Are you for real?: America’s Quest for Authenticity in Uncertain Times

Malik Neal, Columnist

This simple expression has gradually crept into mainstream conversation in everything from television sitcoms to novels and newspaper articles. Subsumed within the expression of “Are You For Real” is the notion of truth, verification and, ultimately, authenticity. If something is authentic, it is certainly real in the simplest and most irreducible sense.

Etymologically, the word “authentic” originates from the Greek word “authentikos,” meaning something that had the authority of its original creator. Apparently, the original meaning of the word in English was “authoritative,” and the modern sense of “genuine” did not evolve until 18th century. Thus, an authentic person or thing is something which directly relates back to its creator, therefore, giving it the strong pull of truth and originality.

The yearning for the “authentic” has been a constant undercurrent in modern society for sometime and has accelerated significantly over the past decade. It is, of course, ever present in our popular culture, and numerous examples from the trivial to the profound appear constantly in everyday life. When one deems something or someone authentic, they believe that person or object has a ring of irreducible truth and dependability about them or it.  In a way, an authentic experience confirms one’s best beliefs about how the world really works and consciously or subconsciously incrementally adds a bit to one’s self worth. The long evolution of the concept of the term “cool” in American popular culture is closely linked with the notion of authenticity, albeit a pseudo-authenticity. To be “cool” is to be different, uniquely interesting, fashionably out of the mainstream, but most of all, to be accepted for being so.

A cool idea, person or object is not only unique in a pleasing way, but also supposedly authentic. If being cool is different, and different is unique, then uniqueness readily translates into individual self worth. The advertising industry capitalizes and feeds on this concept to an enormous degree. Everything from Ralph Lauren Polo English retro country style clothing to leather seating in one’s “classic” car is offered to make the individual owning such things feel cool, authentic and unique.

The rejection of a person, or rather a person’s behavior, or even of an idea, as not authentic, is, of course, a peculiarly human trait. This rejection is based upon emotion and the feeling that something is askew perceptually, cognitively and, ultimately, intellectually. The need for authentication is, in essence, a correlative of the quest for truth–a truth that genuinely enhances, confirms and expands one’s concept of self.

One of the unfortunate residuals of modern technological culture is a constant diversion of oneself from one’s own self. Whether due to information overload, boredom or the constant standardization and mechanization of society, this cultural fatigue finds expression in some peculiar ways. The mindless overuse of the Internet, text messaging, video games, or obsession with pornography and violence is strong witness to an existential alienation that is part and parcel of a commercially dominated and materialistically saturated society whose citizens have been reduced to consumer units in a state of what might be called terminal ennui. With self-actualization being the rare exception, and with economic stress fueling the fires of discontent, self-absorption and the need for instant gratification yield their destructive harvest rapidly. Attention spans are minimal, and tolerance and patience are virtues of a long ago and distant past. Historical amnesia and cultural voids are the rule. Never was the old Roman proverb that “A person who refuses to learn about his past is forever condemned to live as a child” more pertinent than today.

The false gods of a promised, but ultimately undeliverable, materialistic paradise have seduced our American society. We have forsaken our identity in the vain search for authenticity, which can only be found by the hard work of examining one’s present predicament through the lens of past experiences of others similarly situated. Rejection of past cultural achievements may be temporarily exhilarating, but is ultimately directionless and exhausting. This society has elevated self absorption to a national identity, but in so doing has failed to perform the ultimate act of self-awareness—simply looking at the surrounding world and contemplating the true marvel of its existence.

Self-awareness is the first step on the long road to discovering the authentic self and its intimate interconnection to the world around it.


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