Inauthentic Speech is Dangerous to Our Souls

oz

The editorial in today’s NYTimes (10/13/2012) takes Candidate Romney to task for his tendency to tell the audience whatever they want to hear, while keeping the same old positions in his body waiting to emerge, if elected.

There isn’t really a Moderate Mitt; what is on display now is better described as Convenient Mitt. Anyone willing to advocate extremism to raise money and win primaries is likely to do the same to stay in office.

Politically speaking, I think that epithet is a good one, but I have my own related to sustainability, Inauthentic Mitt. Putting my political opinions aside for a moment (hard to do), Romney’s manner of putting who he his out for us to see is very troubling. Not only from a leadership perspective, but from an existential point-of-view. At the very heart of my approach to sustainability is the idea of flourishing, becoming a whole, satisfied human being. The key to getting there is to shift one’s beliefs that have created the habits of everyday life, hyper-consumption in particular, to a new set based on taking care of the essential domains of living. Coupled to this shift must be a new sense of self, an authentic sense—one that acts out of some consciousness of care as the essence of life as a human being. I use “essence” here and “soul” in the title metaphorically. The consciousness I speak of is not that of picturing the world outside or of a explicit sense of what’s going on inside. but a description of the cognitive configuration that drives routine actions. Routine actions, the ones we perform without “thinking” about them come from a “consciousness” we are not aware of. They just happen.

We can infer the existence of this “practical” consciousness by observing the actions we perform over time. I have been reading the early pragmatists, Pierce and James, who had a simple, but elegant view of this. They said that we “fix” beliefs in our cognitive system that become the rules by which we act. That was over a century ago, but is a picture more firmly established by contemporary science. If we have become convinced we are needy, as we are in our culture, we act to satisfy our needs, an impossible task because our needs are held to be insatiable by the same model. If we believe we are caring machines, we will act accordingly, taking care of all the domains we value. And if we intend to flourish, we will take care of all the essential needs, not merely the ones at the top of our lists.

The difference between these two modes of existence can be captured in the word, authentic, and its opposite, inauthentic. For those of my vintage, the image of the Wizard of Oz being exposed by Toto pulling the curtain back is as good a metaphor for inauthenticity as I can quickly recall. Here is a small man playing the part of an all-powerful wizard. While still operating the machine spewing smoke (and metaphorical mirrors), the Wizard says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” For me, this is the most meaningful line of the whole story. It’s all about inauthenticity and captures the reality of much of politics today.

In my set of beliefs, an “inauthentic human being” is an oxymoron. Inauthentic can only describe a creature pulling the levers of an internal machine, spewing smoke and displaying mirrors. There is little or no independent self there. We are drawn into this mode of life everyday by the cultural institutions we live by, especially the conceit of the market as the means of freedom. It may free us from the guidance of a government, benign or not, but it seduces us into an inauthentic life.

It is not only the market that works to capture our beliefs. Much of our entertainment is based on inauthenticity, banal situations that set up stories we know cannot be genuine. Reality shows are about as far from reality as one can get. Every time we watch these and every time we go shopping because we want novelty or some goods that will signal our place in society our inauthentic personhood is reinforced.

When we watch “leaders” acting inauthentically, we will be drawn to them if the smoke and mirrors seem to align with our own values. We should be alert to the dangers inherent in these cases. The Times editorial did not explicitly point to these, warning us only that a wizard lurks behind the curtain of Romney’s political speech. We should not be surprised when we do not get what we were told we would. Inauthentic speech and actions are very different from promises. We can be sure we will not get what we expected from inauthenticity. Promises may or may not be authentic, but even if they are, they cannot always be completely fulfilled.

But getting back to flourishing to conclude this post, the other danger of inauthentic behavior is that it can reinforce the beliefs already present in our cognitive system that are and have been producing unsatisfying, inauthentic behaviors. The inauthenticity, as the Times wrote of Candidate Romney, is palpable and evident. For those who accept it, without reflection, it, as I said, takes them another step away from becoming an authentic human being who can flourish in the world outside, the place we live out our lives. Caveat Emptor.

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