On authenticity

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Politics and public life lend themselves to compromise and appeasement. Both these things, in turn, help to generate an incentive structure that often does not reward but punishes authenticity. Constantly those that would seek out public office are encouraged to present to the world a version of themselves that is as inoffensive to as many people as possible. But what happens when one attains a position of power? Does that incentive still hold, or are people then more inclined to reveal their real selves?

On authenticity

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 April 2012

Many people shield from the world their authentic selves. Faced with a situation that places their natural impulse at odds with general consensus, they choose to manage the way in which they are perceived. Sometimes not to appear at odds with the majority, other times to suppress entirely their real inclination, often for fear of reprisal.

Rare indeed are those individuals able consistently to present to others their true character; rarer still in public life — a brutal business, which demands both compromise and concession, heroes and villains, and which can punish dissent for nothing more than its own sake. In fact, the very incentive structure that underpins election to public office discourages authenticity, rewarding rather phlegmatic indifference.

There is, however, a particular enabling environment, able to remove the mask many wear: a position of power. Its attainment encourages pretence but its nature, authenticity. Ironically, it can do so either by feeding insecurity or reducing it, even fuelling egoism in the other direction. In both cases, one’s authentic self is inevitably brought to the fore.

Often people are surprised when those who assume positions of power, reveal themselves to be something else entirely. If at heart the person is authoritarian, both security and insecurity can encourage autocratic behaviour: the former since power can be used to nullify those constraints on authenticity they felt before they enjoyed it; the latter since fear of losing it encourages despotism.

Healthy interaction necessitates the pragmatic regulation of one’s primary instincts. But, in the pursuit of power, to engender a false perception of one’s true nature, is only ever to set the scene for conflict. People’s general perceptions might be largely motivated by superficiality, but they invest heavily in them nonetheless.

Gareth van Onselen writes in his personal capacity. He is employed by the DA as a Director of Political Analysis and Development. An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day.

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