On the inauthenticity of authenticity

5 Apr

One last note on Wednesday’s post: That last line from Susan Patton (“Yes, I went there”) really grates on me.

Patton relies on authenticity to sell her message: she’s not just saying, “I went to Princeton, so I know.” She’s saying, “I can speak for you.” She presumes the authority to tell young women whom she has never met who they are, what they want and how their lives will be. So listen up.

I understand this notion of the authentic voice. It’s persuasive, but flawed logic.

Yes, individuals who share identities often share culture, frames of reference and even experiences. But they are not identical. And even as Patton is speaking to women who attend(ed) Princeton, she is addressing women of a different generation, and within that group, women who identify differently in terms of their sexuality, race, socioeconomic status, social class, physical ability, religion, political beliefs, gender and ethnicity. Let alone their beliefs about marriage.

For Patton to presume her particular experience is the template for The Princeton Female Undergraduate Life Experience is a gross and astoundingly oblivious obliteration of the very group she purports to assist. In four short words (“Yes, I went there”), she assimilates the entire female student body of Princeton (present and future) to her own narrative and remakes each and every one of them in her own image.

Which brings me to Piaget’s developmental theory. According to Piaget, the pre-operational stage of child development spans 2 to 7 years of age, and is marked by egocentrism, aka the belief that one’s point of view is everyone’s point of view. While this seems a reasonable presumption for a child to make, it is harder to accept from a full grown (Princeton educated) woman. (Ironically, Piaget’s own theorizing reflects this pre-operational perspective: from observations of his own children, he extrapolated the developmental arc of all children. While models are useful as a reference, their implied universality and authority do concern me.)

Nonetheless, Piaget’s work provides an interesting lens for considering Patton’s egocentrism. It makes sense that there would be a somewhat enduring, pre-operational stage of identity development, in which we can fail to perceive the fact of diversity and thus presume homogeneity in the world around us. And knowing this, perhaps we can bring more self-awareness to our engagement with the world and recognize that we may have a tendency not to see the person in front of us, but rather to project a familiar narrative on them for our own sense of comfort.

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