Monday, July 01, 2013

Double identity

Actually I need not to write about it, for it’s a well-known phenomenon: role playing. No, I don’t mean what actors do on the stage but what we do in everyday life, although in a certain sense it’s a bit like what actors do. At home, we are father, mother or child. On the workplace we are accountant, teacher, manager, or student. On the sports field we are long distance runner, goalkeeper, referee or spectator. And so on. Every position has its rules of what the holder of the position is supposed to do, what s/he is allowed to do and what is forbidden. The accountant registers the money transactions of his or her company but doesn’t take the decisions what to do with the money. That task belongs to the manager or to the director. And the worker on the shop floor is the one who factually makes the products. By analogy of what is happening on a stage such positions are called roles and the position holders are called role players. Since each person always plays several roles, daily life can be quite compartmentalized. Then you have to do this, an hour later (or sometimes a few moments later) you have to play another role and each role has its rules and requirements. This can be quite confusing. The American sociologist Robert Merton has become famous by his social role playing theory (but not only by this) but the idea that we play roles is already much older.
Because role playing is an essential part of our lives and is an essential way of filling in our relations with others, the roles we play are important elements of our personal identities (next to our experiences, for instance). Usually it is so that we not only play our roles but we are our roles. I mean, as a rule we don’t just pretend to be father, teacher or long distance runner. We believe in what we do and we do it with our whole hearts. However, it doesn’t need to be so, as everybody knows. An extreme case of pretending a role is a seeming customer who wants to observe the bank in order to come back next day as a raider. Actually it is so that in most roles we play we always need to pretend a bit as well.
For most people their different roles are well integrated. It’s true, roles can conflict, for instance, when a teacher has her own child in her class, so that the roles of teacher and mother can conflict. But most people can play their different roles openly and they can be tuned to one another, so that role conflicts can be avoided. And normally one doesn’t need to hide particular roles for other people. Nevertheless this can happen, for instance when someone doesn’t dare to say that he is gay to his parents, boss or other relevant people in his environment. If he wants to visit a gay cafe, for instance, this needs to be kept secret. Then such person leads a “double life”: two “lives” strictly kept apart. In a certain sense he has a double identity. In a more innocent way, you can say that someone has a double identity if one of the roles he openly plays actually has nothing to do with his daily life. People have hobbies, and hobbies like playing chess, collecting stamps, voluntary work, or whatever, usually involve roles that are well integrated with the other roles of the role player. But what to think of an actor or a member of a historical re-enactment group? The role as such as a player is well integrated with other social roles, but what about the role played? The actor playing Napoleon is Napoleon at the moment he is playing if he is playing well. The man playing a mediaeval knight is this mediaeval knight at the moment he is playing if he is playing his part well. In this sense we can say that persons playing the role of another have a double identity. This has been shown so well by Wim Piesen in his excellent series of photos (
To what extent are double identities kept apart and to what extent can they be kept apart? And to what extent are people pretending playing the role they play not the role player they pretend to be? I think that the cases of the actor or the pretender are not problematic. Even if the actor is playing Napoleon or another role, he is always giving a personal interpretation of the parts being played. This points to an integration of his, what I would call now, “secondary identity” with his “main identity”. And the pretender pretends his role usually in function of the other roles that make up his or her identity (the customer in my example is a raider in disguise). But also the person who keeps one of his identities secret for the daily environment is actually “playing” the person he is for his environment: Much he does in his daily environment is often done  in function of keeping a part of his identity secret. This keeping secret influences the ways the “public” roles are filled in. Therefore, we can say with Montaigne, “Whatsoever personage a man takes upon himself to perform, he ever mixes his own part with it” (from “That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die”).

1 comment:

Grace said...

On the subject of role playing I can’t avoid a question: Being a mother and playing a role of mother or being a friend and playing the role of friend, how can we tell this apart? How can this person, who is a mother and is playing a role of mother at home, tell this apart? If all roles a person plays in his/her live is just a game, then where and in what circumstances is this person real?

You said that usually people not only play the roles but they are roles themselves. I think it is for specific time only. Who am I when I’m alone in the room? Do I instinctively try to identify myself with the group: I am Caucasian, a student, middle aged person… but who am I without these groups?

In some circumstances it is hard to behave nice. When a mother and a teacher is the same person and her daughter goes to school where this mom teaches, it can cause conflicts. But when this mom teaches her child to behave appropriately, that no matter what personal relationships are, the work must be done (teacher must teach and student must learn), then many sharp angles can be smoothed. But this mother is teaching this child to play role games!

Brilliant actors, who play on the stage and play their roles well seem to have multiple identities. Yet, they are normal people behind the scene. I agree that with every act actor brings in something personal. A person who pretends to be Napoleon for a short time is an actor. A person who pretends to be Napoleon all the time is schizophrenic, but he sacredly believes that he is Napoleon! And why can’t he be right?

The society is wary of strange people who behave differently. It is the society who dictates the rules of moral code. And in different epochs such rules are different. It affects gay people too. Lloyd de Mause in his book “The history of childhood” wrote that it was normal for centuries for men to have boys for pleasures and it was not amoral. Another example is that it was normal to kill a girl-child in a family or kill a slave. If the majority behaved like this, it would have been average behavior nowadays.
So, society greatly dictates the rules of games and many people suffer from this. I don’t say that having a gay parade is good, but rather do whatever you want, just don’t harm other people or shock them with what is forbidden by moral code. I think that living a life as a gay is rather having a secret in life. It is not double identity. Being gay is a natural state and inner call for many men and they hide this state from friends and relatives. This is about living true, complete life, where gay can be open with his friends and relatives. On this D.H. Lawrence in his book “Women in love” wrote “Having you, I can live all my life without anybody else, any other sheer intimacy. But to make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man too: another kind of love”.
It is about self-realization. People are happy, when they use all their potential and are living their life, not just pretending or role playing.

I think double identity is when a person leads 2 lives, where in one life he hides his criminal activity or something forbidden by law. Or double identity as a consequence of personality disorder.