Authenticity and Academic Writing

Today, I want to flesh out a little of the idea of writing in one’s own voice. Academic writers, and instructors of academic writing, will assert this. We have looked at asserting “one’s own stance” and in effect will develop one’s own research topics. But what does it mean to develop one’s own stance? This is perhaps the most misunderstood phrase in all of the teaching about writing, in particular, and about morality overall. Surely, we are not all self-made people.

This developing of one’s own stance is deeply attached to ideals of authenticity, and comes from much of the same motivation as calls to be authentic, or true to yourself. Many of the “sicknesses” and stories of success that are common in societies that are called “Western” (societies situated around the North Atlantic Ocean) are called “sick”, or “successful”, due to their relationship to what is so-called “authentic”. The call to write in your own voice also carries weight and importance because it references to widespread thoughts about authenticity.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. On the negative side, we can see the understanding of “addiction” to be informed strongly by what it means to be authentic. If you are addicted to alcohol, it is seen as a sickness not only because of the harm it does to your physical body, or because of the harm it does to your friends and family; it is primarily a sickness because it separates you from more authentic versions of yourself, either by giving your personal power and freedom over to a substance, or because it takes you away from more natural and truer forms of community that exist around you, like friends and family. We can also take the more recent example of virtual people who live primarily through the internet. These people try to derive their sense of self through online interactions on well-known social media channels like Facebook or Twitter, and more recently, Instagram. These people are often called “sick” (and most often by an older generation who are not native to these types of communication) because they 1) spend most of their waking hours online, 2) seem to be more impulsive in their shopping and entertainment habits, and most of all 3) seem to be more disconnected from significant others, like friends and family. Often, like the well-known speaker Simon Sinek says, these people – who are referred to as Millennials – feel entitled to something because they happen to want it. We can’t blame them entirely. Surely, the generation who raised these Millennials bear some responsibility for this impulsive behaviour because of the often-repeated phrase: “You can have anything you want.” On this negative side, the criticisms, the overwhelming criticism is based in how inauthentic these aspects of life are. Alcohol, and all other abused substances, separate us from who we really are, but so too does a life lived totally online or life where every gratification can be satisfied in an instant.

Stories of success too are labelled that way because they are deeply tied to authenticity. Steve Jobs, the originator of APPLE, is considered a man of success because he developed the most-highly valued business in terms of revenue generated out of a simple habit of inventing stuff that would help people. He was even kicked off the Board of Directors at Apple because of his authentic desire to invent things that were not profitable. His “authentic” love for inventing was followed, even at great sacrifice. He remained true to himself, and eventually returned to that same Board and they became even more successful. But away from the tech market, we can even understand someone like Nelson Mandela, the figure-head of rebellion against the apartheid movement in South Africa, to embody authenticity. He stayed in jail for 27 years, despite numerous opportunities to cooperate with political power and be released from jail. He stayed true to his principles, and not only was released from jail, but eventually became president of South Africa, at the same time securing the right of equal citizenship of black people. He was authentic, and he was a hero. We could select models of heroism from Oprah Winfrey, to Barack Obama, to Mother Theresa, to Ghandi, Leonard Cohen, to Serena Williams. All of these models of success and heroism would not be honored as much as they are without some connection to how authentic they were.

But more than just fleshing these stories out, it is important to understand exactly what authenticity is, and in so doing, distinguish it from what it is not. A lot of action claiming the name of authenticity can be understood as narcissistic (Donald Trump), or as a way of making money (Colin Kaepernik), or as actually representing narrow political interests (Rachel Notley). Without a clear idea of authenticity, I fear that we indeed may be duped (like many American voters or the person who is proud of wearing Nike), and more significantly, that we may indeed uphold and pursue a value which we don’t in fact believe in; without a clear idea of what authenticity is, what we will write will be not only very far from being our own voice and far from writing about anything that really matters.

