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Distinguishing the Real from the Fake

By Laura A. Roser


A couple of weeks ago, my friend from Italy visited me. I took him around to various scenic spots and we chatted about life, politics and business. “The problem with our society,” he announced, “is most people are alphabets.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Maybe it was a language barrier thing? “What’s an alphabet?” I asked.

“You know, they read and watch the news, but they don’t have their own opinions. They just agree with whatever the commentator is saying and don’t think things through for themselves.”

Ah. I was starting to get the gist and it reminded me of a passage written in The Art of Being.

When I first began reading The Art of Being by Erich Fromm, I loved it. There is something about his words and views that cut through the nonsense and resonate at a deep level. But, as the book progresses, it trails off into the weeds. The first half, however, is worth the read. Toward the beginning, Fromm writes about Great Shams. He writes:

“The public, even the educated public, has largely lost its capacity to know the difference between what is genuine and what is fake. This defect is caused by several factors. Foremost of all is the purely cerebral orientation of most people. They read or listen to only words and intellectual concepts, and do not listen ‘with a third ear’ for proof of the author’s authenticity. To give an example: In the literature on Zen Buddhism there are writers such as D.T. Suzuki, whose authenticity is beyond doubt; he speaks of what he has experienced. The very fact of this authenticity makes his books often difficult to read, because it is of the essence of Zen not to give answers that are rationally satisfying. There are some books, which seem to portray the thoughts ofZen properly but whose authors are mere intellectuals whose experience is shallow. Their books are easier to understand, but they do not convey the essential quality of Zen. Yet I have found that most people who claim to have a serious interest in Zen have not noticed the decisive difference in quality between Suzuki and others. 

 “The other reason for our difficulty to discern the difference between the authentic and the sham lies in the hypnotic attraction of power and fame. If the name of a man or the title of a book is made famous by clever publicity, the average person is willing to believe the work’s claims. This process is greatly helped by another factor: In a completely commercialized society in which salability and optimal profit constitute the core values, and in which every person experiences himself as “capital” that he has to invest on the market with the aim of optimal profit (success), his inner value counts as little as that of a dental cream or a patent medicine. Whether he is kind, intelligent, productive, courageous matters little if these qualities have not been of use to make him successful. On the other hand, if he is only mediocre as a person, writer, artist, or whatever, and is a narcissistic, aggressive, drunken, obscene headline maker, he will—given some talent—easily become one of the ‘leading artists or writers’ of the day….”

My hope is that both Mr. Fromm and my Italian friend are wrong—most people do have the capacity to tell the difference between fake and real—but then, I think back on my experiences, especially when I was younger, and I realize that I didn’t have a very good radar. It wasn’t something I was ever looking for. Sure, people would do things that seemed inauthentic or made me skeptical, but I believed a lot of the showmanship. When we take things at face value and block off our “third ear”, we risk becoming hypnotized by the loudest voice in the crowd. And, typically, the loudest isn’t the most authentic.


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by Laura A. Roser
CEO and Founder of Paragon Road
#1 Expert in Meaning Legacy Planning