Let's all be a lot less honest: Lena Dunham, naked selfies, and the irony of oversharing

It's time to drop our authenticity fetish and get real about the neglected art of playing social roles

Published November 16, 2014 5:30PM (EST)

Lena Dunham, Jennifer Lawrence        (AP/Joel Ryan/Reuters/Paul Hackett)
Lena Dunham, Jennifer Lawrence (AP/Joel Ryan/Reuters/Paul Hackett)

Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy, the author of a deeply smart and ambitious book I obsessed over in 1999, "For Common Things," recently published a curious opinion piece on the Daily Beast. In it he writes, “There is something indecent in asking people to fake a feeling for a living” and argued that somehow modern capitalism performs “a pervasive intrusion on a key aspect of autonomy: the right to be yourself.” Purdy’s prime examples of the intruded-upon are waiters and waitresses, who he says are being extorted because they have to be nice to customers in order to receive tips, even though the act makes them betray their real feelings. He believes this pressure to be friendly is caused by “unequal economic power that extorts emotional work.” Being nice, he writes, has become the “the job of the less privileged ... that’s nothing new: emotional work is part of the oldest profession, but it’s a growing part of everyone’s experience.”

After equating everyone with prostitutes, Purdy suggests that faking friendliness is especially unfitting in a country obsessed with emotional authenticity and allowing people to even legally be who they “really are” — as in the case of same-sex marriage laws, which recognize, at last, that homosexual couples may actually love each other. Still, in America, faking persists, and this has to do with the internal dialectic working itself out in our system. Purdy writes: “Mandatory smiles are part of the irony at the heart of capitalism ... Markets break people out of one kind of intimate intrusion [the traditional family or social order], then involve them in another, in which work tells you what to do.” In other words, people are as condemned to fake it for money in today’s free-market system as they were in, say, the mercantilist mid-19th century, when, if you were not landed gentry, you had to smilingly do what you were told — no more so than under America’s original sin, slavery. The pained smile contains the whole history of economic power relations. This is semiotics at its best. Really.

But Purdy would rather live under an economic system in which people had the privilege to be rude and not be forced to “cultivate a false self,” because then they would not suffer the economic insecurity of potentially being fired for being honest. Here, emotional expression would be more pure and sincere and there would not be “an obligation to fake it.” Two weeks before the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, on Nov. 9, Purdy cites communist-era clerks as being more free to be themselves because they were not motivated by profit to fake their bonhomie. “Communist-era clerks were famously rude and indifferent because they had no motive to make people happy,” he writes. Four paragraphs later, he adds, “If I could live in an economy where everyone had the privilege to be rude rather than the obligation to fake it, I would.” This is a peculiar idea of what constitutes actual human liberty.

In fact, there are so many peculiar points to argue with in Purdy’s opinion, I find it hard to know where to begin. But let’s start here: Dear Holden Caulfield, Dear Erich Honecker  –

* * *

But wait. Let’s not start there. Let’s start again, because the way an argument begins sets the tone of how it’s going to continue, and the way this one starts — snarky and ad hominem — is exactly part of the problem at the heart of Purdy’s view of adult life: It disallows for emotional and intellectual distance and the freedom to be precisely not who you are at all times, but rather to choose with whom you share your private self, and who you keep at a distance by cultivating a performative self.

So, to be clear: This is not an argument against Jedediah Purdy the private person, whom I met and spoke with at a 1999 party in Boston for the re-launch of the American Prospect and for whom I have always had enormous respect. This is rather an argument with the opinions and ideas that Jedediah Purdy, public intellectual, presents in his essay “Why Your Waiter Hates You,” published on Oct. 26 in the Daily Beast. The distinction must be made and held, because part of what I want to argue is the importance of regaining the desire and ability to keep the private self and public self separate and not to demean the latter because it is not “real.” The public self is as real as the private self; it is our overvaluation of the latter that has thrown the long-standing importance of the former into doubt.

I will explain below why this is so, but, in short, in Purdy’s parlance: Rather than asking for more emotionally honest waiters, I think we should instead divest ourselves of the urge to make sincere emotional connections with strangers.


