One of my favorite movies growing up was Jingle All The Way starring Arnold Schwarzenneger, who plays the character of Harold Langston. Harold is a parent, husband, and businessman, but unfortunately his ranking of normative priorities is not in that order. Consumed by his work, Harold neglects his family, barely spending time at home, and routinely breaks his promises to his son, Jamie. In the beginning of the movie, Jamie has a karate performance which is very important to him, and Harold promises that he will attend. But on the eve of the performance, Harold just will not ignore his customers. He continues to take their phone calls late into the night, telling every one of them that he is the ‘number one customer,’ frantically trying to maintain his reputation with them. Harold is so on autopilot that when his wife Liz calls him to ask whether he’s coming to watch Jamie, he says yes and ends the phone call by reminding her that she, too, is his ‘number one customer.’ Harold never makes it to Jamie’s performance.
Here are three assumptions which I won’t argue for here. First, some people just are more important to us than others, given our particular relations. In terms of normative priority, we all agree that my brother qua brother is more important than my coworker, and my coworker qua coworker is more important than a fellow citizen. My brother is normatively closer to me than my coworker. My fellow citizen is normatively further from me than my coworker.
Second, words are cheaper than actions as indicators of care. When we act to gain approval from one person over another, we show and don’t just tell who we take to be more important to us; what we care about more. If you tell the geek in class you like him, but you always attend the popular kid’s parties over video game night with the geek, you show that you don’t care about him as much, and his face will understandably hold a frown when he finds out.
Third, those who are normatively closest to us are those whose approval we ought to seek the most. To actively seek out the approval of those normatively closest to you shows that you care about those who are important.
The problem with Harold Langston is that he cared about what those normatively further thought about him more than those with whom he was normatively most close. As such, he was inauthentic: he would tell his family that he cared about them, but he wouldn’t act that way. He wouldn’t show his son and wife that he cared about what’s important — them. If he weren’t backward in his normative priorities, he would ignore his customers — despite what they might think of him — when his son wanted to see him, because he seeks his son’s approval more than theirs. Surely, were Jamie’s life to be in danger, he would abandon his customers with reckless disregard, even if it cost him his business reputation in its entirety, for his son might never forgive him otherwise.
What I submit is that to be inauthentic is to say you care about those normatively closest to you but to act for the approval of those normatively distant. In this sense, it is to care about those furthest from you, instead of those closest. What results, I submit, is an individual who has a mismatch between his public and private images. The individual appears great to those furthest from him, but in his private image — e.g with his family — he appears poorly. Harold Langston had an excellent image with his customers, but not with Jamie.
Inauthenticity is somewhat like hypocrisy, except the latter manifests independent of one’s normative relations and need not involve putting on a public image. One can just be, like a politician, a known hypocrite to all. Inauthenticity, then, is a special kind of vice.
I say this because I’m worried that inauthenticity is widespread in today’s society, and this creates serious problems. Take first the fact that individuals spend more time on social media than they do speaking with their parents. One explanation for this could be that parents have become difficult to communicate with. But the other is that individuals are cultivating their public image as opposed to their private one, acting for those normatively furthest, but saying on social media — through pictures or speech — that they love their family oh-so-much.
Such inauthentic people often seek fame over legacy. To seek fame, in my view, is to have an overriding desire to be admired and remembered well by a public. To seek legacy is to desire that your loved one’s admiration and good remembrance obtain, long after you’re gone. The one who seeks legacy may become famous, but that is not his aim; fame is merely a byproduct of his actions over time. Such individuals who achieve both fame and legacy are authentic, and have good home lives.
But those who seek fame first are those who are admired by a public, but hated by those close to them. Bill Cosby raped his subordinates but was loved by the black public. Chris Brown beat Rihanna but was admired by millions. Such individuals sought fame first and legacy second. They said they care about their families, but acted for the public; they were inauthentic, and may find themselves like Harold Langston — without close ones who will remember them well after they are gone.
Another area where inauthenticity abounds is in the workplace. The job market is highly competitive and so there is an incentive to try to stand out from the rest of the pack. As a result, people seek credentials first and competence second. Credentials are what individuals display on sites like Linkedin or Xing, hoping to get a job, even if they may not be competent when they actually obtain it. They are highly credentialed but not competent. Of course, those who you will work with are normatively closer than those who may hire you, and so acting for credentials and saying you’re competent is another manifestation of inauthenticity. We recognize such individuals and shake our heads in frustration, for having a team of incompetent but credentialed individuals makes for slow progress.
Finally, a sphere of concern I have with authenticity is in corporate management. There is an open philosophical question which I think pressingly needs to be answered: who is normatively closest in a company: the international public, the investors, the employees, or the customers?
When Billy MacFarland put together fyre festival in 2017, he told the public at large that it would be the party of a lifetime — big-name artists, fancy lodging, high-class food, and incredible scenery. However, when the customers arrived at the private island where the party was located, they found themsevelves sleeping in tents, eating sandwiches, and few artists of high caliper. Billy Macfarland cared more about the public he was marketing to than the customers who attended. In my view, this is inauthentic, for surely his normative priorities should have been the other way around. This doesn’t answer the question of who is normatively closest in a company, but it illuminated its importance.
I fear that the problem of inauthenticity will only grow worse, as social media grips the next generation, the job market becomes increasingly competitive, and companies seek international attention over customer/employee satisfaction. One can only hope that, like Harold Langston at the end of Jingle All the Way, we eventually come to recognize that Jamie is the most important.