The question of authenticity

Solitary man and his dog painting
I was speaking to someone about behaving well when she turned around and said, "so you are asking me to fake it?"

Only then, it dawned on me that there could be a potential conflict between authenticity and decency. 

Being ourselves - we have been told - is the goal of life. What this means is less clear, but it's more or less doing what we like, saying what we like and having what we like. This is the modern dream - life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, on our own terms.

But what about the others? Can one have life without others? Certainly not without one's parents, at the least, and a lot of other people along the way. No liberty either, without the whole edifice of society and the laws - otherwise the life would be nasty, brutish and short. And, happiness - which includes, at least for most people, other people as well. 

Therefore, how is it that being oneself - rather than being one with the world around us - became our dream?

I am with Simone Weil when she says that obligations precede the rights. As soon as we are born, there are obligations. Rights emerge as others recognise them: Without others, there wouldn't be rights. 

Indeed, blood was spilled in French revolution - and numerous struggles since - for winning the rights we have today. But then, back in the eighteenth century, some people had all the rights and everyone else had all the obligations. That uneven field was evened, but getting rights should not mean rendering obligations meaningless. Instead, it just means realigning the obligations, including one of accepting the other peoples' rights.

And the question of obligation is not just a moral one. In our footloose life, we have - I have - forgotten to be local. We shaped our lives by aspirations of global life, of dreams of a borderless world where we can just float around looking for the best deal, best life, without any obligations to anywhere. But a few decades of doing this and the bill has become due: Democracies are crumbling - not just because the populists want to build walls but also because no one cares anymore. The 'voice', essential to a functioning democracy, has been replaced, at least for those rights-conscious savvy educated middle-classmen (and women), by exit: If we don't like, we leave. Without obligations, there will be no democracy.

Of course, this may sound quaint. Would this not be a wasted opportunity if the best and the brightest stayed put, toiling in their 'little circles of idiocy' where they were unfortunate to have been born? Their quest for authenticity, the realisation of their true potential, contributes to collective good: May be their individual communities become poorer, but Silicon Valley and other global hotspots thrive and this gain much bigger than the loss. We are all better off because a talented programmer leaves his parents behind and spends his life doing what he does well - coding - in a place, like Silicon Valley, that makes it possible. His money buys happiness and perhaps care for his parents; he contributes to local charitable causes and even builds a local school; everyone is happy, everyone is proud and the best thing that could have happened happens. Cribbing about obligations sounds like homages to ideas long gone, for a reason.

But at the same time, this may not sound so strange, especially after the Pandemic and as we watch racism and authoritarianism growing in various democracies. In fact, the world looks precarious, the institutions fragile and strongmen of various varieties flexing their muscles wherever they could: It does seem we may have gone too far in the quest of authenticity and forgotten all about decency and obligations. That being decent to others may sound like fakery is a sign of these times: It's urgent that we recognise how unnatural our desires just to be ourselves really is.


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