We've gone from gaslighting to authentic.
The is authentic 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 a kind of authenticity crisis in 2023' Merriam-Webster's editor-in-chief, Peter Sokolowski, told the Associated press. “What we realize is that when we question authenticity, we value it even more.”
Merriam Webster does not analyze the reasons why people look up one or the other word. But it's not hard to guess why we're concerned about authenticity these days. Actors Alia Bhatt, Katrina Kaif and Kajol have all fallen prey to deepfakes. A woman with Bhatt's altered face showed up and made obscene gestures while deepfake Kajol changed clothes on camera. ChatGPT has made it difficult to find out if students are turning in papers that are actually their work. While editing a book, a friend discovered that an entire chapter had been written using ChatGPT, complete with authentic-sounding references that didn't actually exist.
Sports illustrated magazine featured articles by a man named Drew Ortiz whose biography said, “Drew has spent much of his life outdoors and is excited to guide you through his endless list of the best products to keep you from falling into nature's dangers. ” Then it turned out that Ortiz didn't really exist and his profile photo is for sale on a website that sells AI-generated portraits. This 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 site's AI-generated content Futurismall those articles disappeared without explanation.
The interesting thing is that there is nothing special about the search for authenticity. It was once a form of cultural snobbery. I remember Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) endlessly debating restaurants in the US that served authentic Indian food, as opposed to watered-down versions meant for Westerners. But the fact is that sometimes those versions tasted pretty good, no matter how inauthentic they were.
In Kolkata, where I now live, food snobs discuss which restaurants offer authentic Bengali food as opposed to generic Bengali menus and the subtle ways you can tell the difference. Authentic handicrafts. Authentic textiles. Authentic masala mixes. Authenticity (or rather the ability to discern it) was a sign of refinement, comparable to the skills of a tea taster or oenophile.
But the new preoccupation with what is authentic is more about fear than skill. In a way, it's very fitting that we've gone from gaslighting to authentic, verbatim. Gaslighting involves manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity or reasoning, where someone does something offensive but then acts as if the victim had imagined it all. It's just a natural progression, because once we're given enough gaslighting, we obviously lose all sense of what's authentic and what's not.
Now many of us are waking up to the dangers of AI. Even Elon Musk, who has dismantled many of the disinformation safeguards put in place on Twitter (now X), has pushed for a moratorium on AI development to devise shared safety protocols. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called misuse of AI and deepfake videos a “major concern” and Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar has promised to appoint an officer to take action against such content.
Yet the fact is that many politicians around the world thrive by passing off fake news as authentic. Former US President Donald Trump was a master at dubbing anyone who tried to debunk his claims as propagators of fake news themselves. That in itself was also a form of gaslighting and now we have lost our way. We are rudderless boats in a sea of disinformation without a compass, because the mainstream media is no longer considered the only objective arbiter. When WhatsApp replaced news channels as 'authentic' news sources, there was no looking back. You can expose one lie, but that doesn't change existing prejudices.
What I'm only vaguely beginning to understand is that you can't puncture these alternate realities with authentic facts. The alternate reality is more about emotion, where the recipient is fed what they want to believe. It is difficult to tear down that structure through fact-checking. Alternate realities coexist even though we all think we have the same facts. Shivam Shankar Singh, co-author of The art of conjuring alternative realities, noted in a 2021 interview: “Each version of reality had different buy-ins at different times. Flat Earth had more buy-in than the Earth that was once round. But then the world being round gained 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, “Many more separate alternate realities now exist than before, because previously the sources of information that people consumed were quite similar.” Now that is not true and social media has exponentially increased the speed of distribution and consumption. Once upon a 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 could go viral as authentic.
We're all in favor of finding our authentic self, but do we really know when we've found it?
As Alice went down the rabbit hole in Wonderland and kept changing size, at one point she asked herself, “Who the hell am I?” As identity politics gained ground, there was a great push for everyone to find their authentic selves. For example, that was the whole point of coming out and Gay Pride. The idea was that we no longer had to keep our authentic selves in the closet.
But now we see the other side of the same coin. The liberal culture police and its cancel culture, once the pioneers of the pursuit of authenticity, eventually became intolerant of anyone who couldn't keep up with their standards. But is it just as good to take out your racist or casteist self and claim that we are just being authentic? In the name of authenticity, can we excuse songs that urge their listeners to play loud, aggressive Hindutva rap right outside a mosque so that minorities can be shown their place? Or spreading disinformation and paranoia in the name of education among some madrasa?
As someone who left India as a student and returned twenty years later, I have always been suspicious of authenticity. As an immigrant, I spent a lot of time seeking out the authentic flavors of an abandoned home and spotting the pumpkin spice. chai lattes. But every time I returned, I was faced with the question of whether I was still an authentic Indian. We fought for the right to be our authentic selves, to be free from the standard society set for us. But now we have come full circle, as we realize that authenticity can be its own prison, imposing its own Lakshmanrekha that we cannot cross.
We are ultimately hybrid beings, intertwined in many ways, yet understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all authenticity. India is as authentic as Bharat or Hindustan. Recently we were in the middle of a family wedding and for months there were heated conversations about what were authentic Bengali Hindu wedding rituals and which were inauthentic, optional rituals. Each side had its own version and the more people we asked, the more the rituals piled up. More and more “authentic items” were added to the wedding magazine list until my sister told us not to ask anyone. I even finally learned how to make one dhoti so that I could make authentic Bengali Darling Look.
Finally, I found myself going to a wet fish market and picking up a 3.5kg rohu fish dressed as a bride, with a paan put in his mouth and a nose ring. I don't even like rohu fish but authenticity demanded that I do so.
And as we drove through the city, balancing that giant rohu precariously on our laps, I briefly felt like I could pass for an authentic Bengali. And then it just smelled fishy.
Cult Friction is a bi-weekly column about issues we face all the time. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr.