Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | January 19, 2014

Ego, Roles, and Spades

I’ve been getting a lot more clarity lately about ego. I know, I don’t like using the term. But this is about connecting things as I see them with things as others see them — finding ways to meet and touch and appreciate each other. I like doing that.

If we look at “ego” not as a kind of inner false self, but as an actor, a defender donning roles we use to buffer our authentic selves from others and the world, it has some cool and practical benefits.

First, it’s familiar. We all know how to act and role play. Some of us are better at it than others. Second, it puts us in control, because we are the actor. The act is ours, there for our sake. That’s good if we have real hope for change; but if already in despair of deep, enduring change, control feels like impossible responsibility, so we prefer to claim that it’s impossible. Such despair is why I think the idea of ego as a false self — as if it had mind and will of its own — is attractive, though disempowering. Third, looking at ego this way keeps things simple and non-judgmental. It’s OK to adopt roles. We do it all the time. We “wear hats.” We “play the part.” We “put on a good face.” We show stiff upper lips, kind eyes, and give hugs not only when we feel like it, but when we feel that others need it. Role playing can, of course, be duplicitous and insincere. It can also be charitable, loving, and selfless.

Recognizing ego as an actor playing defender’s roles also gives us a handle on how to respond to others, especially antagonistic people. Antagonistic people are always playing roles. They feel unsafe, which is why they’re antagonistic. No one instinctively risks being vulnerable when threatened by danger. Instead we curl up, cover up, run, and hide. Vulnerability is part and parcel of exposing our true selves and being known. But when we’re threatened, unless we deliberately go against our innate inclinations, we adopt a position and put on a role.

This explains crazy-making. Crazy-making happens when people present pictures — portraying roles, often using body language, tone, and informational bullshit to communicate that we’re OK, safe, or even cared for — while following hidden, underlying, agenda-driven scripts that contradict the pictures they portray. The real message lies in the hidden scripts. The portrayals are encoded, meant to look like one thing while subliminally communicating the opposite. The disjunction is disorienting, even maddening.

When we realize that these are authentic people hiding behind an act, we have a way to make sense of what’s going on. We realize that what we see does not explain the true intentions and motivations behind it. And we realize that a translation process is taking place. It would be much simpler if interpretation and guessing weren’t necessary, but they are — sometimes seeming more like reverse engineering or mind reading. But how often do we ourselves feel able to let the real “us” out — no filtering, no sugar-coating, no withholding, no compromise? All the other times, we play roles. So does everyone else. It gets complicated, doesn’t it?

Recognizing this can powerful rather than confusing with just a simple device: call a spade a spade. This avoids the need for resistance when we don’t like what’s going on. When someone smiles and tries to whittle you down to size, don’t protest. Just recognize the smile and recognize the whittling, and then name both. Take your best shot. Guess if necessary — just admit it’s a guess. There’s a Smiler smiling at you, and acting the Smiler is a scared defender who wants you whittled down, and there’s an authentic person behind all that, hoping to remain invisible.

Steven Pinker talks about this in an excellent TED Talk presentation “Language as a Window into Human Nature.” Using Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emporer’s New Clothes, he gives a great explanation of how “mutual knowledge” levels power disparities and prevents fictions from being maintained (@ 8:50 into the video.) By explicitly stating what everyone already knew, the little boy who called out the Emperor’s nakedness changed their knowledge — not about the Emperor’s nakedness, but about their knowledge of each other.

Because at that moment, everyone now knew that everyone else knew that everyone else knew. Once again, that gave them the collective power to challenge the dominance of the Emperor through their laughter. The moral of the story is that explicit language is an excellent way of creating mutual knowledge.

Using the movie When Harry Met Sally, Pinker shows how overt language creates mutual knowledge that takes situations beyond the isolation required to maintain fictions (@ 9:40 into the video.) In other words, once everyone knows and knows that everyone else knows, and knows that everyone else knows they know, the jig is up, leaving pretense no shadow to shield it from penetrating, shriveling awareness.

This is powerful, but it has a big a problem. Our culture frowns on such open recognition and censures its expression. And I wonder why. It’s not politically correct. It’s impolite. It’s immature. (I’ve been contemplating the immaturity of our notion of maturity lately.) It’s mean. It’s all kinds of things but OK. In other words, the truth is only OK under certain conditions, the main one being that it not disturb the lie that we have no right to acknowledge what’s going on behind the roles we see portrayed.

A great example of this is our so-called leaders. We all know that they’re lying and in cahoots. Democrats, Republicans, Independents — despite their political pyrotechnics — morph and martial and merge with each other like the farmers and pigs in the closing scene of Orwell’s Animal Farm. So why aren’t we busting our guts every time one of them goes on camera, delivering the latest think-tank inspired, PR spin doctor bullshit, expecting us to take it seriously? Why do we pretend to listen, unless we’re desperate and see no other option?

The cool thing about calling spades, spades and differentiating people from their roles is that a little goes a really long way. You can see the power of it immediately, although it’s usually not so pleasant. And why should it be? We’re dealing with fiction, defensiveness, danger, and threat. It’s bound to get ugly with the veneer peeled off. Simply implying that what you see isn’t what you think you’re really getting can ruffle feathers big time — the more the bullshit in the bird, the bigger the feathers, and the louder it will squawk in protest. Be frank about it? Get ready for the remonstrations.

The more genteel of us, worrying about offending and hurt feelings, might think that being explicit is not a good thing. But think about it. What would you do in their shoes? Take offense at someone simply trying to make sense of the situation and share their working notes? If we’re being honest and upright, then we’d realize it’s a miscommunication situation, so what’s to be offended by? Offense and hurt feelings in response to honest inquiry and frank disclosure ought to be a red flag and, thanks to our inculturation, that’s how we take it — but over the wrong culprit. Forcing fictions into the light might be indiscrete, but what of the dissimulation that made outing them necessary? It all pales in view of the offensiveness of abusive cultural norms that guard the right to dissemble and punish the sincerely curious and honest.

Morality and ethics are neither here nor there when it comes to the fact that this works. It exposes bullshit in a way that shuts it down. It sorts out crazy-making. It enables conversations in which we can talk about lies without judging people as liars. An offense doesn’t necessarily make one an offender. So, we can offer those behaving badly a way of escape by detaching them from their bad behavior as we call it out. Short of blanket intolerance for criticism, they should see it as a compliment, a vote of confidence that they are better than that. But it  implies that they must be there somewhere, hidden behind the misbehavior, the act, and the defensivenss that drives them. It begs the question who they really are and why they’re afraid to come out. For many people, facing those questions is worse than experiencing the consequences of denying the obvious.

If people staunchly deny that they are playing roles, then we don’t need to judge them, because they’ll judge themselves as offenders. I’ve seen this happen over and over. They jump to the conclusion long before we have any intention of going there. All we have to do is name the role they’re playing as distinct from them, nothing more. By leaping to the conclusion that we’re judging their person, they unwittingly affirm that there is no distinction between them and their chosen role, identifying themselves as the owners of their behavior, refusing the escape we offered. That’s why it’s so important to them to prove us wrong, deflect our honest feedback, play the blame game, and insinuate or openly accuse us of ill intent. All that to protect a charade that hides a defender that protects a true self scared to death to be seen.

I’m no expert yet, but neither am I inexperienced. The results so far are great, and the potential is awesome. I hope to meet others who are exploring this, and that others still would start. I’d love to compare notes.

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