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Bill SchmittApril 23, 20248 min read

We Seek Authenticity, But Be Careful Defining What’s Real

The editors at Merriam-Webster recently announced that “authentic” was their “word of the year” for 2023. They affirmed the perceptiveness voiced decades ago by comedian Robin Williams regarding our experiences: “Reality—what a concept!”

More people are wondering about reality, whether they want to embrace it, pursue it, manipulate it, or marginalize it. Online searches for the definition of “authentic” surged at the Merriam-Webster site, prompting the dictionary company to say it’s a word that “defined the year.”

This echoes the editors’ “word of the year” for 2022, “gaslight.” It also follows a pattern set by Oxford English Dictionary editors in 2016 when they spotlighted the scary term “post-truth.”

Authenticity Today

In this culture where truth seems to be up for grabs, dictionary fans realize authenticity is important.

However, in their news release, Merriam-Webster acknowledged that “authentic” is a quality that is “subject to debate.” As they put it, “the line between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ has become increasingly blurred.”

That blur overshadows last year’s news stories, ranging from artificial intelligence to political propaganda to mysterious people in the back of airplanes.

Modern uncertainty about authenticity extends to its multiple definitions.

The editors say “authentic” can mean:

Not false or imitation (as in “real, actual”); worthy of acceptance or belief as aligned with or based on fact; conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features (as in “an authentic reproduction of a colonial farmhouse”); and true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.

Authenticity for Ourselves

These days, the latter definition can itself be problematic. We have assumed authentic people are honest and transparent; their words conform to their intentions and actions.

However, the expanding social phenomenon called expressive individualism, which Public Square magazine defined to be “a worldview that gives self-expression a privileged place” as a “paramount virtue,” can sow seeds of confusion.

Many people now claim the privilege of expressing “their truth,” which others might not deem transparent according to their own truths—or to their pursuit of the truth about reality. This dashes the hope that authenticity will reliably build trust and cooperation.

As Public Square author Jeffrey Thane explained, “Community and family norms do not always prioritize or privilege individual self-expression. Religion, tradition, culture, family, and peers can all stifle our attempts at self-definition” and can impose “expectations that we did not choose for ourselves.”

This potential for conflict seems to require extra efforts which might promote private advantage more than the common good. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy encouraged enforcement of personal narratives in a 1992 decision

“At the heart of liberty,” he wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.”

An Authenticity Training

In December 2023, Forbes posted a commentary titled “How Inclusive Leaders Create Safe Spaces for Authenticity at Work.”

The author, Simon E. Morris, recommends, “Consider that each employee comes to the workplace with upbringing experiences that impact interactions.” Inclusion in the workplace might require “having conversations around authenticity and what it means concerning organization and team dynamics.”

The situation may call for “unlearning and consistent training” in the basic “skills” of interaction, Morris adds.

Endless discussions of what “authentic” means to individuals threaten to distract us from collaborative problem-solving. Those with the greater powers of advocacy and persuasion could score points which short-circuit broader remedies.

Society Seeking Authenticity

There’s another challenge, as reported in December 2023 by another business magazine, Fortune. Michael Serazio notes, “Authenticity has become a central moral framework in society—the subtle yet pervasive value that animates and adjudicates our media, culture, and politics.”

Marketers know that “consumers have long sought authenticity, as it gets stamped on a range of goods and experiences made attractive largely because they appear to lack marketplace motives.”

People prefer small local stores with a unique and home-like feel. Big companies increasingly try to sound authentic, expressing their “soul” through public positions on policy issues. Or at least, they aim to look authentic.

“Take Starbucks,” writes Serazio, “which has long tried to reproduce the ‘aura’ of that cute, little indie coffee shop in your neighborhood—some 55,000 times over.”

That copycat approach can be attributed to smart business strategy about the layout and types of materials in a Starbucks store. But we also see cases where authenticity is falsely claimed by a business or a person.

A Committed Relationship: Gaslighting and Authenticity

Groucho Marx, a predecessor of Robin Williams, is credited with the observation: “The secret of life is honesty. . . . If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

This comic path takes us back to the tragic side of “authentic” as a clue about 2023. It is akin to the misfortune of gaslighting given Merriam-Webster’s salute in 2022. That term for manipulation and its relationship to today’s post-truth conundrum are the subjects of a Phronesis in Pieces commentary published one year ago: "Let 'Gaslighting' Illuminate the Need for Truth."

In that piece, I wondered whether people might become so desperate in their struggle to define reality that “truth” itself would emerge someday as the “word of the year” with the most online look-ups. “Authentic” comes uncomfortably close to that prediction.

