on authenticity and moral authority
In the last week, we have witnessed our leaders, and, more importantly, our friends, struggle to access moral authority in the wake of violent protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, VA. Moral authority is a tricky thing, and the outrage resulting from elected leaders’ slippage with the concept reveals many of us are not exactly comfortable with the idea either. It should also be acknowledged that the term ‘moral authority’ is itself fraught, having been misused for centuries to protect power and restrict the freedom and dignity of others. Indeed, as a person of faith very aware of my own failings, I don’t often wield the sword of moral authority unless it is to help powerless people. In the context of this week in American public discourse, I find myself defending the idea as a positive counter to ‘moral equivocation.’ Our discomfort, and hypocrisy, in using moral authority stems from a racial and power divide that has holds America. The majority of those in power—white people—tend to believe that laws are just and that justice prevails. Those whose primary identity rests in their distance from such power though, understand that a thing can be legal and morally repugnant. These disparate approaches to justice and the law create a need for moral authority that affirms the dignity of all people, and understands historical context and the fluid nature of normative trends.
In his most recent press conference with reporters, held in the gilded halls of the elevator bank of Trump Tower in New York, the president presented a view of his moral framework based more on equivocation than authority:
I will tell you something…you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that. But I’ll say it right now….You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.
While this offers a condemnation of physical violence, the moral authority is based on the false notion that when we say words that “nobody want to say”, they must be true. The 2016 election exposed this new basis of moral authority for most in our country:
1) Authority comes from truth.
2) The best way to spot truth is to look for authenticity.
3) Authenticity is best measured by a leader’s willingness to say something no one else wants to say.
Here we find the flaw that has most recently corroded moral authority. Framing a statement as hard to say does not make it authentic or true. Sometimes ideas are not repeated in the public sphere precisely because they lack a moral foundation. Sometimes ideas can be widely shared and be morally reprehensible. Racism and white supremacy are two of those ideas. When brash ‘authenticity’ replaces factually grounded historically contextualized statements as the arbiter of truth and fairness, we have lost our grip on moral authority as a society.
In the last 48 hours, much has been said of the moral equivalency drawn by the president between white supremacists and activists promoting the equality of all people. These groups clashed in Charlottesville, and then:
REPORTER: Mr. President, are you putting what you are calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?
TRUMP: I am not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I’m saying is this: You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You have just called them the left, that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.
REPORTER: You said there was hatred, there was violence on both sides?
TRUMP: Well I do think there’s blame. Yes, I think there is blame on both sides. You look at both sides. I think there is blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it. And you don’t have doubt about it either.
His argument rightly condemns physical violence as a “horrible thing” to watch. However, the statement, straining to clearly denounce violence and hatred, misses the mark for at least two reasons. One, the authority on which the statement rests is the president’s willingness to say the thing that others won’t say (“you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is”). As we just discussed, this is not a sound basis for moral authority. Second, his statement lacks moral authority because of a willful ignoring of context. The historical contexts of slavery and the ways in which we have acknowledged and ignored America’s relationship to racism are the contexts we must understand if we are to talk about the way that Charlottesville is a response against and a reflection of the specific cultural moment in which we find ourselves. More of this in Tuesday’s essay.
For now, I think our discourse as a society will improve if we examine the relationship each of us have independently established between authenticity and truth telling. Many of us, longing for community and easily distracted by consuming bits of knowledge, look to social media for our points of connection. We are more engaged than ever before, and yet depression and anxiety rates are higher—and diagnosed younger—than ever before as well. These platforms create crucial environmental realities that nurture a desperation for authenticity. For instance, because we are each now actively involved in producing images and records of our lives, we perform our identities. These acts demonstrate for us the performative nature of the act of telling, subtly undermining our trust in the truth of the stories others tell. Our own complicity in telling polished stories about ourselves creates a craving in us for authenticity. Further, the ubiquity of platforms reveals that every site, author and source possess a bias. We know this, even if we love reading news that confirms our own bias! The plethora of angles and analysis allows people to consume “facts” about the world that fuel the outrage enjoyed by their particular brand of moral authority. These realities have created an environment in which we crave authenticity, reordering our priorities to the extent that we applaud authentic hate simply because it feels like the opposite of political correctness. Can we not pursue authenticity and kindness simultaneously? Must compassion be thrown out as falsely produced weakness?
As we examine the cultural moment in which we have allowed authenticity to become a placeholder for truth that can sustain the kind of moral authority we need in the wake of Charlottesville, I’d like to suggest we scrutinize the ways in which we evaluate claims of authenticity. Are we willing to praise statements that overlook toxic hatred because they feel authentic? Unchecked, our love of authenticity removes our ability to be outraged by morally repugnant ideas, simply because they are universally held and must therefore be inauthentic. We have already lost our grip on moral authority; must we also allow meanness to replace honesty as the measure of a person’s authenticity?
On Tuesday, context for Charlottesville and moral equivalency.