Human beings keep searching throughout their lives for greater certainty and solace – from place to place, or from one illusion to another, or from one depiction of reality to another, but never arrive at the whole truth. We strive for authenticity in social interactions and various forms of expression. But is human or personal authenticity possible, valuable or even desirable?
Definition of authenticity is as elusive as that of happiness or freedom. It is invariably defined as being true and honest with oneself and others, an undeniable credibility, and absence of pretence. The term, used in a wide range of contexts, is more an indicator of what it represents rather than what it is.
Personal authenticity must be accompanied by self-awareness and self-knowledge, personal responsibility and integrity, and empathy for and understanding of the other. To avoid aggravation to others, one must limit authenticity according to specific circumstances. Any measure of true authenticity does not imply expressing one’s true self, with a range of emotions and shifts, in all situations. But even with all the precautions taken, it would be impossible to consider all the unknowns. For example, how one’s authentic expressions, however cautious, would be perceived and interpreted by the other? The ambiguities of language, with its tendency for categorization and with its inherent limits of interpretation, make it impossible to translate precisely the thoughts into words.
The paradox of authenticity is that the individual strives to achieve greater authenticity while being immersed in the outside world, where adaptation to the world can erode authenticity. Then there are the ingrained attachments to a specific culture or social structure, and limits to self-knowledge. This is further complicated by the presence of cognitive illusions and biases, including self-deception, wishful thinking, and the tendency to behave differently under observation.
Achieving personal authenticity is further exacerbated by technologies that inundate human perception of reality with illusions of authenticity. One of these technologies is virtual reality that facilitates immersion into computer-generated representations of reality in three dimensions, video, audio, and touch. Although this technology is useful as a research and educational tool, there is a danger of generating a virtual environment with virtual society and interactions but with increasing physical isolation in the real world. This may result in difficulties distinguishing between virtual and real experiences, and thus exacerbate the endless human propensity for self-deception and self-delusion.
Being in a constant state of transformation, authenticity has no reference point by which to make any evaluation in absolute terms. Thus, who is to judge if one is authentic or not? The crucial question is how to distinguish between true authenticity and perceived authenticity. People can elucidate the most complex principles of the universe and accumulate knowledge in a coherent framework, but can humanity eventually overcome its irrationality and cognitive biases?
Humans remain feeble and relatively short-lived beings, emerging randomly at a specific time and place in an indifferent universe. The individual has to adapt to this perplexing existence in an endless struggle, accompanied by the ever-present unknown, and somehow be a well-adjusted member of society that demands conformity and thus some pretence. Enter a myriad of illusions and masks that are necessary to go on with life in a constant tension between the probabilities and desires, on the one hand, and outcomes and disappointments, on the other.
Ours is a society of fake authenticity and masks. Ours is a culture preoccupied with appearances and the pursuit of elusive happiness, which is a transient condition and a subjective state of mind, and not an objective state of being. Staged authenticity and experiences permeate our culture, politics, economics and religion. Fake authenticity is often used to sell various images, products and services. As the environment is polluted by acid rain and oil spills, society is contaminated by inauthenticity in all of those domains.
Authenticity must inevitably reveal human frailties and limitations, which may paint an undesirable picture of those advancing certain agendas in society. Thus, politicians and other leaders of society cannot be truly authentic, since they always have to appear confident and nearly flawless, rather than show any doubt or vulnerability, in order to appease the public that has to be constantly serenaded. Religious leaders can be trapped in dogma so have to find a myriad of ways to defend their illusions with ever-diluted interpretations that may not stand the test of time.
Some measure of authenticity can be realized in specific situations and it can evolve, but it will never be complete, since human existence requires continuous adaptation and illusions, and our knowledge of the universe and ourselves is never complete. Arriving at an authentic state is never a permanent destination but a departure to new dilemmas and challenges.