Authenticity as a Public Good
Performances of self-sacrifice don't really help anybody
Reading some elegies about the recently-dead Queen, one common theme that jumped out at me was praise for her restraint. I’m going to pull a paragraph from conservative writer Andrew Sullivan’s retrospective as an example of this:
Part of the hard-to-explain grief I feel today is related to how staggeringly rare that level of self-restraint is today. Narcissism is everywhere. Every feeling we have is bound to be expressed. Self-revelation, transparency, authenticity — these are our values. The idea that we are firstly humans with duties to others that will require and demand the suppression of our own needs and feelings seems archaic. Elizabeth kept it alive simply by example.
With her death, it’s hard not to fear that so much she exemplified — restraint, duty, grace, reticence, persistence — are disappearing from the world.
Conservatives like Sullivan think that self-revelation, transparency, and authenticity are terrible things to prioritize, that they come at the expense of duties to others and social cohesion in general. To them, they think that our culture now celebrates ditching commitments the second they become inconvenient. The socially-necessary self-sacrifice of child-rearing has been replaced by mountains of casual sex. You owe nothing to your parents, and should shun and despise them in their old age if they disagree with you about your politics or your lifestyle. If religious faith requires you to do something besides what you immediately want to do, then discard it completely. All that matters is the instant satisfaction of every infantile want and desire, and other human beings are only valuable to the extent that they are useful tools to that end.
What’s interesting to me about this is that my experience of self-revelation, transparency, and authenticity hasn’t really occurred this way. These values have occurred as a vital component of duties to others and social cohesion in general. Being honest about the presence and character of my weakness and suffering is what gave me the opportunity to connect with other human beings at all, to get help and pass that help along - in short, to become a socially-useful citizen. That kind of vulnerability is what helped me reconnect with my family again. Putting on a stiff-upper-lip show of restraint feels the same to me as putting on a hedonistic show of how happy and successful I am for consumption on Instagram; both are public social performance, and I’d argue that both are antithetical to a connected and cohesive society. A society where everyone wears the same mask is no better, to me, than one where everyone competes to wear the temporarily-coolest-looking mask.
In short, whatever problems of atomization our society has, self-revelation, transparency, and authenticity are the solution thereto, rather than the problem. Getting to know yourself - what you want, why you want it, what you can sustainably contribute to others - is a critical part of being a good citizen. Trying to create socially-acceptable masks for each other only makes the problem worse.
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