The great highway of conformity

I was wondering this morning why people are so afraid of being misunderstood or of being caught saying the wrong thing. A similar question is why do we find it so difficult to change our views, especially in public?

Consider, for example, how hard it is for a politician to change views even after twenty or thirty years.

“Being in the role” is an expression used in acting circles. As an actor, you might be “in the role” of the project you are working on or, if you are famous, you probably will be typed into a certain role for life—you will always be expected to be likeable, or tough, or sexy, etc. Once you are typed with a public role, you pretty much have to stay with it for the rest of your life.

That concept sort of explains why politicians (who are all actors) have to be in the same role for decades. If they step out of it even once, it will make the news and tarnish their reputations. This is really bad for politics because people should be able to grow and change in public. Some politicians do pull that off, but not many.

Sadly, many of us ordinary people behave in similar ways in our private lives. We fear being caught in contradictions that may span decades or being reminded of indiscretions even years later and even if they were no big deal even at the time. It’s the appearance that matters; if we got drunk or smoked pot in college it may not look good years later if we become a lawyer or town mayor.

But why doesn’t it look good? We all have stuff like that. I wouldn’t trust anyone who claimed they didn’t. Why do we feel the need to be in the role of our fake selves all the time?

One reason I can see is we need to guard our reputations. If you are a dentist, say, in a small town, your reputation is what allows people to trust you. Makes sense for dentists, and now that I think of it, this is probably why dentists need to take so many long vacations. They need to go somewhere where they can let their hair down for a while.

Another example with a different twist might be a Buddhist monk. Let’s say you decide to go visit a Buddhist temple for the first time. Are you really going to expect the monk to act like a normal person (which he or she really is) or are you going to expect them to fulfill some idealized role of a Buddhist monk? I bet most of us will judge them not on their humanity (which cannot possibly be discovered in a short visit), but rather on how well they fulfill our expectations of what a monk should be like.

That makes some sense, too. It’s not the same as the dentist example, but sort of along the same lines. We cannot possible expect to know their full humanity within the span of a short visit, so we judge them on their demeanor, tone of voice, what the temple looks like, etc. Good enough, but also pretty bad when you think about it. You go to the temple (I hope) to deal with human truth and reality but you settle for role-playing.

I do it too, so don’t get me wrong.

The big problem in all this is how this role-playing system works with close friends. Seems very sad to me if you feel that you have to play roles with your friends, but I know this is quite common. In fact, depending on where you draw the line, role-playing even with close friends is probably the norm for most people at all times in history.

If you don’t cleave closely to the public semiotics of your time and place, you will look out of place, dubious, possibly someone that can’t be trusted. Makes sense if you are a dentist or the monk in new temple in town, but with friends, even family?

Why are we so afraid to be embarrassed by something we said or did? And why do the consequences of misspeaking have to be so severe?

The reason is we don’t want to be criticized or seen in a bad light. And the result of this is most of us feel the need  stay on the straight-and-narrow. We get on the great highway of conformity and remain watchful of what we say all of our lives.

Once we do that, we start wanting not friends, but people who appear to be friends, people who play roles that suit the role(s) we are playing.

Well, whatever. We can’t change the world, but maybe we can change ourselves. How can you make progress in Buddhist practice if you are playing a role along with other people who are also playing roles?

Buddhism is all about seeing beyond appearances and illusions.

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