Much is made in contemporary Western culture about being authentic, honest or real. Credibility is paramount and there is nothing worse than to be labeled a hypocrite. (Well, perhaps one thing is worse: to be called boring.)
The absurd reality, though, is that this is a culture composed of participants who are so concerned with reality and so authenticity that a person will say and do anything to be accepted or, more to the point, not be rejected. A person may even be truthful to one person, while saying the complete opposite and considered truthful to someone else. It’s not lying, because it’s not inaccurate; but it’s certainly not truth in that a person has multiple answers to cater to any number of people, all in the name of belonging.
Were we a truly honest people, ours would be a civilization in an enduring golden age. Seeing the rot in the headlines, on the crawl and daily around us belies that postulate straightaway. And it is the certain sign of a culturally-shackled society.
Michael Polanyi, a wildly underrated Hungarian chemist and philosopher, addressed our plight today almost 40 years ago. His close friend and protegé, Drusilla Scott, writes in summation of his thought:
“It is now in many circles much more acceptable to be avowedly acting from low motives than from high ones. ‘Unholier than thou’ is a more comfortable stance than the old-fashioned hypocrite’s ‘holier than thou’. The only virtue that may safely be claimed is a certain kind of honesty, sometimes called courageous or unflinching realism. It is not only that people who want to defend a traditional virtue or protest at something they think wrong, are afraid of being accused of hypocrisy: they are often afraid that they are being hypocritical, and so they are silenced.“
[Scott, Everyman Revived, p. 97]
Polanyi goes on to refer to this kind of state of affairs as moral inversion, and the kind of climate under which there can be no true freedom. And what this particular dead, forgotten Hungarian philosopher has to do with the here and now couldn’t be a stronger case for philosophy necessarily being fuel for action. (Consider this an indirect shameless plug for a forthcoming post, later this month. And as to the immediately preceding, quite direct.)
If the truth be told, our societal commitment to authenticity only goes so far as to say that we are honest with the fact that we are duplicitous, and will say anything to please anyone, be it getting out of a traffic ticket, or going along with what friends do because it’s expected. (Sweet land of liberty.) Or to check a brain at the church door to go along with whatever garbage is coming from the pulpit; also, when the clergy will shake hands and smile and nod with denominational power players while privately having doubts about doctrinal commitments. Or in the messiness of human relationships, when personality will reveal one thing but not others to one, while revealing others but not the one to another. Or just about any goings on in governmental houses from sea to shining sea.
We understand one thing clearly, so it seems: society accepts the fact that people will not be entirely honest–duplicitous–with us. (What other reason could there be that we keep electing the same cretins to office?) And, at this point, the reader will note that I do not include myself with the rest of culture. I refuse to play the game.
So our upholding of authenticity as some kind of virtue, particularly in ‘postmodern’ culture–whatever that means–is actually a vice: the liberty to play fast and loose with personality is actually a form of existential self-nullification. When a truly honest person comes along, the status quo is threatened, so culture–micro or macro–acts as community antibody, marginalizing that person. People who do interact with that person don’t know what to do. The outlier shuts the matrix down.
Another quote from another philosopher, this time Schopenhauer, seems apt: “We forfeit three-quarters of ourselves in order to be like other people.” What kind of authenticity, let alone uniqueness, comes from such a steep cost? And what happens to that other 75%? So we have a nation of quarter-people, terrified of being singularly-minded. And the quarter-people use nothing to rage for or against nothing. This is not what Paul had in mind when he told the Corinthians he was all things to all people.
So, I consider this, in response to the current state of affairs–cultural honesty–to be singular honesty: to be unrepentant in my willingness to be honest, and to be loyal to truth, wherever it may be found, above catering to people who will so readily say the right thing at the right time just to avoid relational strain. If this makes my small circle of friends even smaller, so be it–I don’t want existential scenesters around, anyway. Perhaps our culture could use some detaching from social networks and learn the exponential value of few, true friends over many superficial useful acquaintances.
And ‘useful’ becomes the optimal adjective, because when we’re culturally honest, we’re not really interested in the other, we’re only interested in feeling good about ourselves. Our friends are not friends at all, we do not love them nor do we care for their needs, as much as we merely tolerate them so that they reaffirm our okay-ness. Disagreement becomes snobbery, precisely as Polanyi said it would.
Without true relationships, what are we but cogs in a wheel? What freedom is there in this moral inversion? There can be no answer other than there is none. As such, we are slaves to a system which relies on our productivity at work, consumption at play and to stay as entertained as possible in the intervening periods.
Sound familiar? Then perhaps it’s time to turn things right side up again.