Tuesday, November 16, 2021

 527. Authenticity and conformity

 Closely associated with the dilemma of unity and diversity, discussed in the previous blog, is the dilemma of authenticity and conformity The proponent of conformity argues that without it society could not work. On the other hand, people crave for authenticity. How to strike a balance between the two? As before, in the dilemma of unity and diversity, we need a combination. Authenticity is not the same as autonomy. Authenticity is ‘being true to oneself’, autonomy is being independent, which few people can be, since the self is constituted in interaction with one’s environment. How free can one be in this? How far should one go in conformity, and how far should one go in striving for authenticity, holding on to one’s conviction?

I have had this debate on several occasions, with people in leading positions, governing an employers’ association, a bank, and a research association, who agreed with my objections but went ahead with neglecting them and toeing the official line. Their argument was that they did object, to the point of having to stop not to fall overboard and lose all influence. This makes sense, though one can ask what the use of influence is if it requires submission. But yes: When joining an organisation there must be commitment to the organisational focus. The answer to the predicament is that it depends on how fundamental the disagreement is, and when it is fundamental one can still toe the official line and yet announce one’s disagreement publicly, for a wider public, which in a democracy benefits from participation in the debate. One may retort that this also makes one’s position untenable, but to me that is just cowardice. I grant, however, that this is easy for me to say, in my position as a free floating academic. And how to distinguish a bona fide whistle blower from a cantankerous narcissist clamouring for attention? That can be done on the basis of his arguments, submitted to a judicious forum. A ploy that is often used is to continue with what someone disagrees with, but distract from it with some more or less symbolic, token concession, such as a hospital or a soccer stadium next to a polluting oil field.

In his studies of prisons, clinics, lunatic asylums and scientific communities, Michel Foucault found that the institutions discipline inmates, members or participants, to adopt, assimilate ideology, imposing an order of conduct, to the point that those involved submit tacitly and voluntarily to the imposed order, even if they are victims of the system. Earlier, I discussed the notion of ‘organisational focus’, needed for people to achieve some joint purpose. This conformity to institutions is inevitable, pervasive, ubiquitous, also in schools, work places, parliament, families, even language, because a person develops its identity in interaction with others. The perspective for authenticity then seems scant. Foucault himself, in his latest work, could see no way out, and got no further than exhorting people to create their lives as ‘works of art’ What does that mean? How to do that?

However, since Foucault conducted his studies, many institutions have become more humane, in some countries, with new forms of management allowing workers to enjoy the intrinsic value of work more, realising their potential. Furthermore, apart from prisoners or patients in asylums, many people subject themselves to not just one but a variety of institutions and activities, such as jobs, professions, family, friends, church, sports, among which they can ‘divide and rule’, so to speak, compensating restrictions in one with more freedom in another.

Being ‘true to oneself’ implies that there is a given self, but the self is work in progress.

Kierkegaard saw three different levels of life: first, hedonism, which he called ‘the aesthetics’, second ‘ethics’ as morality, the rules and habits enshrined in society that one is expected to participate in, and third, beyond that, ‘religion’, where one takes personal responsibility, against the established rules if necessary. For Kierkegaard, at any moment one has the freedom to make a commitment in the ongoing process of life in which one discovers oneself and builds one’s identity. This is done in interaction with others, and thus is inherently social. As Taylor said, the human being is inherently dialogical ( Taylor 1989, Weir 2009).

This existential perspective of being not as a thing but as a process of development was later also adopted by Heidegger (1993) with his notion of ‘Dasein’, where the subject is not pre-established outside the world but participating and developing in it , and Sartre, with his injunction to grasp the freedom of choice, in ‘good faith’, avoiding the ‘bad faith’ of just being dragged along, but he was pessimistic of achieving this good faith. This notion of life as a process is similar to the notion of ‘eudaimonia’, the good life, in Aristotelian virtue ethics, which requires phronesis or ‘practical wisdom’, making judgements as a function of circumstances, configuring and refining virtues, in the discovery and development of oneself.

For Kierkegaard, this requires the transcendence of religion, the unconditional surrender to and guidance by God. Levinas (1993) rejected that, in view of the Nazi atrocities that the Nazi’s had inflicted on his family, and considered belief in God and a hereafter as a redemption egotism. Instead, he proposed, demanded, an unconditional surrender and commitment to the other human being, to the appeal from his ‘visage’ as ‘the face of God’, thus remaining religiously inspired. This view was also adopted by Derrida. (Keij 2015). This is a replacement of vertical transcendence, to God, by horizontal transcendence, to the other human being. One needs transcendence to something bigger and beyond the self to be lifted above the mechanical following of rules of ethics.

One is always subject to conformity to the institutional orders one is involved in, as indicated by Foucault, but this subjection is never seamless; there are cracks through which authenticity can creep, and one can trade off different institutions against each other. Here is the blessing of parole, that can never completely be locked op in langue (de Saussure), the saying that goes beyond the said (Levinas). There are rules of the game, but to some extent one can choose the game, and follow the rules in one’s own style. In his late work, Foucault developed something like this, in his attempt to create an authentic life as a ‘work of art’.

Chinese philosophy differs from Western philosophy in that it is oriented towards the community, and the purpose of philosophy is to give guidance to conduct, while Western philosophy is oriented towards the autonomous individual seeking knowledge of the world. However, there is a distinction between Confucianism, which seeks conformance in following the rules and habits of that community, and Daoism that professes ‘wu-wei’, the rejection of fixed rules, in authentic, spontaneous flow along with the ongoing dynamic of the whole of nature (Dao). There, one falls back on the natural self, undistorted by the strictures of society.

Elsewhere (Nooteboom, 2021), I reconstructed identity

not as a thing we have, but as networks we are in, with an individual seen as a node in various networks. As a person, one can be positioned in different, partly overlapping networks at the same time, connecting people with ties that are direct or indirect, via an intermediary agent. Ties bear different forms of capital: economic, social, cognitive, political and symbolic (as proposed by Pierre Bourdieu). Symbolic capital includes norms and ethics of conduct, and their expression in symbols, myths, rituals, canonical stories and histories, role models, proverbs and sayings. Personal identity builds on the networks one is in, and thus one has a wider scope and reach of identity to the extent that one is involved in more networks. Identity shrinks when the subject is left outside the networks. The ties are cemented by mutual dependence, concerning forms of capital The networks are related to family, job, profession, religion, community and so on, and can cross national borders.

In networks, the individuals need to have sufficient width and depth of knowledge to yield the ‘absorptive capacity’ of dealing with other people at some ‘cognitive distance’. It follows that the less education and experience one has, the more difficult it is to profit from networks. Thus, some people have less scope for authenticity than others, in a paucity of networks, and this yields inequality.



-          Is authenticity naïve, a dream

-          Do you see other ways, not discussed, of balancing authenticity and conformity

-          Does your identity have a constant essence, or is it in continuing development



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