Why Do We Pretend?
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.– Kurt Vonnegut
Pretending is a significant aspect of human nature. If anyone has spent even a bit of time with a toddler, they know how pervasive pretending is during that time in life. Adults pretend along with children to foster that kind of imaginative learning and growth, which is bi-directional. When young children pretend, parents often naturally indulge them. And for good reason. There is evidence that pretend-type play helps children develop counterfactual reasoning. This skill is a crucial part of our development and how we imagine alternative possibilities, whether in the past or the future.
Psychologist Alison Gopnik and colleagues study pretending and have observed that “Counterfactual reasoning is hard. You have to simultaneously think about the real world and an alternate scenario. Children start to use counterfactuals only at around age four and become adept with them much later. But pretending starts as early as eighteen months, and it’s a lot like counterfactual thinking—you imagine a way the world might be and then work out what would happen next.” We frequently perform counterfactual reasoning as adults; we also all continue to pretend a lot, albeit with varying intentions and motivations, which is where things can get messy.
Unfortunately, as a culture, we have developed in such a way that stigmatizes innocent and healthy pretending in the adult population to such a degree that it encourages the predictable, cancerous outgrowths of dishonesty, deceit, and manipulation. Instead of simply making room for pretending as part of our complex, creative, and unique human nature, we have created a society where people must pretend to pretend, to feign authenticity in order to save face and maintain an intact ego.
As a kid, I often played a game alone, pretending that Peanut M&M’s gave me superpowers. I would grab a handful from the jumbo-size, yellow bag we got at Fedco and then place them, one by one, in different locations in my living room. I set up an obstacle course and periodically pretended I was losing energy and dying. Miraculously, upon taking my last breath, I would spot an M&M, pop it in my mouth, and then, in slow motion, crunch down into that egg-like shell through a smooth layer of chocolate to bust that peanut in half. This tasty treat, which, to my imagination, was a drug with magical properties, would immediately bring me back to life, temporarily, until my power diminished again, and I discovered the next red, green, orange, yellow, brown, or blue magic morsel at the very moment I was about to expire. Needless to say, I had eaten more than my fair share of Peanut M&M’s by the time I was 12.
Like most, I had an active and healthy imagination. It was the 1980s. I pretended I was Billy Idol while I lip-synced to “Rebel Yell“. I pretended I was a cheerleader, wore my sister’s uniform, teased my curly hair and added berets, and wore lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara. I rolled up socks or used tennis balls to pretend I had boobs. The bigger, the funnier. They double as killer biceps, too. I pretended I was Marcus Allen from the Los Angeles Raiders. I went as far as saving my allowance for months and doing extra chores to order all the specific uniform gear, including a helmet, shoulder pads, and the Allen #32 jersey from the Sears Catalog. Waiting two or three weeks for the items to arrive at the warehouse in the neighboring town felt like an eternity.
Even though I genuinely embodied those characters, it always felt like I was playing pretend. And I was. That is what made the activities so alive, vibrant, and exciting.
As a teenager, instead of pretending I was a football hero, cheerleader, or rock star, I started to identify with certain non-mainstream music and subculture. I never felt comfortable adopting any particular identity full-stop. I liked punk, hardcore, new-wave, goth, reggae, and secretly some sappy ’70s music my sister listened to. Sometimes, I wore makeup, grew my curly hair long, dyed it pink, wore fishnet stockings, pierced my eyebrow and ear, smoked cloves, wore 18-hole steel toe Doc Marten boots or three-inch high patent leather Creepers, and adopted an overly tortured, melancholic, angry demeanor.
Looking back at old VHS videos, I notice that I embodied some effeminate gestures and mannerisms that I no longer express. My peers were unconventional. Some were gay. Some boys were effeminate but not gay. Some girls were androgynous. There was a general spirit of playful experimentation and rebellion. Indeed, this points to a crucial departure and difference between that era and youth culture more recently. Many of us did not want to be “accepted” and “seen”. Being accepted meant being conformist. Conformity was lame.
