Fake authenticity: the compassion lie

I may lose friends. I may attract abuse. But this is one of those moments when I feel like I can no longer resist the urge to point and shout “the king is in the altogether.”

What am I talking about?

Fake authenticity.

Never heard of it? There’s a lot of it about, and you’d do worse than read this piece by Jonathan MacDonald – The Fallacy of Social Media.

In it he touches upon the fake approach taken to telling stories and building relationships online, particularly in the realm of social media.

Someone once said to me that to use expressions like “telling stories” in the context of PR was to admit that it was all spin, lies and bullshit.

The more I reflect on that the more convinced I am that it’s one of the most ignorant things anyone’s ever said to me and I should have said as much at the time.

Whether you are an individual, a brand marketer, a politician, a social media coordinator, when you are telling people something about who you are, what you do, how you behave, or what you believe in, you are telling them your story.

If you bullshit them you’ll get found out eventually.

Something Jonathan MacDonald picks up on is a piece of advice mooted by someone that says: “Act like you’re a company made of real, actual people, and good things will surely follow.”

It’s a liars charter in tl;dr form. And I find it quite distasteful.

As I’ve already said, there’s a lot of it about. And it’s not just brands that are doing it. I see a lot of people in my stream doing it constantly.

Recently jazz musician Terry Callier died. But for his work with the likes of Massive Attack he would only have been known to a fraction of the people in my stream – those who are serious-minded fans of music, or seek out interesting non-mainstream things to listen to. I don’t fall into either of those categories, just to be clear.

I remain unconvinced that a great many people who own something he worked on had ever heard of him either. In fact, I got a bit nauseated by the wave of “oh that’s terrible. #rip” tweets I saw from people who spend most Saturday evenings are watching X-Factor.

Oh, yes you are a very serious and dedicated follower of interesting musical collaborations, aren’t you?

No, you’re not. You’re a bullshit merchant trying to make yourself look cool, or – worse – desperately hoping to connect with something real, something meaningful to fill that foetid hole you drag round with you everywhere you are.

It was also evident in the wake of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in the US. “It’s awful,” read one tweet I saw, “13 people have been killed. #sandy”

Yes, of course it’s awful. Truly awful. Particularly for those directly involved. But do you know what else is awful…? The fact that the person whose tweet I saw – and the dozens more like them – had expressed no concern or compassion whatsoever for those left dead, displaced and traumatized by Sandy in Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, and probably other parts of the Caribbean too. Haiti hasn’t recovered from the earthquake it was hit by in 2010, and was in the midst of a cholera outbreak when Sandy passed close by. So fucking what, eh..?

The death toll in the Caribbean is around 70. Probably more. It’s possible no one will ever know.

The only time I saw anyone on twitter referring to that was as a counterpoint to the many, many, “I hope everyone in New York stays safe” type tweets.

Why is it that so many people, here in the UK, were so eager to express such concern?

Dislocated empathy. Not misplaced. Dislocated.

Of course we all hoped that everyone was going to be ok in New York and elsewhere in the US. The same ought to apply to everywhere that was in the path of Hurricane Sandy. No..?

Yet it would appear to be ok, desirable even, to carry on ignoring the plight of poor black countries hit by disaster, when latte-sipping, iPhone-using, GAP-shopping people, wherever they may be, have also been affected by something bad.

I know it’s easier to identify with people who have similar lives, but that’s no excuse, in my opinion, for not giving enough of a damn about the rest of the world to pause your lazy thinking and cast off your me-opia.

It made me rather cross. Still does. You might have noticed.

But more than that, it was telling to see the stories people tell about themselves.

Who do I indentify with..? Who can I identify with..? What kind of person shall I be today…

If you’re a genuinely compassionate person, and care about what happens to others, you can see further than those that wear the same clothes as you, or even the countries where you have personal contacts.

And you aren’t compelled to bleat about it in public in an attempt to define yourself.

Fake authenticity.

Nice work people.


I come from England, I grew up there

In 1992, I went to Canada and the USA.  I spent three or so weeks travelling around, on my own, visiting friends and family.
It was the first time I’d flown.
Before we’d even taken off things started to get interesting.
The plane was delayed and while we were all sat there, on the tarmac of Manchester Airport, waiting for clearance, the pilot made an announcement to tell us all that it shouldn’t be too much longer before we were on our way.
He kept on talking, but not to us. For several minutes we could hear him chatting with the co-pilot, and whoever else was there, but it was conversation not intended for us to hear. Mostly it was incomprehensible technical stuff, and some of it was inaudible. Then the mic was cut.
A minute later, he came back over the speakers to apologise for having left the mic on while he was chatting to his colleagues and said “there are a lot of switches up here and it sometimes gets confusing.”
A lot of us exchanged quizzical looks. Had he really just said that..? Yes, he had.
Four hours later, a little more than halfway to Toronto – where I’d get to hear about Mrs Aqua for the first time   the guy across the aisle from me collapsed.
At this point I was beginning to wonder why they bothered putting movies on for us to watch – the flight itself was providing far more entertainment and distraction than I’d bargained for.
We landed, in one piece. The collapsed man was OK too.
My passport photo, taken in 1992

At the immigration queue the guy in front of me got instantly deported… into a holding cell and put on the first plane back to Manchester.

