Playing the Fool: Is Role-Playing Inauthentic Behaviour?

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In the virtual world Second Life, there are people who are there to play being someone they’re not, and other people who are trying to be authentic. At one extreme there are people who come in and act as a member of the opposite sex, or as a machine or animal. There are those who come specifically to play faerie and S&M roles, living out fantasies behind the mask of their avatar. There are those who act “realistically” but assume airs or false bravado, who essentially lie about who they are and see how long they can fool others with their charade. Then there are the many who act, and speak, in chat and voice, just like who they are in real life, except better looking. And at the other extreme are those who alter their avatars to look as much like themselves as possible (and sometimes even caricatures of themselves) and insist that everything be completely “realistic”.These groups tend to self-select others who share their passion for fantasy or realism. The role-players shrug off accusations of inauthenticity from realists as anal, puritan and self-important, insisting that Second Life is just a game — harmless fun. The realists portray the role-players as autistics, liars, time-wasters who are preoccupied with esoterica and too irresponsible to use virtual worlds for much needed, authentic conversation and problem-solving.

I have a foot in both camps. I see Second Life as a remarkable imaginative tool: You can create worlds that don’t (or even couldn’t) exist in reality. You could (theoretically anyway) film a group’s spontaneous experiences in Second Life and edit it into a movie that would be unlike anything you could do in real life. For those who, because of difficult personal circumstances or disabilities, are restricted in their ability to seek or have deep, loving, personal relationships, Second Life is exactly what its name implies, a second chance to live a healthy, normal life.

On the other hand, it can be a place of escapism, aggression and addiction. The degree to which some people obtain gratification from dominating and humiliating another person, and to which others are willing to subjugate themselves just to be “loved”, is very troubling. Many of the places in Second Life are precise and banal imitations of real life, except with vastly more conspicuous consumption and private ownership. The poor play at being rich, with massive private mansions and torture chambers filled with expensive playthings (you need pay nothing to have fun in Second Life, but some people spend enormous sums of real money buying land, clothing and toys for their avatars). In a world that needs no hierarchy, there is a lot of it. In a world where “physical” violence is very difficult to perpetrate, there is a depressing amount of psychological violence.

In today’s complex world we all have (for perfectly practical reasons) multiple identities, and I’ve written before about the challenges of moving between identities (and the media that tend to keep them separate) as relationships evolve and the communities we are each a part of bump together and overlap. My identities as business executive, as family member, as friend, as colleague, as writer, as speaker, as student are each different. They are all authentic, but they emphasize and de-emphasize (or even hide) different aspects of my history and personality, of who I really am.

In addition to identities we also have multiple personas. These are public roles that we assume or display, that we play. Many of these roles are assigned tacitly or explicitly, through a job title, a screenplay, a team roles list, duty roster etc. People who are insecure or unsure who they are will muddle their personas and identities: They will act, for example, how they think a father is supposed to act, in the presence of his children, rather than authentically. In some cases, when they’re really messed up, this can actually be a good thing, but for the most part it’s dangerous and confusing to others. It’s hard to trust someone when you know (and people know when what they are seeing is a persona and not an identity) that it’s only an act, a role-play.

Some personas are authentic, while others are utterly and purposefully false. Some of them are protective colouring that is designed to make it easier to survive in a crowded, judgemental and often intolerant world. Sometimes the gunk of our personas sticks to us so closely that, like some theatre makeup, it is very difficult to take off afterwards. After enough time and practice playing a role we may not even realize that many aspects of our persona are not authentic, not really ourselves at all. We ‘become’ our role, our job, to the point that our true identity is lost.

In many human activities, from the workplace to the theatre, we also recognize archetypes (from the Greek = original model). Archetypes are recognizable symbols or patterns, which may be simplified (stereotypes) or exaggerated (caricatures) to increase their recognizability. Humans are, after all, pattern recognizers, and putting a label on a certain type of character or behaviour enables us to think and communicate with others about it in a meaningful way. If we say Obama acts presidential in the same way that Kennedy did, for example, we are establishing Kennedy as an archetype. The clichÈ about “they broke the mold after they made her” likewise identifies someone as an archetype. All similar people thereafter “in the same mold” are merely copies.

tarot foolMuch use is made of archetypes in the writing and criticism of literature, in art, and in psychology. Many of the gods of different religions are archetypal — intended as models to study or follow. The cards of the Tarot deck, especially the major arcana, are also archetypes, handy in the search for patterns of people and behaviours necessary to tell fortunes.

Three years ago I wrote about one of those Tarot archetypes, The Fool or Jester, and specifically the interpretation of one Australian writer of the card’s meaning:

The archetype of the wise Fool is one that is found in many cultures in all parts of the world. His lack of experience in the ways of society is seen on the surface to be a disadvantage, but in reality it ensures that his mind is not closed to unusual experiences that are denied to ordinary men.

He is the vagabond who exists on the fringe of organized life, going his own way, ignoring the rules and taboos with which men seek to contain him. He is the madman who carries within him the seeds of genius, the one who is despised by society yet who is the catalyst which will transform that society.

The Fool is the Green Man, the harbinger of a new cycle of existence, the herald of new life and fresh beginnings. He can be seen as the innocent spirit about to embark on physical incarnation; the young child who has yet to learn of the perils of the world; or as the seeker after enlightenment chasing the elusive butterfly of intuition in the hope that it will lead to the mysteries.

