2013-05-24

Authenticity, Part I

Sometimes circumstances align such that concepts that never would have otherwise occurred to us present themselves in stunning clarity.

If someone had asked me last week what I had to say about "authenticity," I would have struggled for an answer. It's not that I don't have a take on authenticity, it's that my take would likely never have been brought into focus, were it not for the events of the past week.

One such event was the minor controversy stirred up at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog involving the if-by-whisky shotgun theories David Friedman calls mush. I'm not tempting fate by mentioning this controversy after already declaring that I wouldn't be discussing it any further. I won't be. I mention it only because it informed what has become a budding interest in the notion of a person's authenticity. In this case, the idea I'm expressing is that Bleeding Heart Libertarianism lacks authenticity as an ideological movement so long as it isn't fully capable of defining itself. It seems to consist of a diverse group of like-minded thinkers, but when that same group is called upon to delineate their differences from out-group libertarians, they routinely fail. As such, it is difficult to consider them much more than a marketing campaign. Insofar as I share the majority of their policy goals, I hope they are a successful one.

Yet, it is precisely their resemblance to a marketing campaign that gets me thinking about authenticity. When it comes to adhering to a set of ideological principles, all authenticity really means is that a person genuinely does believe what he or she says. BHLs are certainly authentic in that regard. Where they fall short is identity. In Stationary Waves language, they're engaging in a social - and therefore moral - fulfillment at the expense of individualist - and therefore existential - concerns. "Bleeding heart" libertarianism is an in-group, and like all other in-groups is it ill-defined.

We leave fuzzy boundaries at the edges of our in-groups precisely so that in-groups can serve their moral function of expelling outsiders. Seen from the standpoint of a self-policing community, what good is it to adhere to principle if it puts you face-to-face with all the people you consider morally reprehensible? A concrete moral structure prevents us from having the flexibility to exclude bad guys on-the-fly. Creeps who specialize in pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior have been wreaking havoc on rule-based communities for ages. A dedication to principle leaves us paralyzed to oust the trouble-makers. If the rules are malleable enough, or sufficiently subject to personal interpretation, "a good argument to be made" for excluding a trouble-maker becomes all the argument needed at all.

This preserves the social order and buttresses our moral sensibilities, but it has a side-effect. In our desire to provide exceptions for our principles to punish the guilty, we lose whatever piece of our identity that required a definition to keep it in place.

Families who remain close despite the fact that one or more family members is a clear outsider know this all-too-well. The adopted child always feels that piece is missing, and so embarks on a long journey to learn about his or her absentee parents. The step-parent loves his or her spouse's children dearly, but always feels funny about words like "mom" and "dad" until he or she conceives a shared child. However willing we all are to bend the rules to redefine the word "family" to include all of our loved ones, the loss of the definite corresponds to absence of something we are supposed to know about ourselves.

Or, as The Last Psychiatrist puts it (all spelling, typographical, and grammatical errors in the original):
[O]n the one hand, they don't want to have to conform to society's impossible standards, but on the other hand they don't want the existential terror of NOT conforming to some kind of standard.  They want an objective bar to be changed to fit them-- they want "some other omnipotent entity" to change it so that it remains both entirely valid yet still true for them, so that others have to accept it, and if you have no idea what I'm talking about look at your GPA: you know, and I know, that if college graded you based on the actual number of correct answers you generated, no curve, then you would have gotten an R.  Somehow that R became an A.  The question is, why bother?  Why not either make grades rigorous and valid so we know exactly what they mean, or else do away with them entirely?  Because in either case society and your head would implode from the existential vacuum.  Instead, everyone has to get As AND the As have to be "valid" so you feel good enough to pay next year's tuition, unfortunately leaving employers with no other choice but to look for other more reliable proxies of learning like race, gender, and physical appearance.  Oh.   Did you assume employers would be more influenced by the fixed grades than their own personal prejudices?   "Wait a second, I graduated 4.0 from State, and the guy you hired had a 3.2 from State-- the only reason you didn't hire me is because I'm a woman!"  Ok, this is going to sound really, really weird:  yeah.  The part that's going to really have you scratching your head is why did either of you need college when the job only requires a 9th grade education?
And later in the same article:
Self esteem is sold to you as an inalienable right, not something to be earned; and if you don't have self-esteem it's because fake society made you feel bad about yourself.  But fake society also made you feel good about yourself, it propped you up.  The reason you got an A and not an R and believed it is because you actually believe you are an A kind of guy, Math, English, History, Science, PE, and Lunch notwithstanding.  A, not R.  But if everyone deserves it, it has no value.  Which is why getting  it is unsatisfying. 
This describes our predicament perfectly: On the one hand, we want things to be exactly the way we wish they were, all the way up to the point where we are willing to redefine the rules so that they validate the reality we wish to see. On the other hand, a part of us walks away knowing that it's not real, that we had to change the rules in order to create a game we could win.