A Crisis of Legitimacy

Our society is approaching a crisis of legitimacy. Interpersonal and institutional confidence have eroded. Our hobbled sense of trust as common ground feeds polarization.

Without a robust basis for integrity and conversation, without respectful and joyful adventures in changing reality, we are lost in the fog of war. Our fears can make us turn to the government—and other powerful advocates and influencers—to tell us what is true.

The founders of our democratic republic held a different view, favoring strong limits on government. They recognized it’s the great duty and nobility of citizen-leaders to seek and represent areas of agreement. Through our Constitution and institutions, we have structures for determining authenticity based on purpose and principles we humbly share.

A contemporary Canadian philosopher of religion, Jonathan Pageau, says his homeland, as well as the United States and elsewhere, must re-establish transcendent bonds among the populace.

“I do believe that, without the worship of God, we’re not going to get out of this,” he says in his new video series at Daily Wire Plus. “One of the things that brought about this problem [of fragmentation] was the desire to remove God” in favor of rationality, science, and emotions. “That slowly devolved to a point where we can’t recognize facts anymore.”

So, What Shall We Do About the Authenticity Problem?

First, according to Pageau, we must acknowledge there is an overarching source of truth “in which all things are bound”—to which we are all responsible.

Second, we should focus our energy on “intermediary structures” that have been handed down to us, fostering interfaces of goodwill between the familiar and those people and things that are strange to us, says Pageau.

The embrace of culture “starts with the person” and moves upward to families, communities, the public square, the nation, and the world. The common denominator is human dignity— ultimately, legitimacy.

We need to put our own lives in order so we know how to be authentic to ourselves. “You have to become that which you want the world to be,” Pageau recommends. “Because the world is made from these stacked-up little worlds, the transformation of your heart and your habits and your attention will reverberate around you.”

He prescribes “creating moments of celebration in your family, creating moments of being together.” Step by step, we learn and accept bits of each other’s uniqueness.

This helps us to see ways in which “my little world is embedded into a bigger one.” We can find these intersections principally through religion, but also through such actions as sharing sports fandom and joining book clubs.

Third, we need to rediscover and share “the stories which bind us together.” These can include Biblical stories and the story of one’s nation, says the philosopher. They show what it means to “exist together.” Appreciating how human history has weaved itself together and how it continues to do so in spite of missteps provides a context for teaming up against current challenges.

In other words, the question of authenticity must indeed be answered first at the personal level—but not by simply deciding “who I am” within a bubble of one’s own observations, ideologies, and machinations. We are authentic not in a solo or static way but through interactive growth.

“If you become more than what you are, then you will start to mend these other worlds around you,” according to Pageau.

No Room for Power Plays

To take his purposeful path toward hope, we should beware of kneejerk reactions to uncomfortable surprises. We risk retreating into ourselves as stubborn, suspicious, monolithic “centers” tasked with holding everything together. Yes, there is a solid core, but we’re not it.

Also, if we are so self-centered as to trick or force people to accept a false legitimacy we have contrived, we make life more difficult not only for others but for ourselves.

Maintaining one’s façade often requires a pile-up of deceit, which creates hard work for the pretender and chaos in our “existence together.” We shouldn’t play power games to apply the standards of truth. That breaks down trust.

Nor should we rely on self-definitions which narrow people down to single labels or tribal worldviews in light of which everything else seems dubious, dangerous, or “fake.”

We need to nurture a culture that allows us to center ourselves in reality while recognizing that the whole truth is much bigger than us. All of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of “authentic” are worthwhile aids in embracing a fact-based life. But they don’t account for transformation.

Emerging Authenticity

Authenticity will emerge from expanding and sharing plenty of our stories. The video of the flyer pointing toward an “unreal” fellow passenger is an exception!  That was an individual’s spontaneous narrative, hardly a story we could learn from.

A calm curiosity about mystery and complexity, the known and the unknown, makes us participants, not mere spectators. Authenticity is a group activity.

If we celebrate the adventure of complicated humans muddling through this imperfect world together, if we express our doubts and desires and not merely our egos, our resignation to reality leaves room for more honesty and productivity, even happiness.

A sense of humor helps. Groucho was authentic when he mused, “I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”


Bill Schmitt

Bill Schmitt is a journalist, educator, and marketing communications specialist who has been an adjunct professor of English and media at several schools, most recently Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, IN. He served on the communications staff of the University of Notre Dame from 2003 to 2017, managing many projects and joining in a wide range of multimedia, interdisciplinary collaborations. Since then, his freelance work has included feature-writing, editing, podcasting, and blogging, with much of his work centered on the Catholic faith. Bill holds a BA from Fordham University and an MPA from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Find his work at,, and billschmitt-onword on Linked-In.