Why are millennials so concerned with authenticity when we are the least authentic generation ever? As we curate our social media profiles for maximum effect on popularity and cleanse our public personas of any photo of us that has fewer than what we consider to be a socially acceptable amount of likes, we simultaneously insist that our elected officials be “authentic.”
While we flock to Bernie Sanders because he’s more authentic or “real” than Hillary Clinton, as can be seen by the ever-popular Clinton-Sanders side-by-side memes on Facebook, we act as blatant hypocrites if we use social media at all. You may think that you have an authentic social media presence, but social media in and of itself necessitates curation. Which photos you choose, what content you post, your followers-to-following ratio, and even the choice to not add any content at all are all curatorial choices.
Yet there remains the question of why we’re so concerned with authenticity in the first place. Have we simply been misled as to what authenticity consists of? I would argue that this actually comes down to Freud’s narcissism of small differences, wherein we hate or envy those who are just slightly different from us because we feel they have been either led astray or modified somehow because who they were when they were like us wasn’t good enough.
Take Hillary Clinton, for example. Perhaps millennials prefer Bernie Sanders to her because she represents the overly curated social media profile that we all have. Her statements can be perceived to be overly careful and focus grouped out of a pragmatic fear of losing certain constituencies or cornering oneself into supporting specific policies instead of what it seems most Americans now want, which is someone who “tells it like it is.” Clinton has an established public persona, including a much talked about wardrobe that would probably not be as big of a topic if she were a man.
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, wears cheap suits, doesn’t comb what hair he has left, and even gets angry when asked certain questions by journalists, like if the country is ready for a socialist president. The ideal social media equivalent to Bernie Sanders would be someone who doesn’t use social media at all, but if we were to find someone on social media like Bernie Sanders, it would probably be your aunt whose profile picture is a photo of her cat, or cats, and shares far left political posts and memes that she vehemently agrees with. This Bernie Sanders social media equivalent posts lengthy treatises on politics that receive almost no attention, but she keeps posting them because she believes what she says. Hillary Clinton’s social media equivalent is that friend of yours who deletes any Instagram post that receives fewer than one hundred likes and only posts about politics when there is a significant bandwagon effect.
I’m not the only person who has written about this. Politico published a piece by Pablo Zevallos, a senior at Davidson College, titled “Why Is My Inauthentic Generation So Obsessed With Sanders’ Authenticity?” where he makes many of the same critiques I am making but in more of a critique on Sanders. A student body president at Davidson, Zevallos is responding directly to Sanders’ sizable victory in New Hampshire. Central to his argument is the point that there are “thoughtful reasons” for millennials to support Sanders and his policies and to disagree with Secretary Clinton, but to have one’s main reason for supporting Sanders be his authenticity is a “breathy assertion.”
I think that authenticity is a perfectly good reason to support Sanders if his supporter either doesn’t use social media or is at least aware of the hypocrisy in this being the principal reason for a millennial social media user. Of course, one can be a hypocrite and inauthentic without using social media at all.
Previous generations had their forms of inauthenticity and façade, which we have now amplified exponentially with our use of social media. Letter writing is the best example. One’s writing voice is not necessarily one’s speaking voice, and writing is an inherently curatorial process as well. Every letter and word is a choice, and what one omits is often more powerful than what one explicitly states.
Politics is an arena built on trust between voters and elected officials where authenticity is at the crux of the whole agreement. Whether it’s Chris Christie talking about addiction, or John Kasich hugging a young man who recounted his hardships, or even that New Republic piece on Bernie Sanders being just another hippie rummaging through my mom’s fridge, voters respond to moments of authenticity for a reason. Yet governance relies on the ability to compartmentalize and do what’s right even if it is in contradiction with one’s authentic self, insofar as there is an authentic self. We shouldn’t care about authenticity, but we can’t help it. We aren’t authentic, but we desperately want to be. So the next time you share a Bernie-Hillary meme on Facebook, ask yourself whether or not the same person who just praised or at least thought the disparity in authenticity in the meme was funny is the same person who just deleted a photo or status because it didn’t have enough likes.
Lahut is a member of the class of 2017.