It’s Popular, But Authenticity Isn’t What It Used to Be

After all the attempts to fake it as a marketing ploy, authenticity could easily have lost its allure. Every product and its brother now claim to be “real.” Politicians deck themselves out in plaid flannel shirts (as Lamar Alexander did in his presidential bid) to signal their just-folks authenticity. Search the Internet for references to “authentic” and you’ll find Web sites that trumpet everything from “Authentic Hungarian Parsley Stuffing” to “Authentic Taxidermy.” And yet the appeal of authenticity seems oddly undiminished. A Zogby poll conducted for Forbes confirms that impression. Asked to say which of several fine qualities they’d “most like to be known for,” 50 percent of adults chose “being authentic,” while “being intelligent” and “your sense of humor” drew 22 percent apiece. As the trait they’d “insist that the person you spend your life with possess,” 61 percent opted for “authentic,” versus 24 percent for “intelligent.” Asked to name the “most authentic” people in various fields, respondents gave pluralities to such paragons as Mother Teresa, Colin Powell and Tiger Woods. Why has the appeal of authenticity held up so well? Writing three decades ago, Lionel Trilling said the term had become “part of the moral slang of our day,” denoting “a more strenuous moral experience” than mere sincerity. In our own day, one suspects people are attracted to authenticity because they feel it’s at once admirable and undemanding. Thus, one encounters plenty of people who are content to be authentic jerks. The adjective overpowers the noun to which it’s attached. Might we prefer that a genuine boor at least pretend to be polite? Alas, the vogue for authenticity as currently defined encourages him to give frank expression to his boorishness. “What you see is what you get,” he’ll tell us, as if this plainly justifies whatever behavior he feels like exhibiting.