Being real

One of the characteristic of the post-modern world is a quest for “authenticity”: as the young say, “we gotta be real”. The first problem with this much vaunted “authenticity” is that the very nature of the human self is artificial – shaped by its surrounding culture. However, by the West’s Enlightenment, individualistic premises, to the extent that cultural influences are important, they are often seen as sources of alienation, coercion, and manipulation. The “true” self is touted to be that which is not a product of society, that which resists conformity, and makes individuals “unique”. As a result, the influencer is obsessed with novelty in all aspects of life – from art to lifestyles – touting the new, simply because it is new.
But this romantic conception of the self is simply wrong. We are not plants or toads whose development are largely an unfolding of prespecified potential. We are profoundly social animals with brains wired to absorb and assimilate our surrounding culture, beginning most germanely with language. A person without culture is an abstraction like form without content. The well-documented cases of “feral children”—that is, children who grew up with little human contact—are tragic testimonies to the indispensability of social learning. They were literally, “non-human”.
Even a person’s most profound beliefs—those about God and the relationship between humans and the cosmos—are inextricably connected to culture. Hence the saliency of our ethnic ties in Guyana. However, we know what it is like to bow to social conventions and mask our feelings and opinions from others. More poignantly, we know the painful dissonance of dissembling about crucial components of our identity, our political beliefs, our sexuality, and so on. Does this not suggest an authentic self that persists behind our everyday social self, impervious to cultural accidents and influences although it can remain forever hidden? And is it not to this self that we owe our loyalty?
Arguments like these can feel compelling because they fit in with our daily experience, even though traits and tendencies are different from what most of us would call a “self”. Humans are complicated and complex; capable of sublimating impulses to lying about them. This can be frustrating, debilitating, and in some societies, tyrannically oppressive. But paradoxically, this is what also makes civilization possible. Because we are both cooperative and highly competitive, our thoughts and impulses can be prosocial or antisocial. Some of those antisocial thoughts and impulses are relatively benign, though potentially offensive. We cannot give in to unmediated impulses from our id. Some of our thoughts and impulses are coercive, violent, or destructive.
Few people are so virtuous that they have never wanted to humiliate, hit, or even kill another person. Some people are filled with rage and hate, and would happily dominate others if they were in a position to do so. One of the crucial functions of civilization is to curb these inclinations so that we can cooperate (and compete) without constant violence. Democratic politics and the institutions that make it work is one such innovation. Although this might be frustrating on occasion, it leads to wealth, comfort, and cultural achievements that would otherwise be impossible.
The celebration of authenticity is premised, often only half-knowingly, on a quasi-Rousseauist belief that humans are naturally good and only corrupted by society. But this belief is patently false: humans are not “naturally” good or evil, but created as Kant phrased it “out of this crooked timber”. As such, they are flawed, limited, and contradictory creatures, capable of envisioning a peaceful, cooperative society of abundance, but thwarted in achieveing it because their efforts are undermined by selfishness and rivalry.
Although we cannot fully achieve our moral goals, we can, with the guidance of wise norms and institutions, create a lively and flourishing civilization. And the function of these wise norms and institutions such as democracy and its institutions, is to suppress, discipline, and reshape our natural inclinations. It is, in other words, to produce a cultured and civilized—that is, a created —human. This should be the goal of “One Guyana”.