Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Performing an authentic self?

One of the buzzwords of liberalism is "authenticity".

How are we supposed to be authentic? By rejecting "essentialist" forms of identity (meaning those which have a real essence and therefore some kind of fixed or stable character).

If, for instance, we reject the idea that there is an essential masculinity or femininity, this is supposed to release us from a coerced social role so that we can be more authentically ourselves.

I don't think the argument works. If there is no essence to who we are, then what are we being true to? There is nothing to measure our identity and actions against, to judge how authentic they are.

In fact, many liberals now talk about "acting" or "performing" our masculinity or femininity or even our race, which emphasises the idea that our sex or our race is non-essential, but which also implies that we are merely pretending to be something for a while, rather than expressing a true characteristic of who we are.

To make authenticity work as a political aim, two things are needed. It's not enough to simply accept stable forms of human nature. If this is all that we take to be essentially human, then authenticity is not necessarily a virtue. After all, there are negative features of human nature, as well as positive ones. If it's part of my nature to be a lying, cowardly weakling, then why would I aim to be true to myself?

So authenticity only becomes worthwhile if we think of "essences" as representing a good, true and profound aspect of our existence.

Is it possible to think of masculinity as having a real essence. Or of moral character? I believe so. I expect, in fact, that most people have had the experience of being either inspired or shamed into a truer and deeper sense of themselves, of their nature and their purposes. At such times we are likely to set standards for ourselves in terms of our identity as men and women and, more generally, in terms of personal character.

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