Ever since the Industrial Revolution, cultural nostalgia for the bygone days of close social relationships has constantly attended our ideas of the past, in part to make it a more charmed place for blockbuster movies, but also in part to help shield us from what we see as the estrangement of the modern world. We have been led to think, through decades of middlebrow entertainment and high-minded social criticism, that the modern world is cold and devoid of emotion, whereby the impersonal mechanisms of post-industrial capitalism crush the cozy human spirit. We assume that people used to be closer to one another because of the necessities of their everyday survival — farm life, the local store — but that over the course of the 20th century we have drifted apart and become less emotionally close.

Actually, the opposite is true. While social relations were generally closer in the pre-modern era, particularly outside of urban areas, emotional relations — the revelation of one’s intimate feelings to others, strangers — were far more restrained. The kinds of behaviors that have mediated social relations since time immemorial — manners, psychological distance, protocol, deference, interpersonal remove, playful social roles — are as necessary for a public or professional sphere to exist as they are to keeping our private selves shielded from the impositions of the political or commercial world. They are required for a healthy liberal democracy to flourish because they also allow for impersonal engagement with others — that is to say, working with others on like-minded political interests, strategies and civic or artistic projects, without having to share the details of our private lives. This is what it is to be social without being emotional, a distinction we find it difficult to conceptualize. Social masks, social play, acting and irony are not only essential components of a lively and dramatic public life, they are necessary for psychological health and a feeling of freedom and fun in our private lives. “Without a protective and supportive private sphere,” wrote the German sociologist Hans Paul Bahrdt, in 1958, “the individual is sucked into the public realm, which, however, becomes denatured by this very process.”

The modern world, on the other hand, is an emotional world. It is more focused on sentiments and feelings, more obsessed with how the private self feels and “relates” to other people, objects, art and its own sense of authenticity. This has something to do with an influential matrix of Protestantism, the freeing spirit of modern art, and the political philosophy of egalitarianism, but also with a thoroughly modern therapeutic commandment that we have all deeply imbibed: that to be psychologically and emotionally healthy we must reveal increasing parts of ourselves and express our honest feelings to others, regardless of how relevant, interesting, necessary or appropriate; no matter what the relation of that person is to us, no matter if they even want to know. American society seems to be the particular culprit of this urge to disclose: we know more about the private lives of other people than ever before, from hourly Facebook updates to therapeutic talk shows to political and sports figures disclosing details of their personal affairs. And we willingly share large portions of our private lives with others, known and unknown, from nude self-portraits to family events to admissions of the most compromising kind. Two words: Lena Dunham.

If additional examples of this American predisposition don’t immediately come to mind, let me remind you of a few recent episodes: in July 2011 New York Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner admitted to sending sexually suggestive photos of himself to several women through his Twitter account. After he initially denied reports that he had posted the image of his semi-erect penis under his gray cotton underpants, he admitted to having sent a link to the photo — as well as to other sexually explicit photos and messages — to multiple young women. The scandal resulted in his resignation from the United States House of Representatives. Two years later, in April 2013, as he was running for the Democratic candidacy for the mayor of New York City, it happened again. In February 2011, Republican congressman from western New York Chris Lee resigned just a few hours after a report on Gawker that he had sent a shirtless picture of himself flexing his muscles to a woman via Craigslist. Lee has not returned to public life. In 2007, David Hasselhoff’s daughter uploaded a video of her fantastically drunken father lying shirtless on the floor trying sloppily to gobble a Wendy’s cheeseburger while yelling at her. In July 2013 veteran TV journalist Geraldo Rivera tweeted a photo of himself standing at his bathroom mirror in nothing but a towel covering his genitals. “Seventy is the new 50,” he wrote to accompany the shot. Rap megastar Kanye West took photographs of his genitals and sent them to a cadre of young women, some of who immediately sold them to the media. The rapper was incensed. A few months later, teen idol Justin Bieber and German model Heidi Klum tweeted out topless posts of their fit bodies to millions of followers. Had enough? Not yet.

