Authenticity and Social Selves

A few months ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed titled, Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.

As author Adam Grant argues, our “authentic selves” would most likely do and say things that we – and everyone around us – would regret in the morning. Being true to yourself becomes rather ignoble if your authentic self is deeply flawed.

Rather than being authentic, Grant urges that we aim to be sincere. “Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them…Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be.”

This is an interesting argument, but I’m not convinced there’s an inconsistency in being true to your authentic self and having a malleable social self.

First, dismissing the value of an authentic self seems to very much come from a position of privilege. If being authentic means nothing more to you than blurting out every thought that passes through your head, then your authentic self does not need to be found.

In Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights, legal scholar Kenji Yoshino examines the disproportional social and legal pressures some people face to hide their authentic selves. And this ‘covering’ can do real, psychological damage. Our laws have come to protect people from certain overt forms of discrimination – you can’t fire someone because of the color of their skin or because of their gender. But, Yoshino points out, you can force them to cover.

You can forbid certain hairstyles, for example. In fact, it’s perfectly legal for employers to ban hairstyles predominately worn by African American women. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell banned service men and women from expressing their sexual identity for nearly 2 decades. Yoshino provides numerous other examples of legal precedent which supports the suppression of minority identities in favor of the norms of white, straight identity. (Yoshino also argues that women face the particular challenge of being told to “act like men” in the workplace while also being told to be ‘feminine’. Employers can even mandate that women wear makeup or otherwise alter their appearance.)

This is what I think of when I hear ‘authentic self.’ I don’t imagine there’s some isolated island of ‘me’ that I need to discover and remain statically true to in order to be virtuous. It means there are some elements of my identity which are fundamental to who I am, and losing those elements or having them submerged by society is harmful to me.

I don’t see such an idea as being in conflict with the idea I’ve been writing about much of this week: that a ‘self’ is more a reflection social interactions than it is an isolated entity.

A self can be co-created and still have distinctive qualities which are worth being authentic to.

I can joke with one group of friends and be serious with another; I can show different sides of myself and express myself in different ways. I can have different types of relationships with different types of people – and I can sometimes even keep my mouth shut so as to not say something inappropriate. None of that is inconsistent with being authentic. None of that is inconsistent with striving to be the best person I can be. And none of that is inconsistent with the idea that the core of who I am is formed, not as some Athena sprung from my head, but mainly by my interactions with others.

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