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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Covering II: The Problem With Privileging "Authenticity"

Another look at Kenji Yoshino's "Covering," following up on my earlier post.  I want to address another aspect of Yoshino's book that I found somewhat troubling.  Toward the end of the book, Yoshino writes:

What most excited me about gay civil rights was its universal resonance.  Unlike other civil rights groups, gays must articulate invisible selves without the initial support of our immediate communities.  That makes the gay project of self-elaboration emblematic of the search for authenticity all of us engage in as human beings.  It is work each of us must do for ourselves, and it is the most important work we can do.

Following up on this, Yoshino writes that he draws his "vocabulary for this quest for authenticity" from D.W. Winnicott's distinction between the "True Self" and the "False Self," in which the True Self "is the self that gives an individual the feeling of being real," and is "assocated with human spontaneity and authenticity"; the False Self "mediates the relationship between the True Self and the world," which helps protect the True Self.  In a healthy individual, Yoshino writes, following Winnicott, "the False Self is reduced to a 'polite and mannered social attitude,' a tool available to the fully realized True Self."  He writes that "[t]he new civil rights must harness this universal impulse toward authenticity."

I have two issues with this argument, one minor but specific, and the other larger but also more vague.  First, I find myself skeptical of this distinction between the False and True selves, for two reasons.  Although he is at pains not to demonize the False Self, again in line with Winnicott, Yoshino at least is willing to privilege the True Self over the False Self -- to privilege the "authentic" self over the "assimilating" self.  The distinction serves its purposes well enough, but I think it is hard either to 1) discern, for any given individual, what the "true" self is, or to 2) describe the "false" self as inauthentic. 

The first point is obvious enough; what constitutes our "authentic" identity is a fraught question, to say the least.  On the second point, I wonder whether we would be so quick to call the False Self "false" if we redescribed it as the "Social Self."  Seen in that light, we might consider that our social selves are not simply the result of a mediation between "the True Self and the world," but that our own unique and true identities are a result of that social intermediation.  We are not simply atoms interacting with an external universe, but who we are depends on that process of interaction, and we often find our identities precisely in that act of social intercourse. 

So I am less eager than Yoshino to privilege the True and inner self over the False and social self.  I am also skeptical of any theory of the self that is so quick to privilege "human spontaneity and authenticity"; as fine as those qualities are, I think the tendency in the last thirty years has been to overemphasize them as true and necessary human qualities, over qualities like deliberateness, rootedness in tradition, and commitment over time.  I thought here of two very different things, high and low: the writings of Yoshino's colleague Jed Rubenfeld on constitutionalism as commitment, and the (regrettable, in my view) tendency of the culture of children's programming ever since Sesame Street and Marlo Thomas to emphasize creativity and the artist's life over other "non-creative" vocations.  With Holmes, and with our entire culture, I think Yoshino wants to argue that authentic life means painting pictures, not doing sums.  I'm not so sure.

One provocative musing on this point, and then on to my second point after the jump.  I wonder whether Yoshino's True Self/False Self dichotomy, and his emphasis on authenticity, is not based on the very fact that he takes gay civil rights as his paradigm.  In his description, gay civil rights have involved the articulation of a gay self "without the initial support of our immediate communities."  Surely this depiction of the formation of identity suggests an environment in which the unrooted, unencumbered self is likely to be privileged -- or, indeed, in which it may be the only available model of a True Self.  But would such a description suit equally well the development of the self in other communities -- in the black community, for instance?

[more after the jump]            

In a sense, this first set of observations is a part of a larger and vaguer objection I want to make to Yoshino's project, and that is that I am troubled by his desire to place "self-elaboration" and "authenticity" at the center of human existence, as Yoshino does.  He calls it, after all, "work [that] each of us must do for ourselves," and "the most important work we can do."  As I suggested above, there is an image in all of this of an unrooted, unencumbered, endlessly self-realizing and self-fulfilling self that I find troubling.  I might add that I don't find it hugely troubling -- but I can see how one might, if one took this philosophical project with great seriousness. 