Actress Scarlett Johansson took nude photos of herself to send to her boyfriend at the time, the actor Ryan Reynolds. Her email was hacked and the images were leaked online, which she said was “sick.” In 2010, semi-nude photos of pop singer Christine Aguilera appeared online, allegedly taken from her hair stylist’s computer and then leaked. Four months after the birth of her first child, in late 2013, Kim Kardashian took photos of herself in a skimpy white bathing suit and posted them on her Instagram account with the tag “#nofilter,” in order to rebuff critics of her weight gain. Nude photos of "Jersey Shore" star Snooki first hit the Web in April 2010 on NakedSnooki.com. This happened again in June 2012. The reality star’s representative told reporters, “Clearly these are old and personal photos that were not meant for the public. It’s a shame someone decided to leak them for obvious personal gain.” Then, of course, there’s the notorious iCloud Nudileaks of 2014: Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Hope Solo, Hayden Panettiere, Vanessa Hudgens.

The practice of sending nude photos to people via the Internet or over cellular networks is not reserved for the rich and famous, of course. One of the most notorious examples is Melinda Dennehy, the 41-year-old New Hampshire high-school English teacher who, in July 2010, sent a series of seductive photos she made with her smartphone to her 15-year-old student, who promptly forwarded them to his friends. These included “four sexy shots” of Dennehy exposing her genitals. She was arrested on one felony count of indecent exposure. She may be in the minority when it comes to teacher-to-student genital exposure, but a 2013 survey by the polling organization Harris Interactive found that one in five Americans who have smartphones (56 percent of the adult population) say they have sent sexually explicit text messages or images of themselves nude or semi-nude. You can do the math, based on a U.S. adult population of roughly 243 million. It’s a lot of people.

All of these are instances of people exposing “who they really are,” one assumes, and their intentions were largely (except in the Rivera, Klum, Bieber and Kardashian cases) to keep these images out of the public sphere. And even though Google’s Eric Schmidt thinks that “if you don’t want something you are doing on the Internet, perhaps you shouldn’t it being doing it in the first place,” as he said in 2010, keeping the distinction between private and public selves is precisely what did not happen in the above cases. The private self became public — which is why these episodes, among so many more, ended with embarrassing discomfort for them — and for us.


This increasingly large presence of the honest emotional self in the public sphere is the product of a strange moral philosophy that has been germinating for the past century and that has now come fully into bloom: the ideology of intimacy.

The ideology of intimacy promotes the idea that social relationships are only real, authentic and meaningful the closer they approach the inner life and vulnerabilities of a person. Stemming from a web of intertwined roots in religion, art, political philosophy and psychotherapy, the ideology of intimacy encourages ever-increasing closeness — between people, nations and cultures — and decries interpersonal or intercultural distance as cold, fake, distant or aloof. It bespeaks a moral assumption that has been quietly muttered throughout the 20th century like a mantra: It is better to feel close to people; social distance is bad and should be overcome. This assumption runs so deep in American culture that we no longer see it, let alone question its worth.

How did this happen? This is the subject of a book I’m writing, but it was also the subject of a book written by the great American sociologist Richard Sennett in 1977. His"Fall of Public Man" masterfully describes the decline of social conventions that once regulated anonymous, impersonal social interactions in public life and that provided a social code for private interpretation. Sennett argued they had been in decline since the end of the 19th century, and that their demise had something to do with the effects of mass society and consumerism, which, through the new availability of mass-produced fashion, engendered new desires for representing one’s private self in public.

Meetings between strangers that had been regulated by social protocol, deference, manners, forms of address and shared mores began to be more personalized, Sennett observes, and over the course of the world-exploding 20th century, particularly in America, the idea that these things should mediate between people fell out of fashion. Actually, they were ushered out of fashion by the cultural values of liberation, self-expression, unmasking, sincerity, authenticity and intimacy, all of which gained increased acceptance owing to cultural movements of the 19th century, and, taking their lead, from modern advertising. These influences urged more “real” and “authentic” self because the world around that self had become false through commerce and industrialization.

