Our good pal and occasional cohost of Masculine Geek Aaron Clarey wrote an essay titled “Sanity is the New Wealth” that is now behind a paywall.
His argument: being sane and acknowledging reality will give a person the same benefits as traditional wealth does.
Recently I’ve come to realize that a similar truth can be said about authenticity. Not too long ago I watched the 2018 film Ready Player One that takes place in 2045. The movie is an homage to the 1970s/80s, but it does briefly touch on an issue that modern people already grapple with. The protagonist is a young man who spends much of his time in an online world known as the Oasis and has fallen in love with a cute girl possessing that mixture of flirtation and spunk commonly lacking today.
But there’s a problem. He can only see her avatar. She might not be attractive. Or a girl.
Of course, she ultimately turns out be both female and cute. The point is, the film really didn’t dive into the complications that inevitably result from not knowing whether the avatars are real or, if they share the basic makeup of their online digital persona, how accurately it reflects their true self.
It’s a question worth exploring, because we’ve already reached it with online social media. It is entirely possible to be Facebook friends with someone, follow them on Twitter, and even chat with them on some platform – only to find out they are not the person you thought they were. It could be a girl with an online dating profile pretending to be thin and pretty thanks to photoshop and high angle camera poses. It can be a man faking success in his career or with girls, or even perhaps a man who purports to champion moral virtue when he is a liar and a fraud.
A person interacting with others online today is wise to do so with a healthy degree of skepticism about what they see or hear. President Reagan had a “trust but verify” policy with the Soviets, but I wonder if that is too lenient. Inasmuch much as Doubting Thomas went down in history for refusing to believe a miracle until he saw the physical proof with his own eyes, it’s a prudent approach to take when an online acquaintance in some way tries to get involved in your life. Often enough, the risks are just not worth opening yourself up to the sheer dysfunction or mentally deranged behavior that could follow. Sadly, that means many potential friendships or relationships fail to materialize.
In his novel A Noble Profession, Pierre Boulle starts the story off with an introduction explaining why humans so despise charlatans and deception, even when their actions are beneficial to us. It evokes a deeply-rooted disgust. Benedict Arnold turned on the Americans during the War of Independence, yet he was not welcome with open arms by the British despite his aid.
In the 2011 Ironclad regarding the events following Magna Carta, the hated King John pays off an informant who has just ratted out his rebel comrades. The information is critical to John’s plan to reconquer England, but even he can’t stomach such treachery.
“You know them?” he asks rhetorically. “So what does that make you? Worthless.”
People fear the imposter because in a way, it is theft. It robs us of the investments we make into a relationship. The greater the investment, the more of a betrayal it is when the discovery is made and the harder it is for you to acknowledge the truth. It creates internal conflict and confusion because you have mentally and psychologically invested into a person who does not truly exist. Whereas you struggle as to what to do with emotions directed at that person such as love, loyalty, concern, respect, admiration, on the other hand your feelings of anger and horror become problematic. There is also the manipulation; the imposter has built up goodwill with you so that when their mask is removed, you still see someone they are not. It is normal to feel betrayed when a friend or acquaintance turns on you, but what if it turns out they never were your friend from the beginning? And how do you process the loss of a relationship that never actually existed? It is a similar experience to having someone die, yet we want to resist thoughts associated with that, because that is how we regard a real person.
Further establishing the validity of a false persona can take you on a perilous psychological journey that ultimately has you inventing more and more to support the delusion. In the 1955 film Blood Alley, John Wayne plays a sailor who has been imprisoned by the communists in China for two years. To cope with the stress, he creates an imaginary woman to talk to named “Baby,” a composite of all his girlfriends. Maintaining imaginary relationships are for children and people suffering from mental trauma.
Discovering an imposter’s true identity creates turmoil within a person’s soul because they don’t know how they are supposed to feel, whether the emotions they experienced and continue to feel are legitimate. It leads to an existential crisis: what else in their life is also false? And to restore one’s psychological health, they must accept that they were duped. It is a humbling choice that merely adds to insult to injury.
Whether people realize it consciously or not, this is the cause of their reluctance to engage with others, whether it be online or in a low-trust environment. It is why we abhor the charlatan and imposter; they destabilize any community the enter and tear at the social fabric that binds individuals into a cohesive, collective entity. One wonders if the hyper-individualism and historically high levels of loneliness and isolation in the modern West is the product of rampant fraud in all aspects of our lives.
How do we respond?
This is where authenticity comes in.
Authenticity allows others to confirm you are who you say you are. It does not mean you have to use your real name or face, though that certainly helps. It is not some explicit proclamation you make. You can’t be your own witness.
People see how authentic you are by your actions, how you allow people online to see things about you or sides of you that aren’t always flattering or how you respond to others. No matter how clever charlatans are, humans are programmed to sense deceit in another person. It’s a gut feeling we experience but are often told to suppress for various reasons.
Thankfully, deceitful people can’t hide their true identity forever, while a person who exudes authenticity and builds a reputation as such, will develop credibility that will aid them as they build relationships. It means when they reach out to other good-willed people, they have already done the legwork to convince them they are the real deal. They will be able to get a hold of someone whose experience has taught them to be wary of anyone who approaches them online. They’ll know when “Person A” contacts them, they have the certainty who they are communicating with.
Why is this important?
For most of the population, more and more of life will be spent online. However, the rise of digital avatars and other innovations means it will become more and more difficult to determine real from false people. Also, the behavior of real people right now is actively undermining the natural trust that many people in my generation had when they joined the Internet. Even if you are like me and dislike the Internet and use it out of necessity, pretending that technological advances haven’t occurred is foolish. With all its curses, the Internet still provides you with the greatest exposure to like-minded individuals than anything prior. But the challenge to effectively bringing them into your social circle or collaborating with them, will be gaining their trust.
We use the term “bona fides” in modern context to describe documentation proving our identity, i.e. passports or driver’s licenses. Translated, the Latin phrase means “good faith” and once referred to a person’s honest and integrity. In other words, their authenticity as to the character and virtue they claimed to hold.
However, if authenticity is a currency, those who have established it for themselves will have the wealth. They will be the ones who have nothing to prove to others. That puts them in a position of control, and therefore power. A man with online “bona fides” holds a distinct advantage over those who do not. People will be more likely and willing to work, meet, befriend, collaborate or support them than someone who has yet to prove themselves in that sense.
That person who otherwise would not reach out to you to help or provide support, will. That person who would have never responded to your message, will. That person who would be unwilling to meet someone in real life they met online, will. That person who has lived a lone wolf life and never pooled resources with others because they can’t find anyone to trust, will. That person who never gives loyalty to anyone when times get tough or an issue cloudy because they can’t determine what is true or not, will.
What’s more, a person who has demonstrated authenticity can use that to vouch for others they are willing to trust. Again, that is a form of currency. They are also in a position to demand authenticity from anyone who seeks their help. It is a way of protecting that currency from theft. Those who have the “bona fides” can insist on the same from anyone else.
Naturally, we should not strive for authenticity in the hopes of using it like money for materialistic pursuits. That would defeat the very purpose of genuineness. Nevertheless, the social utility of being genuine demonstrates why it is virtuous to give an accurate and honest presentation, just as the eventual cost of deceit to the charlatan proves its immorality. Those who choose the right path will enjoy the sense of community and comradeship that allows you to “enjoy the decline” by removing much of the hardship and pain others will endure.
Honesty does not always bring rewards the way we would like, but it is a currency one can use to purchase the opportunities for meaningful relationships that only authenticity can buy.