That ethos has changed dramatically. Today, to claim to be “gender non-conforming” is unintentionally ironic because young folks seem pressured by and capitulate to the ethos of not only tolerance and “acceptance” but “celebration” of their “non-conformity”. Still a small (but rapidly growing) percentage of the overall population, especially in wealthier demographics residing toward the edges of the country, wearing a badge of “gender non-conformity” carries little risk.
It is important to state that much of my outward expression in my late teens and early 20s felt authentic at the time. It undoubtedly reflected some of my internal beliefs, desires, and preferences. There was an important sense in which my performances felt like my “identity”. Those were formative years, and much of my personality today – my distrust of authority and distaste for orthodoxy – grew out of those experiences with peers who had similar values, in contrast to others who viewed us in judgment and disapproval. I thank them. I never wanted their acceptance.
Despite the perception of authenticity, there is also a crucial sense in which I was pretending. I say this now, in my middle-aged body and brain, not simply because I am older and wiser (although that is undoubtedly a factor), but because I believe that we are all pretending, to some extent, all the time. Recently, I overheard someone ask another, “What is your most controversial belief?” If that question had been put to me, my answer would be that “identity” is a sham.
The idea that we all have “roles to play” is more literal than most people like to admit. When I teach, there is a sense in which I pretend I am a teacher. When I parent my children, there is a sense in which I pretend that I am a parent. When I write, there is a sense in which I pretend I am a writer. I have a long, public career and profile as a photographer and artist. I know many artists whose entire identity seems defined by the label “artist”. That has never felt fitting for me. It’s more accurate to say that I perform appropriately, given the context I’m in. Sometimes, I pretend I am a philosopher, a tennis player, a tai chi practitioner, a fitness enthusiast, or countless other characters I embody for a time, leave behind, and revisit from time to time. I pretend I am a chameleon.
The tension with my attitude, which I wish to bring to the surface, is that it conflicts with our contemporary culture that has created pseudo-puritanical ethics around the idea of “identity” such that the stakes are too high to merely pretend and move on. Identity is taken much too seriously. It has become sacrosanct. Pretending, if one is an adult, is looked down upon as morally corrupt or disingenuous. We have insults reserved for people who don’t pass a litmus test for authenticity. Posers, kooks, and fakers. This has created a slew of negative consequences and encourages people to move beyond developmentally healthy, playful pretending into unhealthy and hurtful psychological territory. Whoever popularized “keepin’ it real” may have made a grave error.
How Might We Pretend Better?
Let’s introduce historical approaches in Existentialism and Buddhism and use some of those ideas to posit an alternative. It is crucial to define an important distinction, even if not perfect, between pretending and lying. In broad terms, pretending is internal, and lying is external. Pretending typically involves an inner dialog, imagination, and related behaviors that play out the pretense. Lying externalizes what is mainly internal and asks, or sometimes attempts to demand, that others indulge in one’s pretending.
For instance, if I were to walk around on all fours, panting with my tongue hanging out, I would be pretending to be a dog. No harm, no foul. If I expected someone to pet me, take me for a walk, and let me shit on someone’s lawn without consequences because I was, in fact, a dog, I would be lying. These examples are not always cut and dry, but we can make some reasonable assertions based on this balance between pretending/internal and deceit/external.
Allow me to speculate with some historical context that may provide alternative ways of being in the world. Firstly, Jean-Paul Sartre, the French Existentialist working in the middle of the 20th century, wrote a book called Being and Nothingness, in which he expounds on a concept he terms “mauvaise foi“, which translates to “bad faith”.
I will pretend here that I fully understand this somewhat convoluted and overly tortured concept to illuminate how Sartre pointed out something crucial to consider, yet perhaps ultimately fell into his own ideological trap. In the philosopher’s most well-known example of bad faith, he describes a waiter at a restaurant who is trying too hard to be a waiter. He’s acting and performing the role of a “waiter” which is part of his “facticity” to please others. However, this comes at the expense of being truly “authentic” by failing to recognize his freedom to choose to behave otherwise, an idea Sartre calls “transcendence”. According to Sartre, the waiter commits to the role too strongly and too convincingly, even to himself.
