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Friday, October 14, 2011

Integrity over Authenticity

A recent NYT blog "Authentic, get Real!" by Stephanie Ferguson quotes many political candidates advertising their "authenticity" and notes how important it is that they play that role to the hilt.  Voters want to see candidates believing what they are saying or at least coming across that way.

Kurt Goldstein and Rollo May were the psychologists who introduced me to the "social construction of the self" and the notion of "roles" that the human person takes on in self-development.  I learned from them and then from many others that there is no "authentic self" (pace Sartre) or real "thine own self" to be true to (pace Shakespeare).

The human self develops or, some would say, creates itself through interaction with other people--in response to parents and siblings, in play, in school, in work, and especially in speech and listening.  The developing person assumes, sometimes to accept and other times to reject, various roles in diverse situations.

The self is not an eternal soul that always existed and will always exist in some Platonic or other type of heaven.  (You can accept such supernatural entities if your religious beliefs demand it--but don't identify them with the self.)  "I am my body" with all its complexity including evolved and evolving consciousness as Catholic Philosopher Gabriel Marcel asserted against Descartes.

The self is the conscious organism learning to adapt or to adapt to its natural and social environment through time.

Therefore, I would argue against a principle of ethics like: "be authentic" or even "be sincere."  (Though I might urge some politicians to "get real")

I think that integrity is much more important than authenticity or sincerity.  A good friend who recently died, John Rohr, used to say.  "Sincerity is one step away from vice and probably across the line."  John and I used to argue a lot at the University of Chicago where he was getting a degree in Political Science and I in Social Ethics, he from the right, me from the left.  He did not put sincerity or principled very high in his list of virtues.  On that we totally agreed.

Political figures are often accused of "flip-flopping" and are loath to show any inconsistency.  But is the inconsistency a result of honest learning and change of judgment based on new evidence?  Consistent and immutable principles and judgments are the bane of politics and the closure of public space.

Integrity means "whole" from which "health" comes.  Integrity is the interconnection of all the parts.   It is resolution of all competing tensions.  A person with integrity is one who "has it together."  If you encounter a person with integrity, you meet everything that's there, you get what you see, you are in touch with the whole person.  Integrity also means complexity, pulling together many facets.  A person who relies on simple slogans or wages war with bumper-sticker sayings may hold fast to what he is saying, may be principled and authentic--but has little integrity as far as I am concerned.

I suppose when people say that a person is the real thing that's what they mean.  Sure she has facades, plays different roles, communicates differently to different audiences, changes opinions, makes mistakes, but she is willing to learn, is not an ideologue, and acknowledges her changes and differences and mistakes.   That is a person with integrity.

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