Friday, May 14, 2010

Underneath the Mask

It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me. -Wayne (as Batman)

You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for. -Ray Bradbury

Who am I? The person you see here isn't all that there is. This is a place where I can be all of the things people don't want me to be and I can say all the things people don't want me to say. I speak cynically but proceed hopefully. The rest of me lies elsewhere.

The above paragraph encloses the words I choose to define myself on my blog, yet as the quote from Batman Begins (2005) shows, it's behavior that defines a person, not anything they may be under the skin, or the mask.

I talk about masks on this blog. What is it that people see when they look at us, our face or our mask? Are we always transparent to our family, friends, and acquaintances, or do we put on a mask for their sakes or for our own? Chances are the latter. According to social role theory:

This is the principle that men and women behave differently in social situations and take different roles, due to the expectations that society puts upon them...

Wikipedia defines a role as:

...a set of connected behaviors, rights and obligations as conceptualized by actors in a social situation. It is an expected or free or continously changing behavior and may have a given individual social status or social position. It is vital to both functionalist and interactionist understandings of society.

Bruce Wayne took on the persona of Batman, not just to be something scary to the bad guys, but because as Bruce Wayne, he couldn't create the impact on his environment that was required to achieve his goals. Clark Kent took on the role of Superman in order to be able to compartmentalize the different ways he needed to express himself, with Clark as the "normal" human persona where he lives his day-to-day life, and Superman as the demonstration of his need and duty to use all of his abilities in the service of humanity.

While you and I are not such dramatic or nobel beings (at least for the most part), we too take on different roles, different masks, depending on the situation and circumstance.

I once had a police officer ask me why he was a confident public speaker while in uniform but such a total klutz at speaking to audiences when in plain clothes. The answer was immediately obvious to me and should be to you if you've been following along with my theme of Masks.

While our masks or our roles are built in for the most part, we do choose to use them or not use them. An extreme example is the character of House on the TV show of the same name, who will say and do just about anything that comes into his head without regard for social norms and expectation. He often reaps the consequences, but not as much as the rest of us might. I guess that's one of the benefits of being (at least in fiction) one of the world's top medical diagnotic experts. People have to put up with you.

Of course, the rest of us don't have to be accepted by anyone. There are those people who feel they should put up with you, regardless of your behavior, but they're usually family and beyond a certain point, even they will push you aside. Even if they do accept you after some completely amazing social gaffe, they are likely never to let you forget what you've done and how they suffered terribly as they "stuck by you" through the mess you caused. So much for "forgive and forget". Even if you're forgiven (provisionally), people, unlike elephants, never forget.

But if you dig around the edges of our social masks, isn't it really cowardace that keeps us hiding who we really are? Is it actually our behavior that defines us when we behave in a way that others expect, rather than the way we want? Are we sacrificing ourselves for the welfare of others or just making sure they'll keep being our acquaintances and friends (and family) by doing what they want and expect?

If the latter is true, then most of us are cowards most of the time. I fall into that category as well, which is why I maintain this blog, so I can write about what I want without the social barrier of my mask.

In the Star Trek: the Next Generation episode Masks it was indeed the masks that defined the characters. The story goes like this:

While the Enterprise makes an astronomical study of a 87 million year old rogue comet, it discovers a ship-like construction, possibly the nucleus, which contains alien artifacts constituting the 'archive' of an Ancient culture. From then on the aliens take over, 'possessing' Data's positronic network to give him several of their personalities, including the talkative Ehad and the feared queen Musaka. Alas they also transform matter and even genetics aboard, so as to turn the ship into a city their style. Picard resolves to stop that by understanding and playing the key alien characters. -Masks Plot Summary

Captain Picard resolves the problem and banishes the Masaka personality dominating Data by donning a mask and posing as Masaka's consort and counterpart Korgano, but it's the mask of Korgano that defines him so that he's no longer seen as Picard (who Masaka/Data would not be influenced by).

Another way then, to look at our social masks is as a means to be able to behave in necessary ways. If what we do, rather than who we are, is our true defining attribute, then the masks we wear are the costuming or armor we need in order to express that behavior.

We learn most of our masks as we grow up. Everytime children display "inappropriate" behavior, their parents (or some adult) usually says "No!" Hearing "no" enough times and really wanting to hear "yes", we modify our behavior, regardless of our internal desires, to elicit that "yes". In other words, we start making masks.

Our masks aren't perfect, because people aren't perfectly socially compliant. We don't always defer our internal wants and needs in the service of social requirements and occasionally, that causes pain and anguish. If the mask cracks or even shatters, we have to perform damage control, get out the paste and clay, form the mask again, or construct a new one.

However, I don't think of masks as cowardance. Sure, people say "honesty is the best policy", but "excessive honesty" comes at a high social price. That price isn't paid just by the individual but by everyone around him or her who's hurt by the "unmasking".

How many people would become vulnerable to Superman's enemies if Clark were to tell the world of his Kryptonian origins? Who would get hurt if Batman were to unmask? Who gets hurt if we unmask ourselves, even if we think it's in secret?

Life is a balance between our "secret" and "true" identities. No one survives or at least survives well by completely and totally suppressing their personal wants and needs, but unlike toddlers, we don't have the privilege of saying and doing everything we want all the time, expecting our "parents" to save us from the consequences.

The masks are necessary. The masks are important. If what we do defines us, then we need the masks in order to fulfill the definition. The Tony Stark of the movies blurred the lines between mask and face when he said "I am Iron Man" at the climax of the first Iron Man film, yet Stark and Iron Man remain separate "personas", each appearing when a particular role needs to be fulfilled.

That's probably the most real-to-life depiction of a super hero relative to us. We don't literally change identities (for the most part) when we take on a role. People still know who we are, regardless of the mask we happen to be wearing at the time, yet we can only behave as the situation requires when we wear the "matching" mask. Tony wears his Iron Man mask when he's battling some armored or robotic foe, but dons his "Tony mask" when dazzling an audience with his wit or trying to seduce a woman (the latter would be hard to do encased head to toe in a titanium alloy shell).

I sometimes don't like the demands of the mask, but I probably am still having trouble balancing the inner and outer person. I suspect we all encounter that issue from time to time. The masks aren't bad, as long as we don't let them rule us. It's how we manage our roles that defines us, giving us the ability to do what we need to do and what we must do when we are called upon.

Why did I write this today?

You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for. -Ray Bradbury


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