Rejecting the Culture of Authenticity
JUNE 30, 2021BY DAVID C. BURRISUnless and until the excesses of authenticity culture are able to be moderated, we can expect the widespread relational fragmentation, loneliness, and loss that flows from it to continue unabated. Nevertheless, authenticity should not be discarded as an ideal. Instead, we must articulate a more constructive and reasonable conception of authenticity that can be passed on to the next generation.
Two months ago, Bill and Melinda Gates released a statement on Twitter announcing the couple’s decision to end their marriage of twenty-seven years. They acknowledged the good that their marriage has produced, such as raising “three incredible children” and building an effective philanthropic foundation that is improving the lives of people all over the world. Yet despite all of this, the couple states that they “no longer believe that [they] can grow together as a couple in this next phase of life” and ask for privacy as they begin to “navigate this new life.”
My purpose here is not to comment on the circumstances surrounding the Gateses’ decision to split. However, I would argue that their brief explanation and the presuppositions it contains are culturally significant, because they embody the flawed conceptions of the nature of authenticity and personal fulfillment that have become ubiquitous in Western society today. Such attitudes are pernicious and continue to produce disastrous social consequences.
Nevertheless, authenticity should not be discarded as an ideal. Instead, we must articulate a more constructive and reasonable conception of authenticity that can be passed on to the next generation. To do so, we need to recognize the primacy that enduring relationships have in the project of self-definition, embrace external standards of objective reality against which our choices can be measured, and evaluate the quest for authenticity within the framework of classical virtue ethics.
In The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor skillfully diagnoses some of the problems we face. He begins by characterizing the society that supports and nourishes a fixation on creating authentic selves as a “culture of authenticity.” He claims that such cultures tend to promote perverse and inadequate ideas about the true nature of authenticity, as well as the ethical frameworks needed to support it, and he predicts that a weakening and dissolution of personal relationships will be the inevitable result. This is true in part because the pursuit of authenticity instrumentalizes our relationships with associations and communities instead of respecting their intrinsic value.
On an interpersonal level, Taylor argues, the culture of authenticity “fosters a view of relationships in which these ought to subserve personal fulfillment. The relationship is secondary to the self-realization of the partners.” In such a view, the motivation to make commitments that last for the duration of one’s life is diminished. Indeed, it may even be counterproductive. If a relationship is no longer serving the purpose of helping one of the partners to achieve self-fulfillment, then committing to remain together in spite of it makes little sense.
To illustrate the point, Taylor includes an excerpt from Gail Sheehy’s 1976 book Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. Sheehy’s advice to those entering mid-life is to become more comfortable with the pursuit of transitory and transactional relationships, which she calls the “gift of portable roots.” This “gift” can be enjoyed to the extent that one is able to ignore the social “roles” he or she has been playing, along with the expectations and obligations attendant to those roles—or at least to hold them in a more tentative mode. Once you hold those you love with a looser grasp, the truly authentic self can emerge and the capacity for love will be enhanced: “For each of us there is the opportunity to emerge reborn, authentically unique, with an enlarged capacity to love ourselves and embrace others…. The delights of self-discovery are always available. Though loved ones move in and out of our lives, the capacity to love remains.”
For Sheehy, authenticity requires us to end our relationships with those who no longer contribute to our sense of personal fulfillment and redirect our love to those who can. Duties and obligations become conditional rules of convenience. The Gateses’ announcement echoes this language: as they enter this new “phase” of their lives, they sadly no longer believe they can grow as a couple. It is ambiguous what we should take their use of the word “grow” to mean, but at a minimum, it seems to imply that they believe their marriage should be accomplishing certain results for their private ends that are not forthcoming.
Horizons of Significance and the Definition of the Self
The rejection of what Taylor terms “horizons of significance” is also present in the Gateses’ declaration. Horizons of significance are those objective sources of meaning and morality that exist independent of one’s own will or the satisfaction of personal desires.
For Taylor, there is a “horizon” of meaningful choices, lifestyles, and virtues against which the self can be measured and deemed to be significant. We are born into a cosmos, which requires individuals to search out and understand their position in a broader order. All attempts at finding or creating the authentic self that reject this basic supposition are doomed to collapse into a naïve subjectivism that levels the moral status of all choices. Without an external, objective basis, even the assumption that the authentic is preferable is left utterly unsupported.
