Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Authentic Self and Cultural Self

Consider this:
Everyone wants to be authentic. You want to be true to yourself, not a slavish follower of social expectations. You want to “live your best life,” pursuing your particular desires, rather than falling in line with whatever everyone else thinks happiness requires. Studies have even shown that feelings of authenticity can go hand in hand with numerous psychological and social benefits: higher self-esteem, greater well-being, better romantic relationships and enhanced work performance.

But authenticity is a slippery thing. Although most people would define authenticity as acting in accordance with your idiosyncratic set of values and qualities, research has shown that people feel most authentic when they conform to a particular set of socially approved qualities, such as being extroverted, emotionally stable, conscientious, intellectual and agreeable.
I am not especially impressed by this research, which you can read about at the link if you like, but I am fascinated by the question of the authentic self. There is a notion, strong in the western tradition, that you have an authentic self separate from your community and your culture. There are the things that your society says you should want, and then there are the things that you really want.

I very much question whether this is real.

Consider a person who gives up an ordinary, somewhat boring middle class suburban existence married to the right sort of person, doing respectable work, to become a fishing guide in Alaska. He or she might say, "Now I'm being true to my authentic self." But really "running off to be a fishing guide in Alaska" is every bit as much of a cultural construct as "living comfortably as a middle class suburbanite." Conforming is a social role, but in our world, so is trying to break away and live "authentically."

I would say that "authenticity" itself is a cultural construct.

There is no such thing as a person without a culture. Everything we are and do is shaped by the world around us. Including rebelling against the constraints of our culture, which our particular culture very much encourages.

I think often of myself in light of this question, because there is a part of me that wants to be a writer; this somehow feels more authentic to me than sitting at my desk manipulating spreadsheets. But this dream is shared by many thousands and maybe millions of my contemporaries; how much of what I imagine is really me, and how much comes from a shared fantasy of a creative life? (Does that question mean anything?) Novels, the things I most want to write, are a highly contrived and artificial art form only a few centuries old, and fantasy novels are younger still. The stories I want to tell are built from pieces of other stories, telling about things I have been taught are important: love, friendship, struggle, triumph, defeat, acceptance, defiance.

I don't mean to argue that people have no differences. My children were born different from each other in ways that still shape them. But whatever they brought into the world takes form only in and through our particular world; whatever feelings spring from their hearts can only act on the options our culture presents to them.

We make choices, yes. Our world offers us many ways to live, and we have to pick one. But who knows which would be more authentic? I think some people do make bad choices and end up with lives that make them unhappy, and sometimes they do this from caution or submission to their families rather than "following their dreams." But maybe for some people caution and submission are authentic; maybe for some people breaking free and striking out on their own would be utterly false. And consider the feelings that picture arouses in us; despite my desire in writing this to be objective, the cautious, conventional path strikes some part of me as cowardly and weak. But that, I submit, is because my culture taught me to feel that way, and maybe real radicalism would be in recognizing that every choice is a mix of self and society, of will and submission.

What is us and what comes from outside us is an impossible questions to answer, because everything is both.


David said...

"whatever they brought into the world takes form only in and through our particular world"

This strikes me as way too absolute. It doesn't explain why a person chooses one path rather than another; why the range of options and the emphasis a culture puts on them changes; how new options come to be; and so on. Just because a way of being exists as a cultural trope doesn't mean that a person chooses it only, or in the first instance, because they've been taught about it.

Humanity has been so busy for so long observing and analyzing and coming up with and labeling and advocating for various ways of being that, yes, it's very hard at this point to be truly original. But just because one's choices aren't original does not mean ipso facto that they are "mere" imitation, or that you can learn most about a person by learning about the cultural tropes they seem to conform to. Perhaps emulation is a better way of thinking of it.

And indeed, in the latter part of your post you allow a place for personal proclivity, or something like it. But I think its role is bigger, and more creditable, than you seem to allow.

Perhaps it's worth remembering that most psychiatrists say that they can't really begin to understand someone or comment on them unless they meet them and get to know them. This is partly about the famous Barry Goldwater episode, but mostly, I think, it's the result of simple experience. Culture doesn't give you that much insight into individuals; insight into individuals as individuals can begin to tell you why they made the cultural choices they've made.

Nothing makes sense except in terms of inter-individual variation.

John said...

I'm not really saying individual choice isn't important, I'm saying you can't divide those choices into that that are authentic and those that are not.

David said...

Your rhetoric, however, seems to consign individual choice to a sort of ancillary role. Authenticity may simply be a way (a grandiose way, I agree) of describing why a person chooses certain ways of being. But the choice itself still comes down to individuality. One could say that the world itself only takes form in and through the brains of individuals, at the same time as the same individuals' choices can be said to only take shape through the cultural tropes they embody (and the latter, and especially the impulse to identify the tropes a choice embodies, may be as much or more an observer effect determined by culture--the drive of the observer to come up with a brief, clear analysis in a three-page essay to be handed in next class, or to be uttered forcefully in one's alotted time on the CNN panel show, before the commercial break).

I'm perfectly happy to give up the term authenticity, and the ideal behind it. I never liked Hermann Hesse and such when I had to read them in high school. The pair authenticity-vs.-conformity just seems like a bad way to divide choices. That's not because all choices must be on some level largely imitative and, from standpoint of the authenticity ideal, inauthentic (because culture), with individuality playing a mild, consumerish, pick-which-brand-you-like-and-be-satisified-therewith role on the side. It's because the category of authenticity is dumb. It's way too highfalutin' and proud a a way to talk about the inner consciousness and sense of self-awareness that people have (which I see no reason to believe is something taught, and certainly not "merely" taught, by culture).

David said...

To put it another way, I agree that there is virtually, or maybe almost, nothing a person can think or do or choose that hasn't already been thought or done or chosen by someone else, and described, analyzed, commented on, and sold(!) by our culture. But that does not mean that one should put the bulk, or even necessarily half, of the weight of characterization of a given thought or action or choice, or of an individual as a whole, on the culture-teaching-imitation side of things.