In my articulation, I imagine that the waiter shifts from pretending to lying, from an internal, conscious pretending to an external, but still conscious attempt at deceit. Sartre suggests that the waiter’s deception is subconscious (Sartre mentions Freud multiple times). The part that I think Sartre gets right in this scenario is that if the waiter believes that being a “waiter” is definitive of an essential identity, he has been ensnared by the same trap that many people in our current cultural landscape seem to be regarding any number of “identities” and is in fact, acting in bad faith. Sartre and I may part ways if he is suggesting that the waiter is lying to himself, which seems impossible, if not nonsensical. Sartre accuses this imaginary sap of a waiter of knowing that he is merely performing yet also deceiving himself that he is essentially a “waiter”. Aside from the lack of coherence in knowing one is self-deceiving oneself, Sartre’s concept of bad faith has a deeper, perhaps more interesting, loose end.
First, as I stated, we are all perpetually pretending. There is no moment when we can stop and assert with conviction and confidence that “this is the real me”. If one does, I would argue that one is mistaken or delusional. Secondly, I am suspicious that Sartre is sneakily moralizing the topic. To posit that there is “bad faith” (inauthenticity) over here and that “authenticity” is over there inherently implies a hierarchy and judgment, whether Sartre would admit this or not. I understand he suggested that bad faith was unavoidable. But did he actually believe that? Regardless, this suggestion about living an “authentic” Existentialist-approved life may lose me if Sartre argues that there is anything essential about existence other than a series of performances and experiences that unfurl in the present. Sartre famously quipped that “Existence precedes essence.” I propose an alternative formulation, suggesting that existence precedes experience.
Let us consider another possible path, in stark contrast to our current identity-obsessed cultural framework. I propose a shift in our perspective and approach, drawing heavily from centuries-old wisdom and contemplative traditions. Zen Buddhism emphasizes the integration and embodiment of “relative” and “absolute” realities and turns one’s attention toward experience in the present. Relative reality refers to a view of the world marked by differences and discernment, past and future, and cause and effect. It is a pedestrian, common sense perspective in which most people experience their lives viewing all things as separate and distinct, most importantly, seeing themselves as the center of their world.
Absolute reality refers to an experiential understanding, not an intellectual one, where discernment and the distinct differences between objects and subjects dissolve into pure unity and interconnectedness. Analytical ideas vanish, as do ideas about the past and future. It is pure potentiality. Thusness. Trying to articulate “the absolute” using language is a fool’s errand, so I will stop before I digress.
The Zen way, the middle way, is an ongoing negotiation, a lighthearted playfulness within the wholeness of life that encompasses the relative and the absolute. Life is not merely one or the other, nor is it simply both. In fact, duality itself is illusory. Seen this way, a distinction between “pretending” and “not pretending” is blurred and ultimately irrelevant. We do life as it unfolds in the present. In this framework, the idea of a fixed “self” initially becomes illusive and eventually becomes illusory.
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind, as well as the bodies and minds of others, drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.– Dōgen Zenji
“Identity” as a mere list of facts, words, or categories (immutable or not) is unsatisfactory within this Buddhist perspective. In the time it takes me to write this paragraph, I’ve been a coffee drinker, a bathroom goer, a body stretcher, a tennis anticipator, and a phone checker. I’ve gotten unmistakably further from birth and closer to death. These identities have come and gone with each breath. My sense of “self” is constantly forming, dissolving, re-forming, and re-dissolving. We can extend this beyond the trivial aspects of our identity to any aspect of self we tightly cling to. The tighter we cling, the more we suffer, and the more vital it becomes to release our grip. Observing our bodies change, pretend, and play in a way that does not require us to dig our heels in or lie to protect our fragile egos is incredibly liberating. Just humor me for a moment. Take a deep breath and consider “Who am I?” without reflexively trying to fill that open space with an answer. With that, perhaps, you get a glimpse at an ineffable sense of lightness of being.
