Kelsey Minnick, Ph.D.
The Fallacy of Authenticity: Stop Using Clichés of "Realness" to Mask Careless Language
I had a scholar-friend of mine post a status on Facebook recently that was pointing out people's inability to accept criticism or critical response. She was referring specifically to situations where the criticism is in reference to controversial or oppressive rhetoric that refuses to acknowledge responsibility. And it got me thinking...
Often, we see this happen in the form of cliché when folks bracket their offensive or careless comments words that allow them to be the neutral party, or even the victim if you dare respond with offense. Do you know these people? Let me elaborate.
Maybe you have a friend or family member that you feel is incapable of accepting responsibility for their words and actions? A person who responds to disagreement with statements of transference (shifting blame and culpability to anyone but themselves)? You are probably getting the picture. The kind of person I'm referring to specifically goes a step beyond blatant ignorance of relational and rhetorical responsibility; this person doesn't just refuse to reflect on the consequences of their words and actions, they rationalize their position with statements of "realness" and "truth."
"I'm just being real. I won't apologize for trying to be honest."
"Can I play devil's advocate for a second?"
"If you can't handle the truth, that's on you."
"No one else will tell you this, but I'm not afraid."
Yeah, you know that person.
Now you may read those words and feel a bit of tension... Isn't it a good thing to speak your truth and be real in your relationships? Well, of course it is! But there seems to be a trend amongst those who boast "new-age" wellness and woke-ness where personal truth is the skimpy, band-aid for unhealthy communication habits and unsustainable relationships.
When I was in graduate school, I made friends with a woman who had recently found a certain level of fame and following on Instagram as a wellness influencer. If you are unfamiliar with that term, a wellness influencer is basically a social media persona that gains followers and accolades through consistent content creation rooted in health trends and popular, holistic rhetorics of betterment through self-love and body-mind connections. And those are the tolerable ones...
For the most part, I saw my friend as one of the tolerable ones; in fact, I actually appreciated her frankness in the face of harmful diet culture and obviously fake visual narratives normally presented within health and wellness social media accounts. It felt real and raw and I saw very quickly why so many were attracted to her account and content. After a while, however, I began to see how that "real and raw" persona was actually becoming less and less about vulnerability and more about building a wall of impenetrable statements disguised as "truth."
This became truly apparent when she started focusing on rhetoric around "owning mistakes" and "growth" within her Instagram content but would explode with defensiveness and denial when confronted with any kind of criticism in person (often around anti-feminist and non-intersectional wellness practices). The social media posts continued to evolve into a staunch insistence that she had achieved a level of self-awareness that separated her from "fake" friends and followers.
"If you can't handle the real me, then feel free to unfollow."
And folks. eat. that. shit. up. Because like I said earlier, initial reactions to language of "truth" and "realness" are ones of agreement and appreciation. It sounded really good to hear her talk on her Insta-stories about how she had grown from her experiences into the woke-persona she claimed in the present. But what came in tandem with her notion of personal truth was a refusal to acknowledge language that was offensive or oppressive. She had embraced a "truth" that (she believed) exempted her from doubt, criticism, or consequence; to question her rhetoric was to place yourself as Enemy #1.
I began to disengage with her both online and in-person more and more because I truly felt like I was somehow in the wrong every time I confronted her about a statement or video she shared that didn't sit well with me or was marginalizing to women and non-normative bodies. And I felt this way because her rebuttal was always tied to her "truth."
I have a name for this phenomenon; I call it the "Fallacy of Authenticity."
Let's break it down...
What is a fallacy? Well, most of you know a fallacy to be a sort of faulty reasoning which renders an argument invalid or a misleading/unsound "belief" that is defended without evidence or support. This is a correct way of thinking about fallacy through an interpersonal lens, as well. Within interpersonal communication and self-conceptualization, we encounter quite a few "fallacies" that humans fall prey to on a regular basis that revolve around emotions and irrational thinking. There is the "Fallacy of Perfection," which appears when we tell ourselves that we should be able to handle every situation thrown at us in life and if we can't then we are the problem. The "Fallacy of Overgeneralization", in which we tend to make consequential decisions without sufficient information or support to guide us in an informative way. The "Fallacy of Causation", a personal favorite, is when we immediately assume our emotions are tied to the actions and effects of others and we have no control of them on our own. There are so many, I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.
When a fallacy appears in our lives, it often will cause a severe disconnect within our realities that keeps us from self-correction, grace, and learning. Orienting our thoughts around logic that fits our desires instead of our realities keeps us from truly engaging and connecting with people. It diminishes our ability to accept our own roles in relationship.
So, what is authenticity? This one is a little tougher to breakdown, because the very idea that authenticity exists is questionable. I'm not so disillusioned to think that a blog post is the best place to dive into the deep philosophical question of authenticity as fact, so I'll focus instead on the ways this word can fuel problematic behavior when approached through fallacious thinking.
We cling to words like authenticity because it gives us hope that we've found ourselves. This is the most natural thing in the world to strive for... to live "authentically." But the fact of the matter is that there is rarely ever a moment in which you aren't "performing"—whether it be intentional or unintentional, for others or yourself. So we have to acknowledge that there is never a true neutral when it comes to being who you are in this life; words and actions are still choices and all choices have consequences. To live your authenticity is to understand this dynamic of action-consequence, NOT ignore it. When authenticity is thought of in relation to fallacy, it places a veil over our eyes—blinding us to the ownership that comes with the "authentic" self. The Fallacy of Authenticity allows for a "realness" persona to become a space of untouchable performance.
When we operate within the Fallacy of Authenticity, we refuse to support our actions and words with responsibility... especially when that responsibility would require apology, humility, or learning. Speaking your "truth" does not alleviate you from the sins of arrogance, elitism, oppressive language, or downright asshole-behavior. If anything, it requires you to work even harder to grow and become more informed than ever.
This is not about shaming our endeavors to challenge one another in relationship, nor is it about ridiculing the pursuit of genuine self-conceptualization. Rather, I am seeing more and more the lack of acknowledgement that comes with the entitled banner of woke-performance and influencer-mentalities that boast their ideas as untouchable and their opinions as fact. No one should settle for another person's careless and unsustainable language just because they attempt to shield themselves with the "I'm just being real" caveat. You shouldn't always being losing relationships and burning bridges because you are being "authentic" to yourself. There is a time and place for letting go of things that don't serve you, yes, but when your brand of authenticity comes at the expense of others—denying lived experiences, overgeneralizing and stereotyping, or invalidating trauma—then the only thing intentional about you becomes your intentional ignorance of what it takes to maintain healthy relationships and boundaries.
Real communication involves real work. No one should be exempt from the negotiations and boundaries that come from that work... you're not Christine from Selling Sunset (yes, she is a great example of this and if you don't know who she is then get back to me after you binge the show tonight). What many of us want is a notion of freedom: freedom to "be ourselves" in whatever space we choose to insert ourselves. But freedom in the realm of communication is not a freedom from... it's a freedom to that allows us to grow into authenticity with an understanding of ethical and compassionate language.