That a society has authenticity among its highest ideals is excellent news. And how could it not be, if the package includes values such as sincerity, coherence or independence of judgment? But that’s not the message that usually gets to those who hear the advice “be yourself”.
Order is everywhere: songs, ads, TikTok videos, realities, movies, slogans on t-shirts… And it admits the most varied shades. Inspirational: “Just be yourself and the right people will come into your life.” Emphatic: “Believe in yourself and be unstoppable.” Threatening: “Don’t even think about dimming your light to make others more comfortable.” Responsible: “Be yourself the change you want to see in the world.” Realistic: “Be yourself. It doesn’t matter what others say. Even if you were perfect, they would judge you.” Sincere: “Be yourself, but not so much”…
Popular culture incessantly invites young people to be themselves. But to what extent does it give them freedom? to define themselves?
The question reminds us of one of the warnings made by literary critic Lionel Trilling in his book Sincerity and authenticity, published in early years 70, at the height of social change: “The concerted effort of a culture or a sector of culture to achieve authenticity generates its own conventions, generalizations, commonplaces and maxims”.
Listen to your heart
Currently, pressures come from several fronts. social networks are a perfect space to express one’s originality through opinions, videos, poems, stories or any other creation of a personal nature. of all shades (green washing, pinkwashing, wokewashing…), or even Instagram filters and retouches, that function as masks of the self.
Another form of pressure is the effort to reduce the question of identity (who are we?) to sexual identity. In certain media, there is a permanent invitation to define oneself against “the normative” and “the binary”; that is, to deconstruct the female-male difference and to embrace gender fluidity.
It is also recurrent the insistence with which the famous incite us to discover our essence by appealing to feelings as the only guide, in instead of integrating them with intelligence and will. “Each of us has (…) a song of the heart that speaks to us”, explained Oprah Winfrey to a young woman, “and your only job is to be able to listen to it and distinguish when it is she that speaks from when it is your head. and your personality that speak. If you follow this advice, you will be guided for your greatest good. Always.”
Along with this emotive version of “be yourself”, there is often such a disjunctive both unreal and unnecessary: on one side are your dreams, your passion, your desire to live your life in an authentic and exciting way; on the other, the sad reality of their daily duties. Winfrey’s advice remains: “People believe your job is to get up every day, go out, make money, take care of your family and stuff. But that’s your job. Your real job as a human being is to find out who you are and why are you here.”
Faced with this false dichotomy, Erika Bachiochi invites young people to pursue their dreams with an eye on both the great existential questions and the small everyday questions: those that reveal to us which are our duties in the concrete of each day. For example: “Who or what am I responsible for today? How can I use my time well? What should I do in this situation? How can I treat this person with the love and dignity that he or she deserves?” Questions like these help us to discover what our unique mission in life is.
I have enough and I have leftovers
The way it is conceived today, the imperative to be yourself is far from the attractive ideal described by Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity. The Canadian philosopher saw no incompatibility between loyalty to oneself and openness to “horizons of meaning” that transcend the self, such as “history, tradition, society, nature or God”.
But now there is another vision of authenticity. In his book So many silly topics, Aurelio Arteta regrets that the advice “be yourself” ended up meaning something so different from the classic “become who you are”. If the phrase of Pindar, the great lyric poet of ancient Greece, exhorted us to seek the best version of ourselves through self-knowledge and the exercise of virtues, the contemporary “be yourself” – at least, in its most widespread version – converts in fact, the idea that everything in me is valuable because it is mine is undeniable.
Understood in this way, “be yourself” not only relieves everyone of the noble and demanding task of seeking their own improvement morality, as it imposes on others the obligation not to question everything that today is seen as an extension of identity: opinions, values, lifestyles…
It is the logical corollary of the premise: if I don’t have nothing to improve or learn from others, no one has the right to suggest changes to my way of thinking and acting. And in this the others are included from parents, teachers and friends, to the great books of literature and universal thought.
This mentality converts relativism and the cult of diversity into non-negotiable civil values: no one can claim that there are better ideas or behaviors than others; the mere fact of stating that “I think so” or “I think so” makes my views estimable. Or, as Arteta says: “The rhetoric of difference and diversity culminates in the nonsense of preaching that every moral option is equally valuable because the mere choice gives value”.
Obligated to be authentic
The paradox is that, after proclaiming to the four winds that there are no options objectively better than others, but that it is one’s subjective decision that confers meaning and value, popular culture supports a view of authenticity that gives others the power to define us.
As Joseph E. Davis explains in a commentary on German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, today it is not enough for us to be ordinary people; we have to excel at something and show the world those special qualities that make us different, unique. “Performative authenticity”, as Reckwitz calls it, is an obligation: we must all prove our uniqueness, if we do not want to be relegated to the condition of pariahs.
And the staging ends up being tiring. Among other things, because it requires a continuous effort of reinvention. “As with fashions,” Davis explains, “there is a pressure to be new and novel; what was unique one day may be commonplace the next. Even if you can get a good performance, you have to be flexible and be prepared to reinvent your difference. There is always the danger of going unnoticed.”
In addition, the recognition of one’s own value is in the hands of others: they are the ones who give me value and who grant me what I want single-person social status. As real as it is, the distinctive quality “only counts as authentic when it is socially recognized.”
The pressure is very strong, because being a common type is a “sign of failure”. And although Davis does not say so, it is worth asking whether this idea of authenticity may be contributing to the height of extreme challenges in social networks.
The happiness of being yourself
With these rules of the game, it is not difficult to imagine where the self-esteem of so many young people is. Nor is it surprising that many openly confess that they prefer to be special rather than happy.
As an antipode to this project, psychiatrist Fernando Sarráis proposes, in Auténticos
(Word, 2022), we resort to the opposite way to be happy: to have “a greater appreciation according to our own judgment than that of others”; we give up the idea of ”being ideal or perfect”, which we have stuck in our head or others have stuck in it, and start unconditionally wanting the real self — which does not exclude the effort to change what can be changed with reasonableness. Here, yes, the self seeks a better version of itself, through the cultivation of knowledge and virtues, but it also learns – as Sarráis advises – to accept itself, to see what is positive in itself and not to be ashamed of itself. who you are.
Propositions like this help to reformulate the ideal of authenticity in healthier terms. We will see more in the next article in the series.