From gaslighting, we have moved to authentic.
Authentic is the Merriam-Webster word for 2023. Gaslighting was the word of the year in 2022. The search for authenticity reached new heights this year.
“We see in 2023 a kind of crisis of authenticity,” Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, told the Associated Press. “What we realise is that when we question authenticity, we value it even more.”
Merriam-Webster does not analyse the reasons why people look up one word or the other. But it’s not hard to guess why we are anxious about authenticity these days. Actors Alia Bhatt, Katrina Kaif and Kajol have all fallen prey to deepfakes. A woman with the morphed face of Bhatt showed up making obscene gestures while deepfake Kajol was seen changing clothes in front of the camera. ChatGPT has made it hard to figure out whether students are turning in papers that are really their work. While editing a book, a friend discovered that an entire chapter was written using ChatGPT, complete with authentic-sounding references that didn’t really exist.
Sports Illustrated magazine carried articles by a Drew Ortiz whose bio said, “Drew has spent much of his life outdoors and is excited to guide you through his never-ending list of the best products to keep you from falling to the perils of nature.” Then it turned out Ortiz didn’t really exist and his profile picture can be found for sale on a website that sells AI-generated headshots. This one comes with a description that reads “neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes”. Ortiz is an AI-generated author. After Sports Illustrated was questioned about the AI-generated content by the site Futurism, all those articles vanished without explanation.
The interesting thing is there is nothing particularly 2023 about the search for authenticity. At one time it was a form of cultural snobbery. I remember non-resident Indians (NRIs) debating endlessly about restaurants in the US that served authentic Indian food as opposed to watered-down versions meant for Westerners. Yet the fact is that sometimes those versions tasted pretty good, inauthentic as they were.
In Kolkata, where I live now, food snobs discuss which restaurants offer authentic Bangladeshi food as opposed to generic Bengali menus and the subtle ways in which you can tell the difference. Authentic handicrafts. Authentic textiles. Authentic masala mixes. Authenticity (or rather the ability to discern it) was a mark of sophistication akin to the skills of a tea taster or oenophile.
But the new preoccupation about what is authentic is more about anxiety than skill. In a way, it’s quite fitting that wordwise we have gone from gaslighting to authentic. Gaslighting is about manipulating someone so that they question their own sanity or reasoning, where someone does something abusive but then pretends the victim imagined it all. It is but a natural progression because once we have been gaslit enough, we obviously lose all sense of what is authentic and what is not.
Now many of us are waking up to the dangers of AI. Even Elon Musk, who dismantled much of the misinformation safeguards that had been put in place on Twitter (now X), has urged for a moratorium on AI development to figure out shared safety protocols. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called misuse of AI and deepfake videos a “big concern” and Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar has promised to appoint an officer who will take action against such con tent.
Yet the fact is many politicians all over the world have thrived by passing off fake news as authentic. Former US president Donald Trump was a master at dubbing everyone who tried to debunk his claims as purveyors of fake news themselves. That in itself was a form of gaslighting too and now we have lost all our bearings. We are rudderless boats in a sea of misinformation with no compass since mainstream media is no longer regarded as any kind of objective arbiter. Once WhatsApp forwards replaced news outlets as “authentic” sources of news, there was no going back any more. You can expose one lie but that does not change the existing biases out there.
What I have begun to only dimly understand is that you cannot puncture these alternate realities with authentic facts. The alternate reality is more about emotion, feeding the recipient what they want to believe. Trying to pull down that edifice by fact-checking is tough. Alternate realities coexist even though we all think we have the same set of facts. Shivam Shankar Singh, co-author of The Art Of Conjuring Alternate Realities, pointed out in a 2021 interview: “Every version of reality had different buy-ins at different points of time. Flat earth had more buy-in than the earth being round at one point of time. But then the world being round gained more momentum because of scientific evidence and that became the dominant reality. But even now there are people who believe the earth is flat.”
In fact, Singh said “a lot more separate alternate realities exist now than they did previously because previously the sources of information that people consumed were pretty similar”. Now that is not true and social media has ramped up the speed of dissemination and consumption exponentially. At one time, only a powerful state or the Catholic Church could conjure up that alternate reality. Now someone sitting in their bedroom can create deepfake videos that can go viral as authentic.
We are all in favour of finding our authentic selves but do we really know when we have found it?
When Alice went down the rabbit hole in Wonderland and kept changing size, she wondered at some point, “Who in the world am I?” When identity politics gained ground, there was a great push for everyone to find their authentic selves. That was the whole point of coming out and Gay Pride, for example. The idea was we didn’t have to keep our authentic selves in the closet any more.
But now we see the flip side of the same coin. The liberal cultural police and its cancel culture, once the pioneers of the push towards authenticity, eventually became intolerant of everyone who could not keep up with their standards. But is it just as okay then to bring one’s racist self or casteist self out of the closet and claim we are just being authentic? In the name of authenticity, can we excuse songs that exhort their listeners to play loud aggressive Hindutva rap right outside a mosque so minorities can be shown their place? Or peddle misinformation and paranoia in the name of education in some madrasa?
As someone who left India as a student and came back 20 years later, I have always been suspicious of authenticity. As an immigrant, I spent much time trying to chase down the authentic flavours of a home left behind and sneering at the pumpkin spice chai lattes. Yet every time I returned, I faced questions about whether I was an authentic Indian any more. We fought for the right to be our authentic selves to be free of the standard society laid down for us. But now we have come full circle as we realise that authenticity can be its own prison, laying down its own Lakshmanrekha that we cannot cross.
We are in the end hybrid creatures, mixed up in many ways, yet to understand there is no one-size-fits-all authenticity. India is as authentic as Bharat or Hindustan. Recently, we were in thick of a family wedding and for months there was heated conversation about what were authentic must-do Bengali Hindu wedding rituals and which were inauthentic, optional ones. Each side had their own versions and the more people we asked, the more the rituals kept piling up. More “authentic items” kept getting added to the wedding tray list till my sister said we should stop asking anyone. I even finally learnt how to wear a dhoti so I could pull off the authentic Bengali babu look.
Eventually, I found myself going to a wet fish market and picking up a 3.5kg rohu fish dressed as a bride, with a paan stuffed in its mouth and a nose-ring. I don’t even like rohu fish but authenticity demanded I do this.
And as we drove across town, balancing that giant rohu precariously on our laps, I felt momentarily that I could pass off as an authentic Bengali. And then it just smelt fishy.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr.