Few things bring more delight to me than festivities in the Jewish tradition. Among them, Purim nestles itself comfortably as the chief party animal, and I think it achieves this with the wonderful inclusion of costumes. Dressing up as your favorite meme, celebrity, inside joke, or prominent T.V. or movie character is a ton of fun, especially when the time comes to compare costumes with friends and family. What I plan to explore here is the development of the idea of wearing a disguise, as well as its purpose in a post-modern space.
Beyond celebration and hobby, the disguise has become a psychiatric phenomenon in the last few decades. Researcher Robert Jay Lifton explains in his academic journal article “The Protean Man” that there exists a new kind of individual “characterized by constant shifts in identification and belief, and results from such broad factors as the velocity of historical change, [and] the revolution in mass media.” The result of these changes is the crafting of a sociopolitical mask.
Social encounters today are multi-dimensional, meaning that beyond face-to-face contact, we interact with each other using video, audio, and web platforms like social media. The result is an individual who communicates with more people than they ever have, meaning new tools are needed to compensate for the fact that we now socialize with communities outside our family and immediate neighborhood. That tool is the aforementioned sociopolitical mask. From one clique to another, we exchange masks to meet the needs of the people in those groups. But is it unhealthy for a person to never settle on a distinct personality, opting instead to adapt to their numerous social groups?
The New York Times published a review of Lifton’s findings where they addressed those very questions. Author Richard A. Shweder wrote, “A person with a protean self is a ‘willful eclectic’ who draws strength from the variety and disorderliness of historical change and upheaval. His or her integrity is defined by an ability to stay on the move between partial, incomplete and irreconcilable realities.”
This is to argue that the fragmented self is not only healthy, but exceptional. More often than not, we applaud those who can quickly adapt to new discourses. Antithetically, writes Shweder, Lifton describes the “fundamentalist self… a consistency freak who avoids psychological fragmentation by defending the world against evil, embracing a totalizing world view and looking forward to the end of time.”
This character is more prevalent in America’s current political climate. There are growing numbers of die-hard lefties and righties who hail their beliefs as ultimate truths, disregarding any dissenters as misguided, ignorant, or sinister. Perhaps as Lifton implies, those who assert a lifestyle that is determinative are also committing to an idea that the world functions in a linear manner – a mindset unsupported by the real world.
Lifton’s concept of the Protean is meant to stabilize, not scatter, our social identities, even going far enough to call this new approach one of “self-process” – a shared understanding that humanity is at its best when it allows room for change or growth through trial and error. His work is also a warning to those who only ever wear one mask, in that they are electing to limit their potential as socially complex creatures.
Keeping this knowledge at hand, take Purim as an opportunity to consider the roles you play in your life, and break down where you were a year ago in your social interactions with where you are now. Pin the nuances and changes you made to your social mask – the clothes you wore, your vocabulary, your politics, your interests and hobbies – and you’ll find that the spots in which one has explored more options and alternatives is probably also the place in which one’s social prowess has significantly improved.