An Untimely Meditation on the 11th Commandment: "Thou Shalt be Authentic"


I've written a few pieces here critiquing the current trend that everything be 'authentic' and most recently did so here.

Tobias Künkler posted some comments, and mentioned he had a paper in German on this topic. He has kindly gone to the effort to translate it, and text is here and pasted below. It's short, readable, provactive and superb. I've asked Tobias to come back here and interact with any comments you might have and questions. Tobia has studied sociology, paedagogic and philosophy; currently he is working as an assitant in educational research at the University of Bremen and is trying to write his doctoral thesis about the meaning of others in learning processes.

An Untimely Meditation on the 11th Commandment: "Thou Shalt be Authentic"

Authenticity has become a commandment, an imperative, a norm demanded by society, which we may kindly obey. This requirement contradicts the ease that (is one of the things that) authenticity originally addressed. What an uneasy ease! No matter how much society insists on this norm called authenticity, the lie remains; in reality we must not behave genuinely – in the sense of 'stripping off the mask', 'being real', and thus letting whatever is deep inside of us show.

We are human beings and thus depend on each other in a very elementary way; we need each other's recognition just as we need air to stay alive. However, recognition doesn't only come in different degrees, it also has clear limits. In order to be recognised as 'someone', as a 'normal' human being, we must always commit ourselves to certain social standards. Consider that one in 2000 people is born without distinct sexual characteristics. These people whom a sex can not be attributed to cannot live as hermaphrodites; rather, they have to class with the dichotomous gender system of male and female - often supported by surgery straight after birth. Otherwise a passport and therefore a socially legitimate existence cannot be obtained. This is admittedly an extreme and overly clear example, but each one of us must submit to numerous subtle norms and limitations of our behaviour, if we want to be perceived as 'normal' human beings who appear certifiably sane and reasonable and if we want to be taken seriously and listened to. I may not really have a full grasp of my own inner life, and yet I know that it is far too messy and changeful, far too much moved by impulses and drives, too heterogeneous and in part merely too evil to correspond to the norms of recognition.

Now demanding authenticity will in my opinion not simply lead to a wider spectrum of acceptable behaviour. Rather, the socially expected behaviour must now be made to appear as if it was genuine, deliberate and absolutely individual. Instead of producing truth, the deception doubles. Instead of really allowing various kinds of behaviour, normality must be produced. And indeed its production increases whereas the behaviour considered as normal and 'authentic' will be constricted. What could be worse than having to wear a mask while having to deny the existence of the same? What could be worse than the social expectation of denying that we live according to social expectations? Why is anyone against masks anyway? Masks protect the own face, they provide a safe and free space where one can survive socially parlous and dangerous situations without damage. In such a safe space one can try himself out in a playful way. After all, not everyone needs to know everything about me in every situation at all times. Pursuing to fulfil the demands of authenticity hinders me to relate to myself and the world in a playful manner. This kind of relation, however, - often a prerequisite for personal change – is marked as 'artificial and as an evil game with masks' by those possessed with authenticity.

As a matter of fact, I am suspicious of the metaphorical use of masks. In the same way, discussing authenticity seems to go along thinking in terms of an inner – and an outer life. Thinking authenticity brings about certain connotations which in my opinion lead to a fundamental misconception of the way human beings exist. It suggests that humans basically consist of an inner and an outer self: the inside is considered the real, the genuine, the location of the being, whereas the outside represents the artificial, the illusiveness. The inside, being true and individual, is always marked off positive (also morally speaking), while the outside is contaminated by ‘the evil society’ and therefore problematic and negative. Furthermore, a natural direction of influence seems to prevail: normally our inside flows to or shapes the outside. The outside is only responsible for expressing our inside straight and genuinely.

However, we are not simply inside and outside, we always live in a relation to the world, to others and (!) to ourselves. The latter means that we must always relate to ourselves/our selves, that interacting with our selves is part of our very normal way of existing. I must hold myself back, I think about myself, I try to pull myself together; but also: I try to sleep, I try to think, I move my arm. In a way we even are this relation to self. As Kierkegaard said: “The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self.” At this point we ought to be able to think in relational terms, but we are stuck in our reifying way of thinking and can therefore only think of ourselves in metaphors of space.

