Inarticulate Authenticity

When I lived in Korea from 2001 – 2006, I quickly made friends with a group of 5 other expats from a number of native English-speaking countries: Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand.  We would often go out to a restaurant and eat pizza. In Korea, they put corn kernels on their pizza. In a range of feelings of disgust, amazement and even indifference, we discussed every time: Is corn an authentic ingredient on pizza? AND By what criteria can we call a pizza “authentic”? Some suggested it had to correspond to some original Italian version, a nationalistic version of pizza that only had dough, seasoned tomato sauce, and cheese. Others argued that Pizza Hut, by putting more ingredients on it, had developed a model of authentic pizza, relative to a culture. Some argued that ANY ingredient, like corn, that was edible and physically fit on the pizza was authentic – a kind of “it pleases me” argument. Closer to home, the conversation about what makes a food “authentic” is common. I have witnessed Indian students discuss what makes butter chicken authentic – for hours. What counts as authentic, in the case of food, is highly contestable. We can also see that the uses of the term authentic are plural, and not altogether clear. 

Authenticity makes its appearance beyond dining. In University, we encourage students to write in their own voice, that is, to distinguish what they have to say from the research they have used to provide a background for their opinions. In terms of career, we have emphasized the idea of calling in pushing students to vocation, which is somehow better than simply finding a job. In discipleship, evangelical and mainline Christians emphasize a personal relationship to God that in some sense is unique, as it ought to be. In marriage and life-partnership, the demand for ourselves and our partners to “be themselves” is commonplace – because love cannot happen unless it is genuine. The demand to be authentic is ubiquitous, and exerted without question, as an axiom. But like the endless debate over corn on pizza, what it means to be authentic is in some sense inarticulate. 

The understanding of authenticity as a strong moral ideal has three significant obstacles to its proper articulation. First, critics of authenticity often see it in some of its most trivialized and self-indulgent forms. They collapse it together with moral relativism. The critics argue that authenticity pushes people to do whatever they want, and to treat others instrumentally – i.e. as tools for an individual’s own development or fulfillment, In other words, toward narcissism or sociopathy. If authenticity meant this utilitarian model of self-fulfillment, then the critics would be right. And certainly there is some warrant for this type of criticism; under the name of authenticity, the pursuit of self-fulfillment has often appeared as trivial and self indulgent. I won’t belittle my audience by enumerating the many examples. But I believe that such modes reflect a very deep confusion of the moral force of authenticity.

Second, proponents of authenticity, likewise, miss the moral force of authenticity as well.  A culture, broadly speaking, of tolerance and self-fulfillment tends to shy away from questions of what would be higher forms of life. Ronald Dworkin and Will Kymlika, among the proponents, believe that governments should not contribute substantially on matters of what constitutes the good life, in effect pushing conversations about authenticity to the margins. To say it more simply, they concentrate on the fairness of procedures rather than on commitments to actual goods.

A third factor obscures the importance of authenticity as a moral ideal: normal social science explanation. Social science tends to shy away from invoking moral ideals in favour of supposedly harder and more down to earth factors in generating explanations. So for the topics we play in here are explained as by-products of social change such as spin-offs of industrialization or globalization, or greater mobility, or urbanization. And while there are significant causal relations to be explored between these factors and individualism, the accounts that invoke those causes frequently skirt the possibility that changes in culture and outlook owe anything to their own inherent power as moral ideals. Even where individual freedom and the enlargement of instrumental reason might be understood as having intrinsic reasons that help explain their rise, this attraction is often understood in non-moral terms, as in the advantages they bestow on people regardless of their moral outlook. Freedom allows you to do what you want, and instrumental reason gets you more of what you want. 

The result is an extraordinary inarticulacy about authenticity, which is a constitutive ideal of what is now contemporary, globalized culture. The opponents slight it, and the proponents can’t talk about it, and our investigations can’t consider it.

Does any of this matter? I believe it does, and I think you should too because articulating authenticity has a moral point. It doesn’t simply correct wrong views, but it makes the force of an ideal people actually hold more palpable, more vivid, and have a deeper resonance. By doing so, articulating the ideal and how to foster it empowers people to more fully live up to it, and to do so with greater integrity.

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