Three days later I saw two guys from the Ku Klux Klan being deported from Canada, at Fort Erie, and sent back to the USA.
By this point I couldn’t tell if I was still suffering from jet lag, or whether I was simply over-stimulated from everything that was going on around me. But one thing was for sure, I was wired.
One of my abiding memories from that trip is of something that happened at Penn Station in New York.

I was waiting for a train to take me to Fayetteville, North Carolina. All the trains were delayed. As any fellow Brits will know, this is a situation we have all become accustomed to. And so it was that I found myself hanging around at Penn Station with lots of other delayed travellers, one of whom struck up a conversation with me.
He was a couple of years younger than me, was well dressed, wore a broad smile and had a couple of suitcases. He introduced himself by saying something about the delay being annoying and that he was on his way home from college.
It was 20 years ago, so what follows is not an actual word-for-word account of what happened next. But the main thrust of it is here…
  • Me: “what are you doing at college?”
  • Him: “liberal arts.”
  • Him: “how about yourself?”
  • Me: “I’m travelling round for a few weeks, I’ve got some friends in Maine and North Carolina, and my brother lives in Michigan. Last week I was in Toronto for a few days.”
  • Him: “may I just say, you speak really good English.”
  • My actual voice: “Er, I’m English.” (note: I’m not, I’m an Irishman who grew up in England, but that’s a tale for another occasion)
  • Him: “Sure, but how come you speak such good English?” (the ‘such’ and the ‘good’ were over emphasized)
  • Voice in Sean’s head: “THIS IS HOW IT ENDS…!”
  • My actual voice: “Well, I come from England. I grew up there. It’s what we speak. I really ought to find a telephone. It’s been great meeting you.”
On that same trip a lot of very weird and funny stuff happened. But the “how come you speak such good English guy” was a real stand-out moment.

Why the UK health service is not America’s concern

Following the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, the world’s media was awash with reaction and opinion. Not all of it glowing. A fair few overseas commentators seemed to find the NHS section of the evening somewhat troubling.

For those that don’t know, the NHS is our National Health Service, set up in the wake of WWII, state-owned and funded by taxes.
Many US Republicans (and some Democrats too) point at our NHS when arguing against many of President Obama’s planned health reforms. A lot of what I read today was woefully inaccurate at best, and rantingly offensive at worst.
Our health service *is* free at the point of delivery. There is no ‘gaming’ it. We do have a private health sector, which is thriving. So, if you have the money you can choose to pay rather than use the NHS. You get treated by the same doctors, sometimes in the same hospitals. But you get treated sooner.
All emergency treatment is via the NHS – from heart attacks through to car accidents, shootings, stabbings etc.
The use by people in the US of the term “socialized” health care means nothing to us. That simply is not what it is, not what it feels like.  It is a hollow ideologue’s term to defend their distaste for providing health care for all members of society.
It is my belief that the true test of a society is how it regards the less fortunate and those in need of help. But I keep that opinion to myself. I would never stoop so low as to lecture people in the US, for example, on what their health system lacks – because I don’t live there.
The UK’s NHS is far from perfect. The waiting lists are too long. There is too much emphasis on measuring the wrong aspects of patient treatment and not enough on actual patient care. Some hospital governing bodies (it’s done regionally) have run out of money. The quality of care you get is often due to how much the people you are treated by actually care about what they are doing.
My father died in early 2011 and was treated very badly in hospital during the last week of his life. My mother’s cancer wasn’t diagnosed, despite many warning signs, until it had advanced to the point where it was declared inoperable. My oldest son was left with a ruptured appendix for almost two weeks before one particular doctor realised what was going on – he dodged a one-in-a-thousand bullet.
Most people in the UK know someone that’s had a bad experience at the hands of the NHS.
Most of us also know someone who received life-saving treatment, or life-changing care at the hands of the NHS.
It’s always fascinating to read what people overseas think of our country. But, mostly, you are all speaking from positions of varying ignorance. The opinions I value most are from those who caveat their comments by declaring themselves onlookers, not behaving like experts.