By the 1970s, high-minded critiques of commercial culture — stemming from the critiques of the Frankfurt School and humanistic psychology to David Riesman and C. Wright Mills’ critical sociology — had become so deeply embedded in social consciousness and political movements of the era that “the reigning myth today,” Sennett wrote, “is that all the evils of society can be understood as the evils of impersonality, alienation, and coldness. The sum of these is an ideology of intimacy.” In the end, he argued, we moderns are actors deprived of an art and of the performance inimical to public life, particularly the life of cities.

Since the time of Sennett’s writing we have had nearly four more decades of exposure to offshoots of this ideology: chummy political strategy, talk-show television, corporatized sincerity, fake authenticity, autobiographical tell-all books, art-as-self-revelation, psychotherapeutic trends and the addictive cultural logic of cool, all of which have injected the illusion of self-expression into relationships that otherwise were not intimate or that used to be mediated by protocol, distance, social play and abstract relations. The result has been the triumph of feeling and subjectivity in many aspects of social life that should, or used to, remain untouched by them. “One of the great problems of our age,” Margaret Thatcher said in the mid-1980s, “is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.” Some of Thatcher’s own ideas many found disagreeable, of course, but her assessment of the shift toward emotional intimacy in politics was both accurate and telling.

American daytime talk shows — Oprah, Dr. Phil, Sally Jesse Raphael, Montel Williams, as well as younger, hipper versions of the same, like the podcast WTF With Marc Maron — have obviously moved audiences to more thirstily seek the private demons of strangers. They have done so on the back of the “therapeutic narrative,” which promotes the idea that the revelation of one’s personal suffering and pain leads to an awareness of their root causes, which in turn generates a degree of self-realization, which then leads to increased happiness and freedom. In order for these revelations to be curative, the logic goes, they are best carried out in front of a group. Or a studio audience.

Interpersonal or impersonal distance, on the other hand — once the default face of public life — was recast as cold and unnatural, evidence of some kind of emotional blockage or psychological hang-up. More theoretically, distance, even with a smiling face, was cast as a result of the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, modern society or alienated labor, as Purdy alludes. In all cases, wherever it appears, distance was something ultimately to be overcome. And so we now ache for the parts of a person that are “underneath” the public and social parts; we long to make an emotional beeline to what is personal and intimate rather than stop at the level of what is social and civil, rather than give a person his or her mental space. In psychological parlance, we’re always after the id and what is hidden in it. We distrust the ego because it is a construction, because we are conscious of it being presented to us rather than us finding it.

Interestingly, the more open and “self-expressive” we have become, the more that a deeper alienation has come to tinge social relations, as multiple recent studies have born out (as of 2013, two-thirds of Americans do not trust each other, according to the Pew Social Survey). It also makes us feel we should shun public masks that do not immediately express our true personalities, all the while suspecting that others cannot be trusted unless we really know them. Public life actually suffers from an emotional tyranny caused by the crushing sense that we always have to be who we are.

“Estrangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people,” wrote Theodor W. Adorno in "Minima Moralia" (1951), and today he could not be more right, evidenced in television shows like “Dating Naked,” a reality series on VH1 that sees strangers take off all of their clothing and then go on a first date; “Married at First Sight,” on A&E, in which “expertly paired” strangers begin their relationship by getting married; and the short film “First Kiss,” which portrays total strangers kissing for the first time. There’s also a new book of documentary photographs featuring strangers hugging each other right after meeting, titled "Touching Strangers," by Richard Renaldi, among other manifestations. In all of them, the idea is to overcome alienation through intimacy, though nothing of the sort happens. It’s just more awkward intimacy.


We really ought to quit our cultural obsession with the “authentic” self and its expression. And I decorate the word authentic with the “       ” not to be cute or dismissive but rather to enter into the lion’s den of what I understand to be Purdy’s widely shared but unfortunate moral assumption: If the authentic self is the private self and therefore good, then the public self is the false self and is bad and should be removed. “Authentic” in this case is really just another way of saying “good because not fake.” It does not, however, make the public self any less real or necessary an entity in social life.  In fact, I would argue that we need to reinstate the goodness of “faking it.”