Now that I have laid out the case for a surprisingly radical notion that we consider being more encouraging and relaxed about role-playing and pretending let’s look at several ways in which the current rigid, stigmatizing, and moralizing values of our popular culture have led to some dreadful outcomes, trends, and pathologies.
When Pretending as Entertainment Goes Awry
Our culture’s exaltation of identity has led to several undesirable consequences in popular media and entertainment. The casting of actors in film, television, and theater is a cultural arena where we can examine how pretending has been contaminated with the politics of identity. I could point to countless examples, but, most topically, at the time of writing, this issue became international news when a Netflix “documentary” on Cleopatra cast Adele James, a person with a fair amount of melanin and mixed ancestry, as the Queen of Egypt. This decision sparked a slew of opinion pieces, historians arguing, and tireless/tiresome Twitter debates. Each party has been staking claims about what “race” Cleopatra actually was.
For a person like me who thinks the concept of “race” is a non-starter and someone who knows something about Egyptian culture and history, the entire debate felt laughably absurd. However, this is not the place to relitigate the details of those arguments, nor are they relevant to my point. All parties involved seemed unnecessarily up in arms.
Performative acting, by definition, involves pretending. One person embodies the behavior of another in a scripted, structured manner. This refined craft has produced some of the most inspired and inspiring pretending ever. Barring some extreme cases that I am sure someone could summon, there ought not to be any tension, shame, or pride in casting anyone to play any part in a theatrical performance. The rub comes, once again, not in the form of pretending or playing but in the form of trying to convince others that there is no pretending going on.
If the director of Queen Cleopatra wanted to film historical re-enactments and cast an obese man with a fair complexion as the Queen of Egypt, I don’t see a problem. However, if the director tries to convince the audience that Cleopatra was indeed an obese man with a fair complexion, we have a falsehood problem. Dishonesty is the transgression in this example, not pretending. If we lived in a culture that simply recognized and celebrated adults who do a great job pretending instead of insisting that people ought to be “authentic” and “real”, one would not need to lie and deceive, as did some writers who doubled down in their commentary on the Cleopatra documentary, insisting that she was really, actually “black”, if only in spirit.
Contrast this with the 2004 comedy film Palindromes, directed by Todd Solondz. In this film, which divided critics, he cast eight different actors to play the main character of 13-year-old Aviva. The actors were of vastly different ages, sizes, and phenotypes, and not all of the same sex. However, the audience easily followed the story by employing a simple device for continuity: each actor had the name Aviva. We recognize that the character remains the same while the actors change, and at the same time, we are made aware of the pretense. Palindromes illustrates a brilliant way to celebrate the lighthearted activity of acting/pretending while demonstrating the power of a narrative structure to create and maintain cohesion. In Palindromes, no one tries pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. No one is being strong-armed to lie to preserve dignity. Ironically, this honest, exposed pretense approaches what it means to be more fully human.
The comedy genre, especially in the form of stand-up, is a third example of theatrical performance/pretending that has suffered badly within our culture that increasingly embraces identitarianism. I view this as a substantial setback because a robust sense of humor has proven to be evolutionarily advantageous. There are several theories to substantiate this claim. One theory postulates that humor helps us fact-check by being surprised and seeing things from an unexpected perspective. Recognizing humor in others also signals that someone is thoughtful and kind. This rings true in my personal experience.
Another theory suggests that humor is among the highest cognitive functions of our species and plays an integral part in our language development and social capacities. Yet a third theory posits that humor is beneficial for easing tensions between people from different social groups and is therapeutic in difficult, emotionally stressful situations. Regardless, it is clear that humor is a vital and remarkable aspect of being human. In my lifetime, especially within the last decade, I have noticed a palpable decline in people’s sense of humor, especially in younger folks. They seem less tolerant of edgy humor, while there is a simultaneous increase in censoriousness due to audience “offense“.
