing out from the crowd in whatever social niche you occupy remain high.

So it seems the fear of the clone was not so paranoid after all. For most of the twentieth century people worried uniformity would be imposed by malevolent dictators. Instead, it has been freely chosen by citizens who have allowed themselves to become obedient consumers, literally buying, or just buying into, commonly accepted standards. The Internet has also encouraged birds of a feather to flock together, again increasing the pressures to fit in. And yet it seems people still sincerely believe that they are ‘just being themselves’, not noticing how similar these selves are to their peers.

Like happiness, perhaps individuality is perhaps best pursued indirectly. The more we self-consciously try to be different, the more we lose sight of who we really are and what we would become. Thomas Merton captured this in a 1967 essay ‘Day of a Stranger’:

In an age where there is much talk about ‘being yourself’ I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on ‘being himself’ he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.

The fauxthentic self asserts its own individuality, fetishising it, not realising that a too-easy self-acceptance and self-affirmation prevents us from putting in the effort to become our best, most genuinely unique selves. The right to be who we are is worthless unless we do what we need to claim that right. True individuality is earned not granted.

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