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Being yourself: Great and overrated

Has admiration for authenticity run amok? Can it let us off the hook when we should be trying harder? Can it let us turn a blind eye to powerful people when they are behaving badly?

'Be yourself'

Two little words that have you covered 360 degrees. This is in a world where we can be attacked from any angle for holding any opinion on any platform.

Two little words we can retreat into as a self-hug that forgives everything and wants nothing more than us relaxing into our rightful place in the universe.

Society today says it values authenticity; from a teen searching for her identity, and cafes and companies branding themselves, to politicians looking for power, being authentic buys one "likes", customers and votes.

But has the admiration for authenticity run amok? Can it let us off the hook when we should be trying harder? Can it let us turn a blind eye to powerful people when they are behaving badly?


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG

'Boys will be boys'

"Be yourself" is an empowering phrase. We may have said it to our friends and children to help them deal with finding their way in the world. We have heard it in graduation speeches and in feel-good movies. We may be living by that mantra. But while being yourself is wonderfully forgiving, it can get too awfully forgiving.

Like saying indulgently that "boys will be boys" when a brat bullies a playgroup mate. Or when a teen won't stop snapping the bra strap of a harassed classmate. Or when a man titters during "locker room talk" about grabbing a woman by her private parts.

'He tells it like it is' If a politician sells himself as a colourful, straight-talking person among a sea of grey suits, it grabs us by the eyeballs. It is as refreshing as a kick to the head.

But while we are being entertained, don't forget to continue using that head.

Here's something to think about: During the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture delivered last month, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens mentioned US President Donald Trump's verbal attacks on people including Muslims, immigrants and the disabled. Commenting on "the never-ending assaults on what was once quaintly known as 'human decency'", Mr Stephens said that some people "seemed to positively admire the comments as refreshing examples of personal authenticity and political incorrectness". He added: "Shameless rhetoric will always find a receptive audience with shameless people. Donald Trump's was the greatest political striptease act in US political history: The dirtier he got, the more skin he showed, the more his core supporters liked it."

Beware of how bad behaviour can be rebranded as being authentic, where a wolf no longer needs a campaign wardrobe budget to buy sheep's clothing.

Back in Singapore, if we buy the entertaining "he tells it like it is" branding without looking closer at what we're being told, then who we give power to is left up to dumb luck: Being yourself is wonderful if you are a good person and a great leader, but we're in trouble if you turn out to be a fiend with a folksy mouth.

Back in our homes, if we allow the "be yourself" mantra to lull us into mistaking bad behaviour for something good, we can end up unfairly doing all the dirty work, for example. Someone once explained to me why he didn't do his fair share of the housework: Oh, he's the playful type. He needs to lounge around and play computer games. He's just being himself. Anyway, the partner at home is handling the housework on top of a full-time job and pulling in a bigger salary, therefore she must enjoy doing such things. Give her the chance to be herself.

Give that man a trophy for being No. 1.

So beware of how laziness of the sort which can hurt loved ones can be legitimised with a lazy reason.

Beware of how bad behaviour can be rebranded as being authentic, where a wolf no longer needs a campaign wardrobe budget to buy sheep's clothing. A wolf in wolf's clothing can now howl into a microphone during a rally: "I am going to eat you. I tell it like it is. Isn't that tremendous?"

'Be better'

Patting ourselves on the back for being true to ourselves makes us feel tremendous without actually doing anything huge.

My authentic self, in case you haven't noticed, is somewhat judgmental, and wants to explore using hexes or roaring tigers to mess with horrible people. I enjoy being my wicked self and, having low standards, would like to congratulate myself for not actually trying to hex anyone so far.

What is more special than being yourself is being better.

No epic feat is needed to get started; we can all try the simple act of being polite, which involves putting others first.

Being better, for example, is not blurting out, "You look tired" or "You work in a sunset industry", even though it is true and you are the straight-talking type.

Biting your tongue is sometimes the kinder, more difficult thing to do.

Not hexing people or having them shredded by tigers is the kinder thing for me to do.

I am happy being bitter, but may I move on to being better.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'Being yourself: Great and overrated'. Print Edition | Subscribe