What may lie behind this phenomenon? I believe that when people take their identities so seriously, as so holy, and as an essential part of who they “authentically” are, and another person punctures that inflated ego in the form of a comedic jab or insult, it often results in emotional pain, discomfort, and offense. Suppose one believes their phenotype, gender, sexuality, weight, or any other quality defines their personhood; without it, they are rendered “invisible”. Logically, when another person who is acting/pretending ruptures another’s illusion of personhood, often by simply holding up a mirror in the form of a joke, instead of laughing at those aspects of themselves, which can be quite funny if held onto lightly, they rush to protect their egos by trying to shut down the performer. The actor/comedian transforms into a sinner who must be silenced and punished. The only way this charade can function is if a) the offended audience feels they must protect their identity at all costs, and b) the comedian/actor is assumed to have dubious intentions, not to be simply acting, and honestly believes everything they say.
This is a disastrous combination. A common talking point among the offended is that in comedy, it is a transgression to “punch down.” This means that if the joke targets people from a “marginalized” community by a less marginalized comic, it is “problematic.” I take issue with this concept. Who decides which communities are more or less marginalized, in what sense, and isn’t it condescending/infantilizing to assume that some people’s egos are automatically more fragile than others because of their identities? I am not alone in this view.
The Problems That Arise When We Pretend to Pretend
Our cultural pridefulness and prudishness surrounding identity leads to lying and manipulation within our entertainment media. Let’s turn to the “real” world, where people exponentially perform their identities for the public.
Firstly, an idea among a particular, educated populace is that “cultural appropriation” deserves condemnation. It is viewed as a form of pretending that deserves shame and finger-wagging, mostly in university ethnic study classes, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training sessions, websites, major news outlets, and on social media. This is largely unsupportable. Cultural appropriation refers to any situation where a person who lives in a particular part of the world adopts any number of customs from a culture located elsewhere. A simple example would be if someone, having grown up in France, began dressing in traditional Peruvian clothing. Another example would be if a person of Spanish heritage opened a restaurant serving Korean food.
The cultural appropriation police like to reserve their anger and disgust for “dominant” cultures that appropriate customs from “minority” cultures without signaling the proper respect. An obvious problem on the face of this is, among several, that to refer to one culture as dominant and another as lesser is condescending at best and jingoistic at worst. How would we measure the intent of the appropriator? Do we view this through a reductive lens of “colonized” and “colonizer”? There is no coherent, agreed-upon criteria or evidence to support such claims.
Even more fundamentally, philosophically, just as there is no moment in time when a single individual can locate their “real” self, there is certainly no singular moment where any culture can be frozen in time and displayed as self-contained and authentic. Further, cultures are not owned by anyone. To believe that “cultural appropriation” is problematic, one must assume that cultures are distinct from one another to such a degree that there is no cross-pollination, evolution, or change. This is demonstrably incorrect.
Culture is appropriation. Many traditions begin, change, and end by playing and experimenting. We borrow, combine, pretend, and play with food, clothing, language, music, and ideas to form new food, clothing, language, music, and ideas. There are instances when deceit, dishonesty, and theft infect the very healthy, unstoppable, and perpetual acts of cultural appropriation. This is precisely when pretending becomes lying, or playing becomes motivated by ill intent and manipulation of others. If one steals and sells clothes from another person, we are no longer talking about cultural appropriation but theft. This is a fairly simple distinction to make.
Moving away from academic instances where pretending has been demonized, let’s turn toward social media. The rapid growth of social media has been a hotbed for a distressing number of trends where mere pretending transmogrifies into deceit and manipulation, mainly in the form of multiple manifestations of cultural contagions. The social media platform TikTok has been the most notable venue for viral videos that depict people, usually filming themselves and displaying unusual conditions such as Tourette Syndrome, mental illnesses, and other tics. These videos go through periods of popularity with varying levels of engagement. This should go without saying, but we must establish and agree upon some basic, distinct facts to move forward:
- Some people have Tourette Syndrome.
