By Trevor Watkins
Some of what I have to say here is derived from a Wikipedia article entitled “Authenticity”.
What is real? In a world flooded with fake information pedalled by phony people, how do you as a thinking individual arrive at any conclusion? How do you establish what information advances your life and what retards it? Is the truth knowable?
Are truth and authenticity the same? I think many people authentically promote the version of the truth they happen to believe. You cannot accuse them of bad faith, just ignorance of your version of the truth.
I have come to the conclusion that one can only strive to be authentic. This is not an original idea. Many great people throughout history from Marcus Aurelius to Kierkegaard have come to much the same conclusion. The best advice that the Oracle of Delphi could offer was “know thyself”. I would add that you must not only know yourself, but you must be yourself, You must act authentically.
To be authentic you must constantly examine your actions and your motivations for these actions. Did you quote Kierkegaard because he was relevant, or because it makes you seem intellectual? Did you choose a controversial title because it advances the authenticity of what you say, or because it might get you more clicks. The greatest test of authenticity, in the written word, is the answer to the question, “How much are you being paid, and in what currency, to say this?”
An authentic person has a responsibility to develop and shape their beliefs to the best of their ability using the resources at hand. These resources are not always reason and logic. A bushman who comes to the conclusion that existence is the dream of a praying mantis, based on his experience of the world, is more authentic than a zealot who bases his beliefs on the writings of an unknown third party in a book of uncertain origin. Even a scientist who pretends to know the unknowable is not authentic.
To fulfill the potential of one's humanity and existence, one must take an active part in the shaping of one's beliefs, and then be willing to act on those beliefs. Too many people simply accept the norms of the society in which they live, swallow whole the beliefs of others, even when contrary to their own good sense.
Actively shaping one's own belief and then acting upon that belief is a laborious task. But, as Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Most humans possess an ill-defined sense called a conscience. This seems to be a good place to start in developing an internal set of beliefs. Most individuals seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong, of good and bad, almost independent of the surrounding world and its norms. If you lack this sense you may end up an authentic Nazi, which would be a pity.
Not all beliefs are valid or equal. I favour beliefs that are rational, consistent, and explainable, otherwise any form of conversation is difficult. If you believe that life is paramount, then you cannot also believe in taking life. If you believe that you own the fruits of your labour, then you cannot also be comfortable with theft. If you believe in reason you cannot also believe in magic.
Here are the attributes which form the basis of my set of beliefs. Life is better than death, You own the fruits of your labour. Honesty is important. . The individual takes precedence over the community. Freedom is a virtue. Consent is a necessity. Choice is fundamental. Violence should be discouraged.. Comfort is better than pain. Kindness is better than cruelty. Courage is better than cowardice If I am to be authentic, then what I say and write and do must be consistent with these attributes.
Other people may base their beliefs on a different set of attributes. The community is more important than the individual. Safety and security are more important than individual rights. There is a divine being who controls my life. Faith is more important than reason. The end justifies the means. Many people authentically hold these beliefs.
The problem arises when you hold beliefs that are mutually contradictory, a condition known as cognitive dissonance. If you believe that the interests of the collective outweighs the interests of the individual, then you cannot prioritise the health or safety of your child or your family over the health of the rest of the community. If there is inequality within your community, if some people are poorer than others, then as a true communitarian you must sacrifice your individual resources to the greater good of the community. If you believe that faith is more important than reason, then you should always rely on prayer rather than a science-and-reason based medical expert. If your beliefs and actions are mutually contradictory you are no longer authentic.
Why is authenticity important? It is the basis of communication between humans. If I cannot trust what you say, what is the point in listening to you? If you do not trust what I say, why am I even speaking? A reputation for authenticity, for honesty, is established over time and must be carefully nurtured. It is destroyed by just one failure. Whole classes of people in society lack authenticity, such as politicians, lawyers, used car salesmen, many biased news sources. Some organisations have a hard-earned reputation for authenticity such as The Times of London, or Nature journal. No one is always right, but some try harder than most. Walter Cronkite, a United States news anchor, had an admirable reputation for honesty. Maggie Thatcher had a reputation for being brutally honest. (Surprisingly, it is very hard to find a list of authentic people on Google, although there are lists of rich people, stupid people, etc.)
Nature is authentic. Animals are authentic. The universe is authentic, although mysterious. Maths is authentic. Death is authentic. Children are usually authentic.
Religions are rarely authentic. Politicians are rarely authentic. Salesmen are rarely authentic. News organisations are rarely authentic. Advocacy groups are rarely authentic. Governments are rarely authentic. Do-gooders are rarely authentic.
Am I authentic? Is this article authentic? The best judge of authenticity is history.