St Paul's Institute

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?

About this author

Robert Gordon was the Manager of St Paul's Institute from 2009 - 2017.

Mike Young - Posted: 15 Nov 2012

Authenticity? Perhaps the problem lies in our sense of being and belonging, and lack of communal and suburban spirit.

Arabs have it easy. They have a hierarchy of diminishing loyalties
2)Extended Family
6)Mankind as a whole

As they move out through the hierarchy if any conflicts occur, loyalty goes to the smaller group. E.g.They do not easily became Christians because to do so would alienate groups 1-4. I can be authentic to a group at the top of the hierarchy without upsetting the groups lower down.

However for Westerners some of these layers are just not there and most are not as strong, and the order is not as well defined, so it's difficult to know which groups should have our loyalty. Things are just not clear cut. We may get for the average westerner:

1)Immediate Family
2)Family Friends 2) Colleagues at work 2) Friends I share hobbies with 2) Extended Family
4)Mankind as a whole

(Of course that's just one order. Other people may have things in a different order, or not feel any loyalty to some groups).

But there's four groups contending for second place. We are forced into dilemmas. Colleagues at work won't approve of the Facebook posts that the friends I share hobbies with will. So I have to moderate them. In the age of the internet, everything's in the open. So for fear of upsetting one of these circles of friends I am unable to fully express myself. I feel "Inauthentic". If I did share and let it all out I would be rejected as not belonging to a particular group.

Rob - Posted: 30 Nov 2012

Thank you for your comment, Mike.

I'm uncomfortable with the blanket statements you are making about groups of people (such generalisations never hold up to scrutiny and we should steer well clear of them), but I can see the point you are trying to make about hierarchies of loyalty.

I agree that when our personal loyalties are in conflict we often find it difficult to be as open and genuine as we might like, there is a tendency to hold ourselves back to ensure that a conflict of interest does not develop.

But when I'm talking about authenticity, I'm not necessarily talking about needing to say everything to everyone. That would not be workable in many of the environments we operate in. Sometimes information needs to be held back. Rather, when I talk about authenticity I'm talking about being open and honest about your intentions and the underlying agendas that formulate them.

What I am really interested in here is authenticity in public life - that who we present ourselves to be (the essence of it) is the same as who we are. That the structures we create to achieve particular ends do so via comparable and open means; that there is no obfuscation of activity or intention. Acting in this manner allows those who engage with us in the public sphere to respond from a foundation of trust rather than suspicion, and in this manner productive dialogue and compromise can occur that brings us closer to this elusive conception of the common good that we're all searching for. Without honesty and openness it is almost impossible to find commonality, and a capacity to find together that universal notion of goodness in our social actions is what I'm really searching for when looking for more authenticity in public life.

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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.