Dishonest dogs and the human pretense of authenticity

Even though we humans are accustomed to celebrating sincerity, honesty, authenticity, genuineness, and the like, we also know that, in reality, we have little tolerance for these qualities in large or consistent doses. Functioning as the kind of social animals we are seems to require softening, calibrating, sweetening, and filing down. Unbridled intensity and unblunted truths turn out to be at least as socially unappealing as superficiality and lies.

It’s also common to hear non-human animals lauded for their supposedly naked honesty. “Dogs don’t lie,” we say, as if it were obviously true. But while I am pretty sure that dogs do, in their own way, lie — perhaps especially when they’re sucking up to us — there is a sort of honesty in the manipulation that makes them generally easier to deal with than human beings. It’s no wonder we adore the company of dogs. Whatever dissembling they engage in is so much more straightforward than our human version.

In fact, most of us are involved in a more or less constant conspiracy of agreeing to be less than sincere, and to avoid difficult existential topics, while simultaneously pretending that this is not the case. Our greatest lie, in fact, may well be our insistence that lies, insincerities, and superficialities will not be tolerated or appreciated. One of the most beloved masks we present to the world, then, may be a shell of authenticity, a performance meant to convey that we value honesty, directness and genuineness above all else. And though we create, and constantly adjust, our own mask, we ourselves are often willing to be fooled by it.

Truth-seekers of the sort described in early religious tales are rare. Recall the supposedly heroic young Siddartha shaking off ties and comforts, including the warm blanket of ignorance, to discover unvarnished experience, especially its core of suffering. For the most part, we regular folks want our reality cosmetically altered, plumped, sweetened, shaved, powdered and perfumed. Our passion for authenticity functions as just one more fashion or facade, another manipulation to inspire others’ impressions of us as interesting, intellectual or spiritual beings.

And maybe this marks us as very different from dogs, because though dogs surely do dissemble — feigning innocence, sneaking around, and currying favor — they do it honestly, as part of the pragmatic creaturely-ness of who they are. And because they are not addicted to the pretense of authenticity, there are no additional layers of manipulation to scrape off in order to arrive at a relatively unmediated impression of who they are and how they’re operating.

In human engagements, though, the complexity is staggering. We work to puzzle out not only whether the other person is showing her “true self,” but also whether she is so habitually self deceptive she would even know if she were lying. More importantly, we must be ruthless enough in our own self reflection to countenance the truth about how much we, ourselves, actually prefer lies and trivialities over depth and sincerity. Don’t we mostly want others to reassure us that we’re awesome, and to stick to the pleasantries? But don’t we also long for them to find us interesting, genuine, and, perhaps above all else, authentic?

The larger question, then, may be not whether we are honest (versus dishonest), superficial (versus deep), or genuine (versus false), as if these were oppositional adjectives. Fortunately, queer thinkers have done much to challenge such binary thinking and also to remind us that the notion of a fundamental, true core self underlying our actions and words may itself be part of our self-serving fantasy.

For human animals, authentic authenticity may turn out to include dissembling and evasion, especially when the truth is ugly. Though this may seem blasphemous to suggest as our nation flounders in midst of nationalist lies and fascist doublespeak, being “authentically human” may require deeper acknowledgement of our inclination to show and tell it gently, slanted, or not at all, even to ourselves. And who knows? Maybe this self exploration will better prepare us to face down the hucksters and demagogues who would exploit us for our deeply human craving for pretty lies.

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