I remember dumping the newspapers behind the bushes in front of our house. I had stolen the bundle from the drop-off point where the distributors left them for the paperboys to pick up. I must have been about six, because I could read enough to know which ones were his.
The paperboy was 12 or 13. I loved being around when he came to our house, because he would often stop and toss a Frisbee, or play a brief game of tag with me before continuing his route. He always let me do well without ever being condescending.
One morning he walked past our house with two other boys his age. Not yet understanding what the presence of peers can do, I walked over to say hi. “Get out of here,” he jeered, his friends joining in. “Go away!” They passed by, laughing, without a pause.
Shocked and hurt, I hid his papers that afternoon.
The recent post about the change in Elephant Journal’s comments policy has me thinking about the formula: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Mean Person. While I think it’s true as far as it goes, I want to press it a little further in search of bigger truth.
There are different types and degrees of anonymity, just as there are more things to hide behind than a computer. In fact, since names are one of the things we hide behind, I’m going to use “persona” in place of “anonymity.” Personae—the masks worn by actors in the Greco-Roman theater—were symbolic of broad types: larger, cruder, and less detailed than a living person, but easily identifiable.
The paperboy’s persona, which I will call Pack Animal, rendered his unguarded self inaccessible to me. He took cover behind this persona because his audience—the other two boys—could not be allowed to see his unguarded and vulnerable self. Mean behavior was the only kind this persona would allow in those circumstances.
A couple years later, my family were guests at a lake cottage belonging to one of my Dad’s work colleagues. My parents went to a restaurant across the lake one evening, and at about the time the colleague was to take the boat over to pick them up, a thunderstorm set in. The colleague was visibly drunk. His wife and daughter begged him tearfully to wait for the storm to pass before going across the lake to collect my parents.
“Please, Daddy—be sensible!” wailed his daughter, almost literally on her knees. “For God’s sake, just wait until the storm dies down!” his wife implored. The more his wife and daughter pleaded with him, the more enraged the man became. “GIVE ME THE KEYS!” he bellowed, lowering over his wife with a ferocity I could not have imagined even in my own turbulent household. As he became increasingly intimidating, his wife finally relinquished the keys.
The colleague’s sensible self—already rendered less sensible by alcohol—was inaccessible behind his persona of Competent Adult Male Host. It was so unthinkable that he should violate that persona by keeping his guests waiting, even in a storm, that bullying his family and risking his life seemed better options.
If someone could have persuaded the paperboy that he didn’t have to look tough in front of his “pack” in order to avoid being hurt—if my Dad’s colleague could have been made to believe that sobering up and waiting out the storm, even at the risk of being seen as capitulating to his fretful womenfolk, would not emasculate him before his co-worker—they would have behaved otherwise than they did. That part’s easy.
But why take refuge behind a persona in the first place?
We all hide; we all seem to have a suspicion that what we are isn’t good enough—that the real us has to be hidden away and protected, as though it were somehow both precious and shameful. It’s as though the moment we become self-aware, we go into hiding; the first thing Adam and Eve did after eating the Fruit of Knowledge was hide themselves from God.
Politicians write the [Person + Persona + Audience = Jerk] problem large. A politician’s individual personhood inevitably becomes effaced by the office; person becomes subsumed in persona. This is natural, and desirable to an extent—it is why priests wear vestments, or shamans masks. Who they are gets papered over with what they stand for—they are, after all, representatives. Yet they still need to be whole, multi-dimensional persons, rather than crude personae. We all do. But because politicians are even more vulnerable than most of us to the opinion of others, they become so invested in their personae that they lose the ability to be persons. When we don’t even allow them to change their minds without fear of being called “flip-floppers,” how can we expect them to display any moral suppleness? We practically order them to be rigid. I do not believe that persons defeated the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would have provided health care to 9/11 first responders who became ill as a result of their service. That bill was defeated by personae: symbols, caricatures, spiritual bird-blinds. Persons would have passed it.
I am invested in my own personae. Though I am an absolutely conscious and mindful father who never loses his temper with his children, when they really piss me off I climb into my Father Who Must Be Obeyed persona—which is perfect cover from which to emotionally carpet-bomb my five- and seven-year-olds.
Something in me is so terrified of being set at naught by anybody that it has a whole rack of mix-and-match personae to choose from: the Aggrieved Customer, the Violated Signatory of the Do-Not-Call Register, and the Only Person Around Here Who Puts Any Damned Thing Back Where It Belongs, to name a few. If I didn’t have these to hide behind, I’ve have to actually come out and face people unprotected. Which is precisely what most of us—rude blog commenters being an unusually obvious example—dare not do.