Can We Ever Agree On Authenticity?

MikeachimThe Everyday22 Comments

“Authentic travel”. Buzz-phrase of a generation. We’re all in search of it. The travel industry is obsessed with it.

What a shame we have no idea what it actually is.

Here’s an advert you’ll never see.

Join us for the fauxcation of a lifetime!

Live exactly like the locals don’t, enjoying the ultimate in artificial, predictable experiences laid on entirely for your benefit.

You’ll come away so unchallenged it’ll be like you never left home!

Why put your cash in the hands of fickle fate when we can guarantee you a counterfeit travel experience by your rules?

That’s surely worth paying extra for!

It’s almost too easy. Defining what isn’t “authentic” is a lot easier than deciding what is. We all know a cheapening travel experience when we have it. We feel it. The tacky, lazy, fraudulent side of modern life we know and hate so well.

So is authenticity the opposite of modernity?

No – it can’t be. We know travel is a form of escapism, but where can we escape to? A perceived goal of authentic travel is, in the words of Pam Mandel, “the perfect interaction with the culture we’re visiting”. But whatever remote corner of the world greets our feet, it’s the first decade of the 21st Century. Wherever we go, it’s all modern.

Maybe that sounds crazy. What about the honest-feeling traditions we encounter around the world – the old ways of doing things that we fall so in love with at first sight? Yep, they’re modern too…and the fact you’re seeing them at work means they’re successfully modern. Putting aside the enormously tricky ethical issues for a second – if you’re watching ‘traditional culture’ reenacted in front of you, it’s an invention. It might be largely accurate, it might be 99% fiction, but it’s redesigned for now.

Here’s a personal example. Pick your way through thoroughly modernised (and thoroughly broke) modern Greece and you’ll find the ancient theatre of Epidaurus – a stunning hemisphere of cut rock with such skillfully designed acoustics that an actor can perform unamplified on the central stage and still be heard on the distant upper tiers. It attract hordes of visitors each year…but when I was in the area in 2007, it was closed to tourists. Why? Because it was being used. Every year, the Epidaurus Festival (itself part of the Greece-wide Hellenic Festival) runs open-air performances of Greek tragedies and comedies in the very venues they were originally performed in, two thousand years ago.

That certainly feels authentic to me. Why? Because it’s useful. It’s tradition in action, brought forward in time and made functionally meaningful for later generations. We like this when we see it. It feels right. The flip side of this instantly feels less authentic – the shows put on purely for tourists. It’s an act, and if we see through the illusion, it upsets us. As Keith Savage puts it, we “want to be a part of something without being the reason for it”. And when we know it’s all put on for our benefit, we feel cheated of our authentic experience.


Well, look at that. It’s the major problem with defining authenticity this way. For the people doing things we’ve so neatly labelled cheap and tacky, what they’re often doing is simply getting on with their lives. Authenticity is relative. It depends on who we are. When, quoting Pam again, we’re “both the cause and effect of this perceived lack of authenticity”, it suddenly smacks of artifice and cultural snobbery. Isn’t authenticity itself suddenly inauthentic? Damn.

But there’s another way to nail down authenticity – and it’s all about exploring that gut feeling inside of us. Andrew Potter, author of The Authenticity Hoax, defines it thus: “this hope or desire that what makes us happy or that we find enjoyable will also be morally praiseworthy or good for the environment”. It’s a personal ethical stance – and we certainly know when we betray those in thought or deed. That’s why we feel so bad in the face of a counterfeit experience. It’s the very core of us being compromised.

So here’s a working definition: an authentic experience is one that can’t be dictated to us. (Sorry, travel industry- but take heart, it’s the road to geotourism). A moral, ethical choice to do something in such a way that satisfies our core sense of what is good and right. As individuals, we choose to forego souvenir shops because we feel they’re a betrayal – or we shop at them, because we’re putting money in the hands of people who need it. We choose to eat street food because we believe in the rightness of doing so (perhaps secondary to the fact it’s cheap & tasty, but hey, it’s still a factor). We fly, or we don’t fly. At every decision we make our own authenticity…and maybe, somewhere down the line, we find we all agree on certain things, and we know exactly why.

Until then, let’s agree we don’t know what “authenticity” means.

That feels the right thing to do.

Images: HBarrison and ryantron.