But, this self only becomes “fake” when the standards and qualities set for the private self are used as the same template for the social self. It would be better (and would generate less fakeness), if we simply removed the expectation of wanting some of the positive qualities we set for the private self — authentic, genuine, sincere — from the category of the public, social self altogether. Instead we should demand other kinds of qualities from the social self that have nothing to do with private subjectivity: friendliness, impersonality (which does not mean coldness), clarity, focus on the task at hand, outward, and so on. In short, we need to rebuild the wall between the two kinds of selves and understand that this is OK.

Why are distance and detachment important? For one, they allow us to escape from a purely emotional understanding of events, which can cloud judgment and is subject to easy manipulation — for example, through political and religious rhetoric. Secondly, they preserve a sphere of life for truly intimate relations, where sincerity and genuineness are required to maintain close relationships. Impersonal behaviors create a boundary between one’s real feelings and the impersonal world of transactions, be they political, commercial, or financial. If you have an emotional urge to connect with your waiter or waitress on a deeper level and don’t enjoy the mini-flirtations that are by their very nature fleeting, I recommend you inventory the quality of your actual friendships. (Or, as a friend wrote: “If you wish to experience waiters and waitresses who feel free to be rude, please come to Midtown at lunch hour.”)

Third, in recent years of religious and political excitement, detached evaluation and criticism are more important than ever. They also allow for psychological and emotional independence from other people, a condition required not just for cultivating a sense of real individual selfhood, but also for the heightened ability for concentration and critical thought, and, by extension, the judicious appraisal of social and political life in modern society — the foundation of rational public debate that leads to a constitutive public sphere. To maintain distance is to be a fully modern democratic citizen and to have a mature understanding of what is close to you and what is not close to you. Remember: sincerity and emotional honesty are the favored attributes of religious zealots who are earnestly murdering scores of people. We Western liberals (I should say, we Western liberals who are not in government but rather in the humanities) need to revalue and appreciate the ancient tactics of lying, dissembling, and coldness to achieving higher ends.


The only advantage I might have in aiming some of this criticism at American culture is that I have made my home outside of it. In Berlin, Germany, where I have lived for nearly a decade, formality, impersonality and the public mask remain solid components of social and political life, and no one besides Facebook- or WhatsApp-frenzied teenagers has a desire to change it. There is no pretending toward immediate friendship, and certain formalities always apply. There are remnants of the old bourgeois culture still alive in Berlin, and I have warmed to it. It adds drama, irony, and tension to social life, hones the senses and awareness, and provides a system of codes to interpret, to better, or to fail at. Such as social culture is only “cold” or “distant” if you go in to social interactions expecting warm and fuzzy feelings from people you do not know. Otherwise, it is part of normal adult interaction, where acquaintanceships and friendships develop organically, over time, not by fiat.

In public life, for example, no one asks politicians to share the intimate details of their private or emotional lives, because those details are deemed irrelevant to politics. This is because politics in Europe, as opposed to politics in America, remains an administrative and technocratic affair, completely divorced from emotional and private life. European politicians do not seek to be friends with voters or even to campaign tirelessly among them. Voters, in return, do not ask to know more about their political leaders than they must and do not seek to know the details of their private lives. Here, there is also no guilt in their being, as the great social historian Peter Stearns wrote about the nervous American smile, “impersonal, but friendly,” which is also Purdy’s j’accuse of that same gesture. In fact, asking a politician in Europe to be intimate with the public or with strangers is akin to asking your waiter or waitress to be emotionally honest: it may be a nice personal quality to have, but it has nothing to do with serving your lunch. The political is not personal; the private is not public. Revaluing the distinction would be better for both our private lives and a more lively and free public sphere.

Ding, ding. Order up.

By R. Jay Magill Jr.

R. Jay Magill Jr. is the author of Sincerity (2012) and Chic Ironic Bitterness (2007). He lives in Berlin, Germany.

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