- Some people like to play and pretend.
- Some people lie and deceive others for a multitude of reasons.
How these populations do and do not overlap is another question. The unique problem caused by the TikTop phenomenon is that the overlapping sections of the Venn diagram containing those people with Tourette Syndrome, those who like to pretend for fun, and those who lie for any number of reasons are rendered almost entirely indistinguishable through this medium and delivery method. In other words, one could watch in succession 100 video clips of different people, some who have Tourette Syndrome, some who may be playfully pretending to have Tourette Syndrome, and some who wish to manipulate a viewer through deceit and dishonesty by claiming that they are not pretending, but in fact, have Tourette Syndrome. The unique conditions and algorithmic structure of social media create a perfect forum for the propagation of deceivers who benefit like undercover cops by deception through blending in.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we first practice to deceive.– Sir Walter Scott
Our current culture stigmatizes the playful pretenders and has motivated – and, in some ways, created – the necessary conditions for some to engage in deceit so that they can claim the highly coveted holy grail of “authenticity” and “real identity” on which our culture places such high value. Were we to imagine instead that we lived in a culture that understood and admitted that our identities are quite unstable, to say the least, and are more likely a curious amalgamation of experiences, like layers of an onion instead of fruit with a pit, there would be no audience for such deception. There would be very little at stake and, therefore, little to gain or lose. There would be nothing to lie for nor reason to manipulate others by groveling for attention and acceptance. Our culture’s general obsession with essentialist identity and its privileged academic cousin, identity politics, breed and encourage dishonest, “bad actors“.
Outside of the media landscape, within the “real” world, we have many examples in recent years of people pretending to “possess” particular identities, with dire consequences. It is not their pretense that is cause for concern or social shaming, as journalists often frame these cases, but their attempt at deceit that may more reasonably provoke our contempt. One of the most infamous of these cases involves a person who transgressed a culturally sacred yet arguably arbitrary identity boundary we like to call “race”. Rachel Dolezal, who has fair skin, co-opted an identity of being racialized as African-American. Rather than merely pretending to transcend ethnic heritage, as countless actors have for centuries, Dolezal capitalized on the pretense to deceive others and gain social status among her coworkers and peers.
To reiterate my larger argument, two separate issues are at play. First, Dolezal lied and intended to deceive others, which reasonable people may find distasteful and deserving condemnation. Secondly, and perhaps more provocative, is that the only reason Dolezal found herself in such a position is that our culture has placed a completely bogus and artificial value on a category of our identities that does not exist, namely that of “race”. We are constantly reifying and glorifying arguably the most harmful, hateful, scientifically vapid social construction ever to be invented, teaching each new generation that this thing we call “race” is an essential part of who we are. It is worse than bullshit. It is an emperor with no clothes.
Rachel Dolezal’s crime was not pretending to be transracial because transracial is a word with no coherent meaning. Her crime was not play-acting and pretending to be of a different ethnicity or color (spray tans are completely normalized). Her crime, if she committed one at all, was lying and intending to deceive and manipulate others for power and status. The sad catch is that this culture has created that monster. Given the example, and perhaps aside from some extremely perverse cases I am sure one could posit, I am unbothered by depictions of any person played by any other person in the context of theatrical acting or private playing/pretending.
I realize that my stance is controversial, but I find a performance of someone in “blackface” less insulting, if you will, than someone who intentionally lies to deceive, gain status and power, and affect the livelihood of others. Though undeniably bigoted, distasteful, and mean-spirited, no one thinks for a moment that a minstrel character is trying to pull one over on anyone. While I understand one may justly take offense for any of the reasons I have already articulated above regarding comedy, I do not particularly feel that way. Men traditionally play women in Japanese Onnagata theater and the American Drag subculture, often trafficking in exaggerated stereotypes and demeaning behavior. But no one is being deceived. Dolezal’s case and others that are similar should make us cringe – not for the pretense but for the deceit.
