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After commenters and interviewees on at least three unrelated topics on Radio 4 mentioned the word authenticity, I found myself quietly wondering why this abstract quality seems to be such a draw for so many of us. And I can’t be the only one to have noticed the ‘authentic’ angle in so many marketing and branding campaigns. I was fairly confident that the quip “if you can fake that, you’ve got it made” was originally uttered (and I’m almost certainly using the word ‘originally’ very loosely there) as a joke about sincerity. With only the Internet to guide me to the source, I quickly came to the conclusion that if the truth is out there, a search engine might not be the best tool for locating it. And that if the truth isn’t authentically slippery, it’s certainly wearing an awful lot of baby oil.

Until I started digging, I’d believed – or perhaps I should say ‘bought into the idea that’ – that the original source was George Burns, whose preceding words were “The secret of acting is sincerity.” The wily folks at The Quote Investigator have been on the case, however, and it seems likely to have been anonymous, and about honesty rather than sincerity – and about success rather than acting. At which point, I had to suppress my inner cynic, who was bouncing up and down vigorously and saying “Ok, so tell me the difference …”

My outer cynic – the one I wear to work, but keep buttoned-down to avoid causing offence – asked what seemed to (the rest of) me to be a better question: why are we so hell-bent on authenticity, honesty, sincerity or whichever abstract noun we may personally prefer? Surely I’m not the only one who has noticed the steady rise of ‘fake’ as an insult. If you’ve ever watched Big Brother – in itself, a social experiment that has morphed into light entertainment – you’ve probably noticed that this single adjective now encompasses every variety of dislike, including just genuinely disliking someone: in the show’s context, it truly has become the four-letter f-word. Inauthenticity is the most deadly slur that one candidate can utter against another, even while speaking in the context of a competitive game show based in large part around the social popularity of those taking part.

In a very different context, I shall be spending the coming weekend at a world music festival. Much as I will enjoy some of the music (although I’ll be honest enough to admit that ‘world music’ is such a meaninglessly broad term that it covers a lot of genres that will have me out of a marquee in milli-seconds), I’ll also enjoy eavesdropping some of the conversations in the audience. Some will be musicians, some will be ethnologists of different stripes, but many will be drawn by the ‘authenticity’ of the performers. (And you may have noticed the steady rise in earnest young people with acoustic instruments in recent years. I was wryly amused last summer when a friend’s son, who plays in a ‘nu-folk’ band, was wrong-footed by being asked if his beard was a branding device, although the question probably says more about us than his answer.) The musician in me is aware that putting yourself on stage is ‘performance’: you might not have control over the audience response, but you certainly have the ability to influence what you project at them.

The music-fan in me looks at the bagpipe player swaying next to the DJ’s turntables and sees musicians being genuinely themselves, but not necessarily ‘authentic’. When it comes to colouring our roots, heritage and hairstyles can sometimes be closer than you might think. Or wish to think. And when a group that has been internationally successfully, not least because of the emotional appeal of the nomadic tribesman-rebel imagery, but which now travels the world in comfort and sports some very expensive instruments – and plays out of tune with them – I feel uncomfortable. Their original homeland isn’t one whose musical heritage involves micro-tonality, and they employ a professional technical sound crew: is it cynical to wonder if the slight out-of-tuneness really is ‘a branding device’ – ‘we sound a little wonky, as that’s how we sound out there in the desert on camelback’? (And ok, in the interests of honesty, I don’t much care for their music, but I don’t think that’s what I’m really put slightly on edge by.)

It’s worth remembering that ‘authentic’ is an adjective: faced with something bearing the adjective, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask ourselves ‘Authentically what?’ As another blogger recently said, in a provocative piece called The Psychology of Workplace Dynamics: It’s ok to be a phony, as long as it is authentic:

And when everyone is looking for the “authentic”, doesn’t that encourage a default level inauthenticity?”

Mike Robbins, speaker, blogger and author, seeks to define the difference between phony, honesty and authenticity in one blog post, which led me to read another where he speaks of the difference between self-improvement and self-acceptance. As a layman, I’m left scratching my head a little at what can be read as contradictions: if self-acceptance trumps self-improvement, how does authenticity trump the unvarnishedness he perceives in ‘honesty’? And in an era of affective labour, phoniness is becoming an expected part of the daily routine of quite a percentage of us: not so much having your cake and eating as not having your cake and insisting you’re not hungry, n’est-ce pas?

And meaning no offense to their author, who I may well be mis-reading, I should perhaps confess to not seeing myself as part of his target audience: any piece of prose or delivered speech than starts sounding like it is going to implore me to ‘believe’ automatically raises my heckles as I immediately want to know exactly what I’m being asked to believe in. For me, concrete reasons to believe are more compelling than fervent incitations: I’m not knocking the power of dreams, but waking up to reality can be pretty powerful too.

Which, perhaps, isn’t such a bad thought to arrive at. Searching for the origins of the phrase ‘an authentic phony’ (as far as I can tell, a New York Times describing Ronald Reagan, but do write in …), I found the following extract from Charles Fulghum’s Sermons of a Psychiatrist:

Most of us don’t have a problem with getting to know someone. Most of us have a problem with knowing ourselves: who and what we are. Are you real or are you a phony? I like man who, on being accused of being a phony, replied: “Yes, I am a phony, but I’m an authentic phony”.

The Psychologistmimi blog post I cited earlier explains this in relation to the fictional character, Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and quotes John Cheever’s description of Truman Capote’s famous fictional character: “[Holly] is like a phony in that her beliefs are perfectly in accordance with social norms, but she is real insofar as those beliefs are all she has.” (And I can’t help but feel that, had it been around in her day, she would have stormed Celebrity Big Brother.) But I also suspect there are many Hollys among us – people who have a social construct of ‘being a leader’ or ‘being a manager’, and are true to it. It’s not so much their phoniness that they’re blind to, but their authenticity. And hence, perhaps, the importance of assuring a certain something en route to developing ourselves as ‘authentic leaders’: self-knowledge and self-awareness.

Now if only we could fake that