Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The True Self


“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” 
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Does a true self exist? This question is not superfluous in light of the necessity of role-playing today. As conventional thinking goes, we tend to conform to the expectations of societal norms and to the social groups that we consider important to our sense of identity and well-being, including but not limited to school, work, and religious affiliation. The question of a “true self” is raised in a short two-minute video produced by BBC Radio 4 that has been posted in Aeon (“Erving Goffman and the performed self”):
The 20th-century Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman believed that we adapt to roles – lover, customer, worker – based on circumstance, and are constantly concerned with how we’re appearing to others. This short animation explains why Goffman’s view of humanity left no room for a ‘true self’ – an actor behind all the roles we play.
I agree with Erving Goffman [1922–1982] when he says that people play roles in accordance with circumstances and with the realities of being part of the many social group they encounter, part of what he refers to as “the sociology of everyday life.” It is true that we tend to have many selves, and we put our best self forward, in accordance with what we view as necessary and in keeping with our view of our identities. It is also true that when the individual is part, in some way, of a large number of diverse social groups, it encourages people to have many public selves.

It might be true that the various public selves all contribute to an individual’s character. A healthy individual, however, is an integrated one, which might take a lifetime to achieve, if at all. Perhaps we are all, to some, degree, fractured. It might be that acting is a necessary form of social survival, or being a part of a group or groups, that it feeds and fulfills our need to conform and fit in. A healthy self, however, is integrated and balanced. The opposite is true for a self with overweening ambition.

Such might explain one reason why politicians have the hardest time with finding a genuine self. The many interest groups to please make this a near impossibility. One exception is if public good, including bringing together diverse groups, is a primary goal. A devotion to others; a devotion to a higher cause. For many, this is not the case, particularly in the seeking of higher office. I am not sure if politics is good for either the Soul or the Self. Still, there seem to be enough people interested in it, who are willing to try their hand at it, in their mind the trade-offs (of power and influence) worth the “risks” of a loss of authenticity.

Yet, this does not negate the idea that a genuine self exists, and this is where I might part company with Prof. Goffman. Just because something is hidden, does not mean it does not exist. It might take great effort to discover this true self, and even greater effort to reveal it to society. Whether this is accepted is another matter altogether; this requires both trust and affirmation. The true self is precious, and as such is worthy only for your intimates.

For more, go to [Aeon]

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