Taking Pretending Too Seriously and the Erosion of Private Life
The boundaries between our private and public lives have eroded, leading to troublesome trends. A cultural shift that pressures people to perform their “authentic” identities for an audience of potentially millions of people via social media rather than a more private or localized activity creates a highly toxic environment of deceit and increases the likelihood of harmful, long-term consequences.
If we understand that we have a world where billions of people are constantly performing in front of a camera and making these performances public, and we have a culture that sanctifies being “authentic” while demonizing adult playful pretending as being “fake”, we have designed the perfect storm that incentivizes people to “lie”, if you will to save face and maintain an intact ego. In other words, we must willfully create cognitive dissonance in order to protect an identity that doesn’t exist.
If we accept that human behavior and interests are naturally and beautifully diverse and that gender constructs are not fixed in stone nor even beneficial concepts to encapsulate our experiences, people may feel less pressured to announce their identities publicly.
To contextualize, our closest relatives, bonobo chimpanzees, have a broad range of behaviors, and sometimes, they don’t track with the behaviors that are typical for their biological sexes. For instance, some female bonobos prefer to hang out with males from a young age and participate in group activities that include more physical roughhousing and wrestling types of play. They develop bodies that appear more male-like. This inversion holds for some males who exhibit more typical female behavior.
These chimps are integrated into society without so much as a dirty look, much less bullying or harming. Bonobos are simply being. Their culture is not set up so that the males must announce that they are men or females must shout that they are women. Bonobos do not demand that other bonobos accept that the non-conforming members of their species are a different gender. None of this deceit is necessary because the concept of a fixed identity is non-existent to a bonobo. What a blessing. In a famous Zen Koan, a monk asked Master Zhao Zhou, “Does a dog have Buddha Nature?” Just as easily, one could ask, “Does a bonobo have Buddha Nature?
Our private and public lives have changed rapidly over the last few decades, and this change has directly fueled (or been fueled by) the current cultural pathology of identity that I have attempted to illuminate. Pretending and playing, for any of us who grew up in a time before the internet and before social media, typically had an audience of one. Sometimes, a few more. We played alone and with friends. We experimented and performed but sensed that some things were private. It is a mistake to think that privacy was always, or even most of the time, out of fear of ridicule, although that was certainly the case sometimes. But it was okay to play and pretend alone. It was safe.
Some adults like to role-play, whether within a sexual relationship or not, and that is mainly a private activity. Privacy allows freedom to play without social consequences. The intent is fun and excitement. No one who dresses up like a cop for their partner who thinks people in uniform are kinky and sexy feels the need to deceive anyone that they are actually a cop. No one who pretends they are a fantastic vocalist when they crank up the radio and belt out a tune while in their car feels pressured to convince anyone that they are, in fact, or identify as that talented superstar.
There is wisdom in having some distinct boundaries between our private and public lives. However, with the erosion of those boundaries comes the decline of that wisdom and utility. Instead of playfully pretending to be a cheerleader or football star, a tree, or a bird to learn how it feels and develop that counterfactual reasoning, young people perform every act in front of a smartphone video camera and immediately post these acts to a potentially massive public audience.
To make matters more psychologically deleterious, they compare their performances by watching everyone else’s. The algorithm privileges “likes”. To get “likes”, the performance has to be effective. To make the performance more effective, one is incentivized to push the limits of believability and “lie”, if you will, to convince the audience that what one is presenting is “real” and “authentic”. It is not good enough to pretend for fun. That’s for little kids. No, no, we are serious adults. Our “real” identities are “essential” to who we are.
Ahhhh, but there is hope. Over there, peeking out from underneath the sofa cushion, just within reach of my weak little fingertips, I see a green Peanut M&M. Everyone knows how the green ones make you feel. I am going to look for some rolled-up socks or tennis balls now.