At the origins of the modern university, round about 300 years ago, writing anything, including opinions had much to do with the first model of what counts as academic writing. Scholasticism had been dominant, and what counted as good academic writing was seen as anything which conformed to the given system. As a person, you had worth because you fit somewhere on a social stratus. Persons, values, and morality were considered valuable because they fit on some social scale, with accompanying roles. Roles such as priest or minister, Lord or Lady, peasant or noble conferred value of all kinds. They conferred identity and worth. A good life was determined in the ability to conform to all or a significant part of the social order.

For all kinds of reasons, we can see this as misguided. Neither social role, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, or any other “social” category should be the one having ultimate authority in our value as individuals. The rejection of this older order has left in its wake a rather hotly contested battle for the determination of what is of value and how our identities as individuals are determined.

In terms of academic writing, certainly anything resembling “writing in your own voice” is altogether absent; what counts as quality academic writing would do nothing other than supporting one social role or established institution or another.

The contest is between two contenders, both of which have their roots in the rejection of the older social order. Both seek to ground the determination of values in the way things are considered as meeting goals of self-fulfillment. Whereas the older order determined value and identity on conformity to an existing social order, the newer variants instead want to determine value and identities as somehow meeting the needs of self-fulfillment, not social conformity. Both variants say that no external order can determine who I should be or what I should care about. Who an individual is and what she cares about must indeed truly be of that individual. It isn’t the parents, or the priest, or the government, or the job, or the marital status that determines who a person is and what they should care about.

This rejection of the old order is something relatively new and peculiar to contemporary culture. This rejection was based on a new commitment to the primary significance of the individual. As a whole way of engagement with reality, the individualistic tendency of thinkers and writers prioritized the individual, and his or her unchanging core self as the focal point of all engagements, whether they be moral, scientific, or political. Modern individualism builds on thinkers such as Descartes, who demanded that the individual think self-responsibly for themselves. It also builds on Locke, who sought to make a person’s individual will as both prior and of superior importance to social obligations. It developed thoroughly through a strand of thinking that judged things based solely on their utility, i.e. on what functional use objects, people, the environment, existing communities, and religious commitments had. This individualism pushed the academics, the philosophers and the scientists into the “ivory tower” – into places where the only company they kept was their own. The individual wasn’t just an idea; the “atomized individual” became a rather stark reality.

Individuals were real and true only because they contributed to the advancement of the individual. Individualism that is subjectivist is a deep understanding of the “atomized individual,” i.e. the one that stood at a distance from the world. The stream of thought that pictured the individual as thinking self-responsibly, exercising a lone will on an external reality also advocated (intentionally or otherwise) people who treated the world instrumentally. This type of individual is recognizable today. We can see that person in the internet “troll”, who believes that making a sarcastic comment on a social media site counts as political activity. We can recognize this person in the person who loses their cool at the checkout counter, when a cashier accidentally double-scans an item. We can recognize this in the abuser, the one who sexually harasses, the ones who don’t even feel the need to recycle, the ones who think they can buy an education. Any and all external demands placed on the individual, especially those which are not particularly beneficial to the individual, are considered to be “impositions”, unnecessary, or otherwise false or fake.

In terms of academic writing, being subjectivist can be disastrous. Multiple scandals have occurred where academic writers and scholars have published falsified results for monetary gain or professional advancement. Not only is the so-called “academic” work of these individuals for personal gain not credible, but with the help of social and mass media, they are specifically damaging to the public world. One will recognize subjectivist writing when the writing is not significant for a wider group of people, or when the conclusion seems forced to agree with a thesis, or when work used, and the results that form the basis of the question seem forced. It will also be understood as subjectivist if the primary evidence of a conclusion is anecdotal. A subjectivist standpoint in expressing opinions or conclusions happens when the author, and the author alone, chooses what is of value. The author is thus isolated from what other interested parties find important. The subject matter of study is treated instrumentally, regardless of demands given by others.

