The quest for the true inner self goes on, and on, and on . . .
A few months ago I picked up the book After Aquarius Dawned: How the Revolutions of the Sixties Became the Popular Culture of the Seventies. In it Judy Kutulas argues that music, advertising, and television in the 1970s helped embed civil rights, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and gay rights in American culture. I find that convincing.
Then I came to the end of her Introduction: “The parts of contemporary life I see growing out of the 1970s are not marked by self-absorption, but by the valuing of freedom, diversity, and tolerance.”
It sounds like a dream from an age of innocence. I re-checked the publication date and, sure enough, Kutulas wrote it just before the Trump presidency, BLM protests, Capitol riot, and Covid battles. I feel bad for her timing—sort of like the scholar writing the entry on “civilization” for the Encyclopedia Britannica on the eve of World War I who argued that the airplane would bring world peace.
To be fair, Kutulas qualifies her optimism with a culture wars narrative, one in which the sixties revolutions provoke a conservative backlash. Conservatives, of course, could provide their own counter-narrative. But both liberal and conservative narratives mask another revolution from the sixties that may have had an even deeper impact on everyone. We now live in what Charles Taylor calls “The Age of Authenticity.” Among other things, Taylor takes this to be a culture in which we believe we each have our own inner way of realizing our humanity, since we are convinced we should not conform to frameworks imposed on us by authorities. As Disney taught us when we were seven: Just be true to your heart.
Developments well before the 1960s helped create this culture of authenticity. Romanticists like Ralph Waldo Emerson assured us in his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” that for great individuals “the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart.” Cultural developments fueled this impulse: consumerism, youth subculture, the psychology of Carl Rogers, and certain forms of evangelical piety, to name just a few.
These sensibilities flowered in the 1960s. Hippies railed against “phonies” while seeking to embody what was “real” and “authentic.” An iconic scene in The Graduate finds Ben Braddock being pulled aside at his graduation party by one of his father’s friends, who gives him momentous advice summed up in one word: “plastics.” Perceptive viewers understood that Mr. Maguire represented a generation obsessed with making money, while the younger generation in particular saw a middle-class lifestyle that was as inauthentic as the plastic wood paneling on their station wagons.
This critique of American materialism had real merits. Ironically though, its popularity enabled advertisers to turn authenticity to their own consumeristic purposes in the 1970s. We baby boomers know deep in our hearts that Coke is “the real thing.” We can sing the song to prove it.
Of course, the slogan is absurd. Real in what way? A real soft drink, as opposed to whiskey posing as a soft drink? A real cola, unlike Pepsi, which is fake cola? Real because the chemical composition of Coke stimulates the section in our brain that enables us to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony? We don’t ask these questions because the slogan is a-rational, tied to our affection for our “real” inner self. Marketers know this. They increase sales by connecting a product to something we like, no matter how illogical or random the association. In the 1970s this meant young people singing about apple trees and honeybees and snow white turtle doves. It worked, just as today advertisers can increase sales for car insurance by associating it with a small gecko speaking in an English accent. We are funny creatures, we humans.
This embrace of authenticity took place amidst an anti-establishment distrust of dominant values. Instead of a reflection of one’s gifts, or personality, or flaws, authenticity began to mean the absolute trustworthiness of one’s perceptions of the external world. One thought less (and less) about whether or not those perceptions actually aligned with reality. Coke lost out to other colas in a myriad of blind taste tests but remained the best-selling cola. Why? Other factors were at work. (The iconic bottle? The catchy jingles? A distaste for admitting one might have been wrong?)
Untethered authenticity extended well beyond Coca-Cola. In 1985, Robert Bellah identified a religious expression of authenticity in a subject who named her religion after herself: Sheila Larson called her faith Sheilaism. In trying to escape an upbringing she felt to be conformist she put together her own collection of beliefs and spiritual sensibilities that seemed to fit her. She effectively severed religious faith from any transcendent spiritual reality.
Hyper-individualistic spirituality does not surprise observers of American religion. But here is our problem: If we can assemble our own religion based solely on what seems real to our own sense of the self, we are not far away from a world in which any and every truth claim can be adjudicated—in our own minds, that is—on the basis of whether it feels right, makes sense on our own internal terms, or simply comes joined at the hip to something we really like.
Politics, history, science? Many of us unconsciously rely on the trustworthiness of our heart to determine the truth. Consider, for instance, the argument of an anti-mask protester at the Ohio statehouse in July of 2020. “I work in a health-related field and I understand virus transmission,” she stated in explaining why she believes masks don’t work. “I trust myself. I am the science.”
Science. It’s the real thing.
Liberals are not immune. I see yard signs listing progressive causes that include the phrase, “Science is real.” Not “Science is true.”
Of course, humanity has always attempted to reshape reality according to its selfish desires. And anti-establishment mobilization has been a feature of American life since the era of Andrew Jackson, Henry David Thoreau, and the revivalist “Crazy” Lorenzo Dow.
So just what is new? Previous rabble-rousers and their opponents agreed that their ideals should conform to some sort of transcendent reality. Much of that has eroded now that authenticity has run amuck. Christian Smith’s research finds that most emerging adults have difficulty just grasping the idea that an objective reality exists beyond the self. That is a big problem. The appeal to the science of vaccinations does not go far with those who evaluate science on the basis of whether it or not it fits their perceptions.
We are not just funny, we are complicated creatures, we humans. Psychologists have identified more than one hundred different kinds of unconscious biases that we hold. Even if we believe in transcendent principles, we trust our heart rather than external evidence more often than we realize. Studies show we overestimate others’ agreement with our views. We scrutinize our opponents’ evidence for flaws far more carefully than our own. We ignore evidence that contradicts our views and latch on to evidence that confirms them. That’s a start: only about one hundred additional kinds of biases to go.
We have met the enemy and he is us.
That phrase comes from the comic-strip “Pogo.” As a kid I thought the strip was dumb. Of course, I didn’t understand political satire, so I just trusted my heart. But I am much better at spotting my biases now.
What? You say studies show that selective memory feeds our self-serving biases?
Jay Case is Professor of History at Malone University in Canton, Ohio.
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