In Search of Authenticity
by Robert Gordon
Posted: 25 Sep 2012
As we continue to deconstruct truth narratives and question traditional
crucibles of power many people are searching for new paradigms upon which to
base collective hopes and dreams. Recent
failures in our political and economic structures are not a new or unique tale
and a common response to such periods of social upheaval lies in the attempt to
discover a new level of authenticity, to construct a discourse that speaks
directly to the experience of the individual whilst encouraging commitment to a
shared, collective reality.
The new modes of communication and organisation that modern technology offers are a vital component of this search for authenticity through our new found capacity to share information, canvas opinion, and subvert media and political narratives. At the same time, they often highlight that we consciously construct our social image in a way that is removed from our own honest understanding of self identity. We compartmentalise our lives and digitally craft an idealised version of ourselves, and we do this with increasing levels of detail and care. Thus, we have simultaneously developed the perfect medium for collectivism but also the ideal tools for narcissism. With no shared commitment to integrating the various components of our lives - and, indeed, encouragement to do otherwise - we hide parts of ourselves further, we abstract further, we work upon shared ideas of goodness and righteousness often without having a genuine conversation about what these concepts mean to us; where they are generated; and how they might be achieved.
When thinking about socio-economic 'progress' it is difficult to approach a sense of objective reality, but we can often do so by examining some pragmatic outcomes. The ongoing financial crisis is the manifestation of deep-seated social trauma. A severance from the imagined social cohesion displayed before the crisis that undermines previously accepted views of how we relate to one another - what it means to succeed, how we create value and the meaning of wealth. The negative outcomes lie in foreclosed homes; in unemployment and disenfranchisement; in exponentially increasing wealth disparity; in the detrimental impact we are having on the environment; and in a widening of the gap between those who truly have autonomy and the ability to create authority and those who must adhere, must submit to a global political reality that they have limited capacity to escape the negative impacts of.
As feelings of disenfranchisement broaden - and begin to envelope what we refer to as the 'middle class' - the social malaise suddenly becomes palpable and can no longer be hidden as the anger and resentment transfers onto those who have more capacity to be heard. The call for authenticity comes from feelings of exploitation, subjection to external pressures, and the conscious realisation of how political and economic structures are manipulated by those displaying predatory behaviour to the detriment of our collective wellbeing. The social contract then begins to fall apart even in well-off societies - as evidenced recently by the student protests of 2010 and the high-street riots of 2011 - precisely because there is no shared sense of enjoyment of social output; but rather a perceived blatant display of inequality and injustice typified by feelings of cultural and political alienation and economic despair. For the London 2012 Olympics we spectacularly succeeded at recreating this shared enjoyment, of finding a modern mythology that enabled us to feel closer to the unified whole that we all subconsciously crave (something that sport, in general, is very good at). And yet this enjoyment was underpinned by a high level of fear and mistrust - of security and paranoia - the sense that at any moment the shared enjoyment could be stripped away and we would be left facing one another; judging one another; hiding from ourselves in the often monstrous, always imagined images of those we have no authentic relationship with.
We need to ask ourselves how we might formulate a new public discourse that releases this growing social pressure and lack of trust. What structural models do we have that subvert illusory modes of communication and inherently disingenuous or ignorant relationships? Can we build an open and transparent form of policy-making, in order that through wide-scale peer review we come to find a more genuine sense of social reality? Can horizontal movements such as Occupy replace traditional power hierarchies, or by doing so might we actually move further away from a realistic understanding of what it means to relate to other human beings? To live with and trust; to work for or employ; to love and despise; the realities of charisma, persuasion, rhetoric; the realities of the power relationships that exist between us at all times in often imperceptible ways.
With the human condition in mind can a structure that encourages public, unashamed honesty successfully promote the common good and allow wellbeing to flourish? Surely not everything can be so forthright and raw, so what do we gain from a reliance on inauthentic discourse and obfuscated agendas? Is the search for this so-called 'authenticity' itself another illusory creation, a utopian vision that is unattainable no matter how desperately we might want to discover it?
In the end the answer might be that we don't really want to discover it at all, for to do so will force us to make significant sacrifices and require us to deal with a more complex and difficult form of dialogue then we are used to having even with ourselves. Maybe we are not ready to truly commit to authenticity in public life, instead utilising the call for cultural change as just another mask that we wear to appear respectable and decent - whilst privately delighted in our personal comforts and narcissistic desires.
It's time to build up the courage to remove these masks, to stop ignoring the oppressive realities of the social order that we create together every time we act, interact or refuse to act. Can we discover such authenticity? Or are we too afraid of what we might find waiting for us if we do?
Mike Young - Posted: 15 Nov 2012
Rob - Posted: 30 Nov 2012
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.