While self-realization is an important value, is it really that clear that it is the central human value?  For many individuals, gay or straight, is there not something troubling about placing the quest for the fully elaborated self at the center of human existence?  Is thinking about oneself necessarily prior to thinking about others?  More strongly, is thinking about oneself necessarily prior to thinking about God?  I find it amusing that I, a largely non-religious individual, should raise this point, since Yoshino's own book describes his many efforts to engage with religion as a youth; but it seems to me that his project finally privileges the individual and the self, over the social, the communal, or the diviine, in a way that is at least subject to contestation.  One could argue that one can fill the "authentic self" with whatever one wants, and that this includes spirituality; one could also argue that only an authentic self can meaningfully relate to others, in religious or secular communities.  But the question still remains whether "self-elaboration" is or ought to be the key human project, or whether it might be that something other than the self is at the heart of the human dilemma.

I am not sure what payoff this observation offers in thinking about Yoshino's work, but in the final chapters of the book I think there are hints that this literally self-centered vision does affect, and may raise questions about, his work, albeit in subtle ways.  Let me suggest one possible example, although I have not worked through it completely.  Assume we agreed that the quest for self-realization is not necessarily at the heart of human existence.  We might still approve of Yoshino's critique of covering, but we would voice it differently; we would say, "Whether or not self-elaboration is all there is, we ought to at least agree that certain traits or statuses, including race and sexuality, should not be treated by the world at large as barriers to self-realization.  Being gay should be no more a hurdle to self-realization than being straight currently is."  But this puts the emphasis on equality, and in some ways Yoshino, proceeding from the self-centered approach to human existence, wants to argue that we should protect difference not under an equality paradigm, but under a liberty paradigm, as a "right of personality."  So it may be that Yoshino's focus on the self does affect the rest of his project, and it may be that it does so in ways that are both good and bad.  Again, I wonder, and not in an unfriendly manner, whether his emphasis on authenticity and the self over rootedness, on self-elaboration over the social or communal, and on liberty over equality, is not rooted in some sense in his experience of the development of the "gay self," at least as Yoshino himself describes that experience.   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 15, 2006 at 08:28 PM in Books | Permalink


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The very nature of oppression is cumbersome. It follows that historically oppressed communities see an “unencumbered” identity as a privilege in itself. By virture of being a minority, members of minority groups are more visible and held to different standards. Often they forcibly represent their entire community and an authentic "right of personality" becomes uniquely difficult to achieve.

The delineation between True and False selfhood calls into mind “double consciousness” as iterated by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

I thought the last sentence was appropriate in light of the post regarding The ABA's "Equal Opportunity and Diversity" standard.

Posted by: ms. hart | Feb 21, 2006 1:48:02 AM

The whole topic of "authenticity" is, I agree, a difficult one to grasp. Furthermore, if strongly insistent, it is against the ethos of liberalism. For liberalism distinguishes itself from its premodern predecessors by permitting people to be many things at different times whereas its premodern religous predecessors insisted on a coherent self that transcended time and space. Locke's *Letter on (Religious) Toleration* is underwritten by this view: you're religious in one setting but not in another, and we should be willing to tolerate that you don't have to be one true self--whatever that means--all of the time. And a strongly insistent desire that you be your "true self" has politically expressed itself in intolerance and violence.

Or take the (in)famous quote by Locke that a soldier must submit to his captain and turn himself into canon fodder but may lawfully prohibit that the same captain from touching any of the soldier's money. This isn't a celebration of unbriddled capitalism as CLS scholars have badly misunderstood: It's a plea for role-differentiation and the desire to put aside premodern religious views that insist on a unitary coherent self.

If interested, check out my paper:

Posted by: John M. Kang | Feb 16, 2006 8:35:13 PM

Thanks for the comment -- obviously a good deal of effort went into this one. I've read some Taylor but not, I'm embarrassed to say, the title you cite.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 16, 2006 2:23:29 PM

Thanks for this, Paul. Very thoughtful. Have you read Charles Taylor's "Ethics of Authenticity"? Seems consonant with some of your points.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Feb 16, 2006 1:37:22 PM

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