As we continue to make our way through a life riddled by doubts, needs, fears, and unrequited desires, we cook up endlessly many ways to bend the rules. The women discussed in The Last Psychiatrist article want to redefine beauty such that they can qualify for it. The non-nuclear families want to redefine the family unit to include all the important people in their lives. The BHLs want to redefine libertarianism so that their ideas are the ones that receive headline attention.

It should be clear from all of these examples that the motivation for this sort of behavior is seldom bad. A happy family is a good family, however they choose to define it. A woman who feels beautiful is a happy woman regardless of how her physical features stand up to the voters at "Hot Or Not?" A libertarian thinker who manages to advance the cause of essential liberty has done society a good turn regardless of whether more obtuse or quixotic libertarians feel they have compromised the philosophical roots.

When it comes to human happiness, good is good. Sometimes even (although clearly not all the time) the end does justify the means. As this smart guy says, Harvard is more about the brand than it is about the quality of its education. But (as he unfortunately omitted), if your Harvard education results in your drawing a six-figure salary, that's a slice of happiness you can literally take to the bank. It's hard to argue against that kind of illusion, isn't it?

There's a secret to all this, a little magic ingredient that keeps the whole system afloat: Authenticity.

With the non-nuclear family, it's extremely easy to see. If a man provides for a child, teaches that child, nurtures that child's creativity and morality, provides mentorship, resources, love, and support, through thick-and-thin, for his entire life, then that man has authentically demonstrated that he his a father. The biological conception of the child becomes beside the point. The man ears a level of authenticity that not even a zygote can supply.

There are many other obvious cases in which authenticity manages to overcome the challenge of a rule or definition, and I won't bother to inundate you with an exhaustive list.

What I'm really getting at is that lack of authenticity means that, however we choose to bend the rules, we leave in our minds and our hearts the gaping hole that can only be filled with the truth. If you tell yourself that you can overcome a physical imperfection by having an extremely beautiful personality, and you win the heart of a great mate, then you have earned your authenticity. But if you fill a friend or loved one with a lot of false praise and hope by telling her that she is a princess when she is in fact more of a duchess then we all walk away with a pit in our stomach. The pit is the result of a lie. You can borrow against your authenticity for a little while, but it always leaves a scar somewhere in your mind.

In today's world, we are inundated with gurus, marketing campaigns, media lies, and government propaganda. We regurgitate the spin we hear in our private conversations. We buy into the quick-fixes and the grading-on-a-curve and the false demonization of innocent scapegoats. All the while, we leave ourselves hungry for authenticity.

So the next time you're watching The Voice and telling yourself that the best of these contestants is every bit as good a singer as the Dellphonics or whatever, keep in mind that you're borrowing against your own authenticity, and that one day you're going to turn around and discover that you can't buy a Dellphonics record anymore, and that the only thing left on the store shelves is the new Justin Bieber CD.

And as a final note, let me say that those of you who are saying that you like Justin Bieber and who am I to say anything about it are also borrowing against your authenticity. You might win that argument with me, but you will never out-run the hole left in your stomach, put there by the illusions you chose to suffer to make things look a little better.