Recently, I found myself pondering the intricacies of online authenticity again. I shut my eyes, letting my head rest against the armrest of my couch. I started to think about some of the tiny things at the time that made me happy– from Kindle books to making my great-grandmother’s noodle recipe.
I was jarred out of my reverie by a Twitter notification on my iPhone. It was a tweet from a fellow higher education professional. I replied to it, then tried to shake the realization I had— that as much as I advocate for authenticity online, it may be a trickier endeavor than expected. That as much as I wanted to share my honest, unfettered thoughts about life, I normally don’t. All at once, it occurred to me that our community’s conundrum with authenticity isn’t specifically about authenticity— it’s about the separation of our public and private selves.
Aristotle wrote about specific, separate communities of discourse. He wrote at length about the polis, or social space in which issues could be debated to advance culture. He considered the polis to be the highest form of community, because man is inherently a “political animal”. Aristotle believed that humans cannot strive for its ultimate good and goals outside of the polis. Furthermore, Aristotle’s polis allows for society to reach its end, or for what is best.
As important as the polis was to Aristotle, he also extolled the virtues of private life. Humans enter into communities centered around the home and the village to meet their daily needs. Specifically, Aristotle contended that there was a separation between the public and the private; that though they were distinct, to reach self-sufficiency, one must progress from the clan to the polis.
As a community, we’re attempting to bring our private selves into our polis. We do this, because as Aristotle understood, the best way to advance our field is to publicly debate and consider issues. We do this with the best of intentions— such as the #SACommits series and the social justice topics of current. Our goal is to bring more professionals and graduate students into the fold, to give them a place to connect and sort through ideas.
Yet, we still curate our online selves to convey authenticity to the best of our ability. The verb curate is key— we’re still selecting which parts of ourselves we bring into the student affairs “public.” At times, it seems as though our polis has selected which traits are best to bring with us; the right words, the popular topics; we seamlessly censor ourselves and others. In other instances, we’re asked to present the most private parts of our identities in the public forum.
This dichotomy brings us to this: Can we merge our public and private selves? Aristotle recognized that there are very specific lines between our public and private selves. If this is the case, maybe “authenticity” isn’t what we’re looking for. If that’s the case, what traits are we searching for in our online selves?
Personally, I’ve concluded to let what is Caesar’s be Caesar’s; that I’ll continue participating in higher education discussions on social media, accepting that it’s a public forum used to debate issues. Don’t get me wrong– I’ll touch on Polish noodle recipes and the ilk, but I understand that my participation in these communities is related to my occupation and sharing knowledge.
While we can decide where the line between the public and personal lands for ourselves, we cannot make that determination for others; the point of having a public forum, is that all ideas, whether or not we believe that they’re worthwhile, merit open discussion.
Essentially, we must remember that we’re political animals. We use a public space to pull apart, examine, and consider larger issues. The private spaces are where we sharpen our character and identities to be well-rounded people. Sometimes these spheres intersect, and other times remain separate. With that, we need to determine where these intersections are.