Theatrical “Authenticity” vs. a True Authentic Voice

by Lane Wallace on October 19, 2016

If posts are a bit scarce on this site, it’s because I’m currently immersed in the writing stage of my book on the power and importance of a woman’s authentic voice. Wrestling a complex topic into well-behaved words on a page can feel like a re-enactment of Hercules fighting the multi-headed Hydra … which is why, no doubt, the best-selling author Richard Bach once said that he only wrote books when an idea took hold of him with such fervor and passion that it literally forced him across the room to his typewriter, and wouldn’t let up until the job was done.

But as coincidental luck would have it, the real world collided dead-on with my writing work last weekend. I was just finishing a section of the manuscript that dealt with explaining how the power of a woman’s authentic voice is partly dependent on having a well-curated voice; of a woman not only knowing what she thinks and believes, but also having some sense of when it is useful or important to share that information, and when it is better (stronger, more considerate, more strategically advantageous) to remain silent.

“There is nothing quite so annoying–or, ultimately, ineffective,” I wrote, ” as someone who has to speak their mind at all times, regardless of impact on others, the particular group dynamics, or appropriateness to the occasion. Timing matters. Giving other people space to disagree with you matters. What’s more, if you choose your battles, your words might be heard more clearly on those occasions you choose to fight. It’s worth remembering that some of the women who’ve changed the world by speaking their truth aloud had the impact they did because they weren’t yelling on the mountaintop all the time. Some particular issue, or moment, created such a disparity between their inner truth and what they were seeing or experiencing that they felt compelled to speak.”

And just as I was searching for a good anecdote to use to illustrate that point, Michelle Obama was kind enough to provide one for me. In a speech she gave in Manchester, New Hampshire last week, she gave a powerful tutorial on what it is like for women to be subject to, or fear, sexual harassment, intimidation and assault.

“I have to tell you, I can’t stop thinking about this,” she said. “It has shaken me to my core in a way I couldn’t have predicted. … I feel it so personally, and I’m sure that many of you do too, particularly the women. The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman. It is cruel. It’s frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It’s like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you’re walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin. It’s that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them, or forced himself on them and they’ve said no but he didn’t listen. … And all of us are doing what women have always done: We’re trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through by trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak.”

There’s more, but no need to repeat it all here. It’s worth reading,¬†though.

The point is, while everything she said is absolutely true (as a woman who worked in the very male field of aviation for over a quarter century, every one of those words resonates all too painfully with me) … the speech had far more impact than a typical stump speech. Why? Because it had the ring of authentic passion, authentic truth, and the power of a woman’s authentic voice, raised pure and unafraid, in a cry from the heart. And that is exactly the type of power I’m writing about.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m not the only one who recognized that power. In an essay titled “The Authentic Power of Michelle Obama,” The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote:

“Isn’t it interesting that after so many years of keeping a studied distance from the ugliness of the political arena, the First Lady is throwing herself with such passion into this grotesque campaign? … She’s effective because she has never gone looking for a fight–we know that about her. She acts when she has something to defend, and as she made clear in a stirring, searing speech late last week, that’s more than her husband’s legacy. … It’s her dignity as a woman. It’s the dignity of all women.”

We often think that strength lies in protecting our true selves or emotions, or projecting an intimidating image to others. The irony, however, is that authenticity gets its power by going against that instinct. Indeed, it turns out that there is tremendous strength in courageous vulnerability. It is precisely the willingness of a person put their true self out in the world; to speak their thoughtful, considered truth without defensiveness, that gives an authentic voice its world-changing power. As Bruni said, “[Michelle] let her own vulnerability show, in a voice that trembled. It was her bridge to every American that she had any hope of reaching.”

The First Lady’s speech also offers a stark contrast with what writer Mark Thompson recently described as “theatrical authenticity,” or a carefully orchestrated rhetorical strategy or ruse dressed up in claims of authenticity. Practitioners of theatrical authenticity (which Thompson notes included Adolf Hitler) proclaim–usually loudly, and with some braggadocio–that they’re just telling the truth. A truth that is generally, as Thompson put it, “a story about ‘us’ and our struggle against ‘them.’ It says the things society has deemed unsayable.” However, as Thompson went on to argue, “there is a big difference between proclaiming your authenticity and actually being true to yourself and the facts.”

How do we tell the difference? As a single mother raising two girls in inner-city Baltimore told me (and which I wrote about in a previous post),

“You can tell if someone has found their authentic voice or not. You can tell by their body language, what they talk about, and how they talk about it. If they’re being all aggressive, and complaining … instead of being respectful, they haven’t found their voice. If someone’s found their authentic voice, there’s a sense of respect and calm about them. They don’t need to talk about themselves all the time. And they don’t complain all the time or always make things someone else’s fault. You can tell.”

Or, as Frank Bruni put it in his essay about Michelle Obama, “Insults aren’t badges of authenticity. They’re evidence of rudeness and frequently cruel. Profanity doesn’t render you authentic. It just proves that you’re a child.”

The difference, in other words, is clear–at least, to a lot of people. But what if it’s not, in a particular situation? Is there any kind of “tell,” or cheat sheet, to help us separate theatrical authenticity from the real McCoy? Not exactly. But as I have said before, it helps to consider the following points:

  1. The idea of finding an “authentic” voice, and bringing that into the world, assumes a certain level of psychological and emotional development and a mature, healthy and balanced view of oneself and the world. Being your “authentic self” is being your authentic adult self. Or, as some psychologists and educators would put it, being your best self.
  2. An adult authentic self and voice should incorporate far more nuanced emotional needs and expression and a much more mature, objective and clear-eyed view of our own strengths and flaws, as well as a broader range of views, responsibilities, roles, and desires.
  3. Given those first two points, do you get the sense from whoever is speaking that he or she has looked deep into themselves, come to some kind of peace with what’s there, and is both working to improve and expand that while also bringing the light of that core into the world?

It’s not a fool-proof formula. But it’s at least a pretty good starting point.

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