A subjectivist opinion is thus characterized by two features. Subjectivism is first committed to the belief that human beings are self-created. For such radical individualists, one’s identity is self-made. Closely connected to this is the second belief, that what makes something important is that the person chooses it. This, in reality, flattens all choices as elements of preference, that there is no real difference in importance between what brand of soda one drinks as compared to who one picks as a life-partner. Each choice is important simply because one chooses it.

Charles Taylor has noted (Taylor, p.26 – 27) that on the one hand, it is important because it breaks the conformity of external influence that was demanded by the older social orders. But on the other hand, it underestimated the depth of moral commitment that is demanded if we are to understand ourselves as being authentic, and not merely subjectivist. Authenticity finds its roots in the idea that human beings are endowed with a moral sense, an intuitive feeling for what is right and wrong. This appeared to combat the rival view that knowing right and wrong was a matter of calculating consequences – specifically those concerned with divine reward and punishment. Authenticity took on the idea that understanding right and wrong was anchored in our feelings. “Morality has, in a sense, a voice within.”

That was how authenticity first made its academic appearance. Much later, it took on the following concept: that each of us has an original way of being human. This idea has entered very deep into contemporary awareness. It is also relatively new. Before the eighteenth century, the differences between human beings seemed not to have this kind of moral significance. There is a certain way of being human that is my way. We as individuals are, in a sense, called to live in a particular way that belongs to us. There is now a new importance to being “me”.

Being true to myself means being true to my originality, and that it is something only I can articulate and discover. This is the background understanding to the contemporary ideal of authenticity along with the aligned language of self-fulfillment and self-realization. Authenticity is what makes sense of “doing your own thing.”

In terms of academic writing, there is not much difference between the idea of authenticity as I have outlined here and the more narcissistic idea of the subjectivist self. Both write in terms for which they are responsible. However, there is one crucial difference. The authentic self gains its identity in dialogue. Whereas the subjectivist self is declared to be “self-made”, the authentic self is formed in relation to what many have called “significant others.”

As Taylor argues, the need for recognition is something which persists with us throughout our lives. Our concern is with the vital importance to our authentic identity is its character as developed in relation to others. We become full human beings in relation to our acquisition of rich human languages of expression. Let’s take language in the broadest sense, covering not only the words we speak and write, but of the languages of art, of gesture, and of love. No one acquires the languages for self-definition on their own. We acquire them through exchanges with others who matter to us. An authentic person emerges in the presence of significant others.

We should keep in mind that our understandings of the good things in life can be transformed by our enjoying them in common with people we love, that they are, in fact, accessible only through such common enjoyment. All of these exchanges with significant others form a background to what is different in me in comparison to others. The background of what is important is essential to it being important. And the point of this is that it isn’t the individual who chooses what is important. What is important is determined as such against a background of shared meanings and understandings of what is significant.

Authenticity, writing in your own voice, more than being a kind of principle, is actually connected to a deeply rooted ideal that prevents us both from repeating the work of others and from slipping into being trivial. Authenticity takes out of the dual traps of just repeating the work of others and of writing something that doesn’t make a difference.

The demand to be authentic is to make choices against a background of things that matter, not in isolation from them. Authenticity is not an enemy towards concerns that go beyond the self; authenticity assumes those demands.

Thus, writing in your own voice requires some civic concerns – as I have mentioned already. Some of these concerns may include: the good life, solidarity (our ties with others), ecology, economic systems, history (shared stories), citizenship (community identity), or religious adherence. In order to write authentically then, one must take into accounts what others have said about such topics and incorporate their thoughts into one’s writing. One must develop a unique perspective on issues that matter to others. In other words, academic writing is something which can significantly refine your own identity, and develop your informed opinion in the natural and social worlds.

*Much of the line of argument in this blog comes from Charles Taylor’s “The Malaise of Modernity,” Anasi Press, 1991.

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