December 26, 2006

Authenticity vs Sincerity

From behind the firewall at the New York Times comes this piece by guest columnist Orlando Patterson. I have bolded a couple of parts that especially spoke to me.

Our Overrated Inner Self

In the 1970s, the cultural critic Lionel Trilling encouraged us to take seriously the distinction between sincerity and authenticity. Sincerity, he said, requires us to act and really be the way that we present ourselves to others. Authenticity involves finding and expressing the true inner self and judging all relationships in terms of it.

Authenticity now dominates our way of viewing ourselves and our relationships, with baleful consequences. Within sensitive individuals it breeds doubt; between people it promotes distrust; within groups it enhances group-think in the endless quest to be one with the group’s true soul; and between groups it is the inner source of identity politics.

It also undermines good government. James Nolan, in his book “The Therapeutic State,” has shown how the emphasis on the primacy of the self has penetrated major areas of government: emotivist arguments trump reasoned discourse in Congressional hearings and criminal justice; and in public education, self-esteem vies with basic literacy in evaluating students. The cult of authenticity partly accounts for our poor choice of leaders. We prefer leaders who feel our pain, or born-again frat boys who claim that they can stare into the empty eyes of an ex-K.G.B. agent and see inside his soul. On the other hand we hear, ad nauseam, that Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the nation’s most capable senators, is “fake” and therefore not electable as president.

But it is in our attempts to come to grips with prejudice that authenticity most confounds. Social scientists and pollsters routinely belittle results showing growing tolerance; they argue that Americans have simply learned how to conceal their deeply ingrained prejudices. A hot new subfield of psychology claims to validate such skepticism. The Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji and her collaborators claim to have evidence, based on more than three million self-administered Web-based tests, that nearly all of us are authentically bigoted to the core with hidden “implicit prejudices” — about race, gender, age, homosexuality and appearance — that we deny, sometimes with consciously tolerant views. The police shootings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, they argue, are simply dramatic examples of how “implicit prejudice” influences the behavior of us all.

However well meaning these researchers, their gotcha psychology is morally invasive and, as the psychologist Philip Tetlock has cogently argued, of questionable validity and use. It cannot distinguish between legitimate apprehension and hateful bigotry as responses to identical social problems. A fearful young black woman living in a high-crime neighborhood could easily end up with a racist score. An army of diversity trainers now use Banaji’s test to promote touchy-feely bias awareness in companies, which my colleague Frank Dobbin has shown to be a devious substitute for minority promotions.

I couldn’t care less whether my neighbors and co-workers are authentically sexist, racist or ageist. What matters is that they behave with civility and tolerance, obey the rules of social interaction and are sincere about it. The criteria of sincerity are unambiguous: Will they keep their promises? Will they honor the meanings and understandings we tacitly negotiate? Are their gestures of cordiality offered in conscious good faith?

Scholars like Richard Sennett and the late Philip Rieff attribute the rise of authenticity to the influence of psychoanalysis, but America’s protestant ethos and its growing intrusion in public life may be equally to blame. Whatever the cause, for centuries the norm of sincerity presented an alternate model of selfhood and judgment that was especially appropriate for non-intimate and secular relations. Its iconic expression is the celebrated passage from Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players./They have their exits and their entrances,/ And one man in his time plays many parts.”

Shakespeare’s “self” is inescapably public, fashioned in interaction with others and by the roles we play — what sociologists, building on his insight, call the looking-glass self. This allows for change. Sincerity rests in reconciling our performance of tolerance with the people we become. And what it means for us today is that the best way of living in our diverse and contentiously free society is neither to obsess about the hidden depths of our prejudices nor to deny them, but to behave as if we had none.

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, is a guest columnist.
Self-aware, moral people, of whom I attempt to count myself, know that they can sometimes hold thoughts that are antithetical to the way they want to present themselves and, more importantly, how they want to be. Most religions attempt to address and remedy this struggle between the "spirit" and the "flesh." Whatever one's source of moral guidance, be it religion or one's own conscience, surely we can all stop trying to divine a person's authenticity and look instead at their sincerity. Do their deeds match their words? This seems an infinitely better criteria to judge a person, don't you think?


Not Your Mama said...

Bingo. That would require we have common sense though.

Anonymous said...

It's called doublethink, Carissa.

cls said...

In the case of the above article, not so much, though I do understand why you would come to that conclusion.

From Wikipedia: "Doublethink (known in Oldspeak but never used as reality control) is an integral concept in George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and is the act of holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously, fervently believing both, and being unaware of their incompatibility."

In this case, there is no "fervently believing both and being aware of their incompatibility." For as I stated above, what I desire to be is sometimes at odds with my more reptilian brain instincts that lay beneath. I do not acknowledge the "truth" of my reptilian perceptions and choose my actions based on a more mature world view.

So I would hope that people would examine my public words and my public actions rather than trying to divine whether or not I am "authentically" generous or tough or caring or what ever characteristic I wish to manifest in my life. If I desire to be giving, yet know that I have selfish tendencies, I don't have "to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself." This is part of Orwell's definition of doublethink which was used as a way of maintaining power. In my case, I am not looking to get or keep power, but to be a socially responsible person in our society.