People say many stupid things, but “be yourself” has to be near the top of the list. Why would anyone say something so ridiculous and trite? Is it for some desire for authenticity in relationships, where authenticity is somehow regarded as noble? I’ll accept that answer as soon as someone nails down the meta-ethics that argues for the value of truth-telling. Or is it that the desire for authentic relationships supposedly allows us to discuss things deeply with one another, as if I couldn’t discuss the ramifications of assisted-suicide with a terminally ill patient I didn’t know well. Obviously then, the desire for authentic relationships is not the goal of anyone being themselves. I can have an authentic relationship with my employer without them ever knowing my deepest, darkest secrets (e.g. picking my nose and wiping it on other people). In actuality, when we tell someone to “be yourself,” usually we’re really telling them to calm down and STFU. Now, how that morphed into the phrase, “be yourself,” I do not know. But that’s not our point today. Anyone who in all sincerity tells someone else to “be yourself” probably hasn’t considered the ramifications.
While it may be all well and good to be ourselves when no one else is around, if there is any desire among people to live among others, then society as such needs some rules. Without such rules, whether they are written or unwritten, being ourselves has consequences. For example, if I am in a job interview and the potential employer asks me how I would handle a rude customer, I wouldn’t tell the potential employer how I would handle the rude customer in a manner fitting to who I really am if I would like to land the job. Moreover, if who I really am includes watching costumed midget porn, it would probably be in everyone’s best interest not to engage in that particular activity at work. There is the more obvious example in which I may be going on a first date, in which case I wouldn’t reveal parts of myself – lying by omission – if I would like to build a relationship with the other person since building a relationship can often only be built by easing the other person into your quirks. How many times how the following statement been uttered? “So I just found out he has a large collection of Princess Leia action figures. But, since I’ve already invested so much time in him, I’ll see if I can live with it.”
Probably the worst time to tell someone to be themselves is if the other person has homicidal tendencies. And since that is most people, it’s probably never a good idea to tell someone else to “be yourself.” Imagine this scenario: Two Muslims are in a cave talking and one say to the other, “Akeem, I’m thinking about bombing the maternity ward they just added to the local hospital. Only, I’m not sure the Koran says killing babies is acceptable.” Naturally, Akeem replies. “You shouldn’t worry so much, Omar. Just be yourself.”
You may have also noticed just how cranky people get when they reach a certain age and basically have said, “Fuck it.” Those senior citizens operating without a filter because they figure they’ve been around long enough to stop playing the game? They’re not exactly surrounded by friends and family, are they? In the words of Joss Whedon, “Always be yourself…unless you suck.” Well, we all suck a little bit. We’re human after all. But that doesn’t mean we have to be so damn human all the time. One good, long glance back upon history will show you the consequences of us being ourselves. Ain’t too pretty, now is it?