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What Comes After Authenticity?

Don't look now, but authenticity has a target on its back (and it's not the first time either). Those practitioners in the user experience, marketing and customer experience domains at the forefront of their craft have moved on and they're not sitting around waiting for you to catch up.

Every ethic and virtue has their days in the sun. Despite the wholesome goodness in any virtue, however, those days are finite and numbered. I don’t mean that the virtue will disappear entirely. I do mean that the virtue will recede from the limelight as society becomes conscious to the flaws in the virtue as another ethic that speaks to those flaws steps forward. As nothing in our universe is perfect, this goes on ad-infinitum and quite often circles back on itself. This is the cycle of virtues and we are all witnessing the waning days of authenticity.

What's Old is New Again

Did you know that authenticity had a heyday previous to now? The golden age of authenticity was Victorian England and authenticity went by the name “Earnest.” Earnestness was the thing that all people and organizations strove for until a satirical Irish playwright and author named Oscar Wilde stuck a pin in the oversized ego of the British society persona with a timeless classic — “The Importance of Being Earnest"

There are many themes inside this classic play, the foremost of which is the dualistic nature of the human condition. All humans and organizations have multiple facets to their identities and the act of living is a navigation to, from and in between them. Veering from one principle to another is inevitable as a growing organism. What Wilde was saying in his work is that complete authenticity is a fraudulent sham that demeans humanity in general and more specifically harms minorities who are often oppressed by a majority who criticizes them for a supposed weakness that they themselves possess.

The Importance of Being Irreverent 

This idea of complete authenticity is a sham was also noted by Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University in his 1986 masterpiece On Bullshit, where he eviscerates the very notion of pure authenticity within humans with the conclusion:

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit."

Frankfurt's essay was published into book form in 2005 and was such a smash that he was invited to talk on The Daily Show about it. Whether intentional or coincidental, the parallel is striking that one year later, Stephen Colbert takes the point in the battle against false authenticity and coins the word “truthiness.”

Fast forward another eight years and Colbert and Stewart are somehow the most informative and trusted sources of news. How has this happened? It's all there in Wilde's work. The layers of speciousness are pulled away by the irreverent Algernon. When authenticity recedes from the foreground irreverence takes it's place in the spotlight. Irreverence is everything authenticity isn't. Irreverence isn't pretending to be anything. Irreverence is not saying it's better than anything else. Irreverence is saying that the accepted truths of authority aren't as true as they are cracked up to be.

Who Wears the Authenticity Mantle?

The UX, CX and content strategy industries have spawned a breed of "easy answer" consultants and thought leaders who go into board rooms and meeting rooms and talk about authenticity as if it can be manufactured and worn like a costume rather than something that is born and grown from within by a strength of spirit and conviction. They tell their clients and their business partners that they need to externally define themselves based on who their stakeholders want them to be and communicate in ways that affect an emotional impression from their audiences — this is the essence of what Frankfurt referred to as "bullshit". While the enterprises have become the authenticity manufacturers, many and more of the consultants and thought leaders have become experts at selling the authenticity snake oil.

 

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