Authenticity in cultural context

A final, more general, problem for emotional authenticity emerges from the fact that our understanding of rationality, autonomy, and flexibility is always mediated through cultural norms, quite the same way as feeling and display rules of particular emotions. There is an extensive debate among philosophers and social scientists on whether norms of rationality are the same for all people or whether they remain ineliminably different across cultures (e.g. Hollis & Lukes, 1982). Even coherence is a substantial, albeit minimal condition of rationality. Likewise, the value of autonomy appears to vary between Western and Eastern cultures - or even between Western men and women - and their respective construals of the self, independent and interdependent (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Griffiths, 1997). The problem is then whether authenticity relates to some privileged conception of rationality and autonomy rather than to the best available accounts of those standards. This is an important question because an objective view of authenticity would declare the emotions of entire cultures and historical eras inauthentic.

True enough, many cultures have hampered innumerable people's emotions by denying their personal autonomy and rationality on grounds, such as gender or race, that we now regard as untenable. In those societies, the oppressed must have claimed authenticity through their recalcitrant "outlaw" emotions. However, an objective view of authenticity would suggest that even the privileged in oppressive cultures cannot reach authenticity if the warrant of their beliefs and values derives from a deficient conception of rationality or autonomy. This would entail, for instance, that the Medieval sailors' fear of falling from the edge of the world was inauthentic because it was founded on their locally warranted but actually false belief that Earth is flat. But surely a conclusion this awkward constitutes a reduction ad absurdum of the associated view of authenticity. Authenticity is a norm of internal justification and it can remain as such only if it we restrict the warrant for authentic emotions to the best available standards of rationality and autonomy. After all, we can still maintain that an emotion is inappropriate or unfitting from a more global perspective even if it is authentic for the subject.

It is important to realise that the relativity of emotional authenticity need not nevertheless leave it at the mercy of parochial folkways, science, and moralities. This conclusion looms large when we recollect that, for example, both the cognitive and moral grounds for sexual and racial discrimination were once widely accepted within the Western culture. Yet our intuitions suggests that, for instance, Huckleberry Finn, in Mark Twain's famous novel, acted on his authentic emotion when he helped Jim to escape from slavery even if Huck's sympathy for Jim violated against his explicit moral norms.

Alison Mclntyre (1990) provides a justification for this intuition by arguing that even if Huck's action manifested akrasia, that is, weakness of the will, it was nevertheless rational because Huck was mistaken about his best reasons. In fact, Huck acted on his actual best reasons, and his action was inconsistent only what he falsely believed to be his best reasons. This can be seen by considering the fact that if an agent like Huck "had had more time, more information, more insight, or greater powers of self-observation, the agent would have been able to justify performing the action that was done akratically" (ibid., p. 390). And since the reasons for an akratic action can be derived, through reflection, from the agent's own basic motivations, they count as internal. Huck's case indicates then that even conservative and quite homogeneous communities can provide enough resources for critical reflection that allow an individual who puts those resources into full use to authentically transcend the prevailing social norms and feeling rules.

Although every culture has some conception of rationality, personal autonomy is more problematic because it appears to be so clearly a modern Western value. Yet it would be rash to assume that people with more interdependent selves are incapable of experiencing authentic emotions because autonomy is not an overarching value for them. No doubt, the phenotype of authentic emotions may differ between East and West as the former cultures favour indirect expression and communication of emotions, especially in close relationships. However, authenticity as self-realization is an important value in the traditional Asian cultures as well (Sundararajan, 2002; Averill et al., 2001). The purpose of indirect communication is not to stiffen the self but to contribute to its autonomy by creating a private space that a person can share with the like-minded. Louise Sundararajan concludes that this view of harmony as affinity-based resonance instead of conflict-based conformity "renders superfluous the conventional dichotomies in the IND[individualism] - COL[lectivism] literature - such as the self versus the group, and independence versus interdependence of the self " (ibid., p. 256).

Nonetheless, the somewhat different understanding of autonomy and other values between Western and Eastern cultures makes the question of authenticity poignant for especially the second generation immigrants, such as Asian Europeans and Americans as well as for members of other minorities, either cultural, ethnic or sexual, who must learn to live with dissimilar, sometimes even conflicting, feeling rules (see Calhoun, 1995; Erickson, 1995). Their situation constitutes a challenge, both psychologically and theoretically, as an integration of their emotions, beliefs and values into a coherent pattern may not be readily available. The integrity view of authenticity enjoins us to dissolve ambivalence whenever that is possible. However, some people may remain incapable of reconciling their conflicting beliefs and values even after a laborious and extended process of scrupulous meditation. In this case, I submit that ambivalent emotions that cohere with significant subsets of the person's subjectively rational values and beliefs may qualify as authentic, quite similarly to cases in which an individual's ambivalent emotions qualify as authentic because they are warranted by incommensurable values of the subject.

 
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