Furthermore, engagement with and reference to significant others are necessary conditions in the pursuit of self-definition. Taylor shows how the very tools of self-definition and discovery are “dialogical” in character. The articulation and innovation of self-identities require languages that allow the self to express or define its significance. Yet, he observes, “no one acquires the languages needed for self-definition on their own.” Communication is learned through a process of exchanges with others. We may use these means of communication in solitary ways, but when it comes to working out the contours of our own identity, we often find ourselves engaged in “dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the identities our significant others want to recognize in us.” These conversations are formative and constructive of who we regard ourselves to be. Promoters of authenticity underestimate the roles that others play in our personal enjoyment, pleasure, and aspirations. The identity of being an elite track star, for example, is only intelligible when it includes relationships with competitors, coaches, referees, fans, friends, and family members.
Sheehy suggests that unleashing the authentic self requires tentative and provisional ties and responsibilities. This, she predicts, will result in “an enlarged capacity to love ourselves and embrace others.” Such an idea could only find purchase in a cultural context in which the discharging of duty and cultivation of virtue increasingly becomes regarded as instrumental, one that acknowledges no greater horizon of significance outside the self and actively ignores the dialogical role that others play in understanding our identities. A constructive conception of authenticity, by contrast, exhorts us to understand that meaning and fulfillment derive from internalizing one’s own situatedness and answering the call to live for a world outside of the self.
Preserving the Ideal of Authenticity
It can be tempting to dismiss the ideal of authenticity as inherently narcissistic, egoistic, and doomed to slide down the slippery slope to subjectivism. To those who hold this view, authenticity culture is considered an outgrowth of a self-indulgent and self-obsessed generation, one that encourages individuals to participate in the world as the leading characters in a film they have written for themselves. It is antithetical to the belief in objective morality or the formation of virtue.
While this reaction is understandable, we should not be too quick to throw out the proverbial baby. There are compelling reasons why authenticity should be retained as an ideal, and indeed, developed as one of the virtues. The first is that there is a psychic cost that inauthenticity puts on individuals. Doing and saying things that one does not in fact believe to be the case are associated with higher rates of feeling both immoral and impure. While the feeling of discomfort is not dispositive of the virtue of authenticity, it does let us know when we are perpetrating a deception about our own thoughts and character, and it provides a psychological disincentive to engage in that behavior. As such, these feelings will play a crucial role in either aiding or opposing behaviors that reinforce other virtues.
In fact, authenticity is a necessary condition for the cultivation of any of the virtues. Without a commitment to authenticity, we stand powerless to resist when we are challenged to act in a way inconsistent with our own characters. If I stand to benefit by telling a lie, then it will only be my commitment to remain faithful to my disposition and desire to tell the truth that allows the trait of honesty to manifest itself.
Those who live in habitually inauthentic ways leave themselves vulnerable to a corruption of their characters. In the gospels, for example, we read repeatedly how Jesus lampoons the Pharisees for performing external acts of piety while lacking a true heart of compassion and love for their neighbors. It’s easy to see why. This type of hypocrisy provides the soil in which self-deception and pride may easily take root. The inauthentic individual plays a role for which he or she is lauded. This praise reinforces certain behaviors, such as praying loudly in public spaces, yet those actions are not truly building the virtues of reverence or piety. Instead, hypocrites learn to be selective, performing the behavior on cue and only when they derive social accolades for their performance.
Avoiding Both the Excess and the Defect of Authenticity
Like all virtues, true authenticity strikes a mean between two extremes.
The “culture of authenticity” is on one end of the spectrum, characterized by excess. In this view, authenticity is regarded as the supreme virtue, the chief means by which one may flourish. All other virtues are put into its service. It does not need to submit to the contours of objective reality, nor does it need to make any discriminating judgments about the appropriate context for expression.
The virtue of authenticity, by contrast, does not make excuses for poor decisionmaking. It is not a pretext to ignore or justify acting in ways inconsistent with one’s duties or the demands of justice. It recognizes the existence of a universe outside the self that, in Taylor’s words, “makes claims” on the individual. Any feelings of inauthenticity that one experiences as one exercises the virtues should correctly be ignored.
This must be done, while at the same time, without completely surrendering the project of self-definition and expression to whatever social or cultural forces exist externally. This would constitute a defect or lack of authenticity. Specifying exactly when and under what circumstances such a reassertion of the self should occur is difficult to do without assessing a particular person’s character and their particular context. Still, at a minimum, when the natural rights of individuals are being violated, or when vice is praised as virtue, living in a way consistent with one’s one authentically held values and convictions is both necessary and appropriate.
In order to militate against the culture of authenticity, the virtue of authenticity must be rehabilitated and widely promulgated. The dissolution of the Gates family is a tragic but predictable result of authenticity culture. And unless and until the excesses of authenticity culture are able to be moderated, we can expect the widespread relational fragmentation, loneliness, and loss that flows from it to continue unabated.
About the Author
David C. Burris is a full-time instructor of philosophy and religious studies at Arizona Western College in Yuma, AZ, as well as a faculty associate in the program of Organizational Leadership at Arizona State University.