I always have to relate to myself (among others); in terms of space metaphors I could say that neither is my existence simply within me nor is my existence synonymous with my inside. Rather, in a certain way I am always outside myself. The anthropologist Helmut Plessner said that the human way of existence is an ex-centric one (contrasting animals that simply act according to instincts). We always are outside of ourselves, we always affect ourselves.

Firstly, this means that we do not simply possess an inner self which we may let out to the outer side the way it is. The fact that we relate to our selves, that in a way we are this relation implies two things: a difference is inherent in our selves and this leads us to being alien to ourselves – or our selves are strangers to us. Our inner side – our inside – is not within our reach and is not as accessible as for instance a neatly organised hard drive the documents of which are normally easily available to us. Since this may easily lead to misunderstandings I want to point out that I do not deny the fact that we have a privileged access to ourselves in that only we know our thoughts and feel our feelings. But inasmuch as we are familiar to ourselves we are also incredibly unfamiliar to ourselves as well: we do not have guaranteed access to our memories and our knowledge, we don't always know what we want and what we think, and (even) less so are our feelings and thoughts objects that are at our disposition and that we could examine and dissect. Ernst Bloch once said: "I am. I don't own myself." Thus, in a strict sense, we cannot be authentic simply because we do not have the access to our inner life that authenticity suggests.

Secondly, living in an ex-centric way does not necessarily imply that affecting oneself must be seen as artificial; rather, it is common to do so – in effect to refrain from certain things or behavioural patterns, to keep particular feelings or thoughts private and eventually it is common that in certain situations one generally behaves in a certain (at best appropriate) way. As I mentioned above the discussion of authenticity often implies the positive consideration of the inner being and it ethical value. At this point I would like to contrast this with a statement Jesus has made: "Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean'." Furthermore: "What comes out of a man is what makes him 'unclean'. For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean'." (Mark 7:15, 20-23; NIV)

Now if this is not a pleading for us to act on our 'inside' and simply not let out everything just like that… Despite my understanding and sympathy for all the demands that we should really be honest to one another… in all honesty - this cannot possibly mean that we should be completely honest with each other? Of course we shouldn’t lie, but does that mean I have to bother everyone with my changeable feelings and fickle thoughts that sometimes change every other second and are in part simply evil? Are we sure we know how socially destructive and sweepingly hurtful our demands of authenticity and honesty would be, were they not – and (luckily?) they usually are – pure lip services.

Thirdly: being ex-centric also means that the direction of influence is not always from the inside to the outside, often it is the other way around. For instance, there is the misunderstanding of assuming that in worship I would need to have the right inner mind-set first and that my outside should not disturb my inner attitude but should respectively reflect it. Often, however, it happens the other way around: my outward appearance or even the atmosphere can help me adopt the appropriate attitude…

That should be it for now. Much still needs to be said, of course also about the helpful and legitimate ideas behind the demand of authenticity. Since that should be known already I will not elaborate on that here and now. Perhaps just this much: of course I very much hold the position that we shouldn't deceive each other, that we shouldn't lie to each other for our own benefit, that – to a certain degree – we should stand up straight for our imperfectness, our mistakes, our brokenness and our embarrassment. But in my opinion the term 'authenticity' does not reflect all that appropriately; rather, it brings about a kind of thinking full of misunderstandings and which is therefore highly ambiguous, i.e. not simply [necessarily] bad but most problematic. Instead I prefer the term dilettante; I, for one, avow myself a dilettante, because I am an imperfect, fragile, doubtful, needy, incoherent, wonky and strange human being. Thou shalt not be authentic, but thou mayst avow yourself a dilettante.

-- Tobias Künkler, M.A. Fachbereich 12: Erziehungs- und Bildungswissenschaften Arbeitsbereich: Historisch-systematische und vergleichende Bildungsforschung GW2 A2400/ Universität Bremen Tel.: 0421/2182042