In the earlier article I wrote about cats as exemplars of Playing the Fool: “I have seen cats of all ages, cats of amazing wisdom and style who otherwise show themselves to be cunning and astonishingly self-sufficient, chase a piece of string dragged by a child around the house for an hour or more, indefatigably and with enormous concentration, creativity and energy. What is the purpose of this unexpected playfulness? Is this the cat’s way of discharging the tension and anxiety that preoccupies her more sombre and sober moments? Is it her way of teaching the child (or the adult, since I get great pleasure from such games, until usually some intrigued child coaxes the string away from me to learn more about this magic trick) important lessons about instinct, about reflexes, about strategy, about the need for play, and a hundred other lessons we are too besotted with WeltSchmertz (sadness over the evils of the world) to appreciate?”

I got to thinking, after reading Chris Corrigan blogging cryptically about learning the value of Playing the Fool at OSonOS, about whether the injection, into an Improv session or an Open Space session, of someone Playing the Fool or some other archetype, as a role, a persona, might be beneficial in getting new perspectives and breakthroughs for the group. The Fool is, after all, the naive seeker of knowledge and self-knowledge. Could someone Playing the Fool ask just the right “stupid questions” to get a group grappling with a complex problem out of their thinking rut? How about someone playing The Magician, the powerful, self-confident master who knows, and shows, that all he and others thought was true is just illusion?

The Magician card reversed is the Juggler, the indigenous Trickster, a conjurer who shows how illusions can wreak real magic (like the colourful butterfly wing that contains no pigment, whose rainbow of hues is the optical deception created by the way the wing’s molecules are layered). What value could be achieved by having someone adept at biomimicry delighting and inspiring the group with nature’s own tricks to overcome adversity, as they struggle with an intractable human problem?

Or how about planting a Hanged Man in their midst, one who is willing to let go of everything he has always been told is true, to look at the world from a fresh and inverted perspective, and trust his instincts and subconscious? Or the Hermit, the one who keeps bringing everything back to reflection, self-organization, self-sufficiency, adaptation, when the group is clamouring for the politicians or management to fix the problem, or calling for a committee, or a revolution?

And of course, we could always plant the Devil. Imagine the creative conflict and friction that might come from having a Devil’s advocate in the room, arguing, just for the sake of challenging all conventional wisdom and the propensity for groupthink.

Dave Snowden has warned me that for such mischievous plantings to work in Open Space and other types of event whose group dynamic is based on trust, the provocateurs would have to be Actors, clearly identified as such, wearing the appropriate ‘mask’ or accoutrements of their persona. To have someone within the group do this surreptitiously, he suggests, would be a betrayal of the group’s trust and throw the authenticity of everything in the event into doubt.

I’m not so sure. I’ve played the Fool and the Devil and other archetypal roles in meetings, not dishonestly but just to stir things up when I felt that stirring up was needed. I’ve seen other people move into these and other roles, and the effect on groups is astonishing, perhaps for the same reason that self-deprecation is so powerful in Improv comedy sessions.

Those of us who are continuously learning have all of these archetypes within us, and for them to emerge as personas is, I think, the most natural thing in the world. Kittens and puppies playing together take turns in the dominant (Magician) and submissive (Fool) role, and this is how they learn about complexity, about how to solve problems, and ultimately, about their own identity.

Perhaps what we need is to give each participant in a problem-solving or brainstorming event a set of cards representing all the common archetypes, and have people self-identify and ‘wear’ the card which represents the persona that has emerged for them, that they are playing, at any point in time during the event. We might learn as much about ourselves as we do about the challenge the event is about. I think de Bono used something like this in his Six Thinking Hats creativity sessions. Some of the more sophisticated emoticons (e.g. the wink) serve a similar purpose, of giving the listener context for “where we’re coming from” in this.

Some of the desktop videoconferencing tools allow participants to put up an emoticon indicating how they feel about what they’re hearing (happy, unhappy, excited, confused) so speakers who can’t ‘see’ the audience can get feedback that way, without interrupting the event.

In Second Life we’ve been using the Talking Stick and a Placeholder to encourage group listening and manage the order of conversations, and to ‘park’ subjects to be discussed once the current one has run its course.

It would be interesting to see whether, in real-time, face-to-face events like Open Space, and in real and virtual conversations and group discussions, we could develop a whole set of “where I’m coming from now” emoticons and archetypal symbols, that we could each display and change on the fly, so that we could accurately ‘read’ all of the other participants as we spoke and listened. A new, unspoken, supplementary language.

I suspect that animals in the wild, wild children, and perhaps some indigenous peoples, have no need for such artifacts — they can sense what is not said much better than we can, and they probably have less ‘gunk’ preventing them from knowing themselves well enough to signal and read accurately “where they’re coming from” without the need for artifacts. But we’ve largely lost that sensing capacity and that deepself-knowledge.

Anyone up for inventing, and learning, a new language?

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4 Responses to Playing the Fool: Is Role-Playing Inauthentic Behaviour?

  1. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the epitome of western technology, the internet, would be the avatar that can lead us to a place of post-modernism of identity that the eastern philosophies have explored for centuries? By post-modern in this context I’m referring to personas that are more loosely tied with a central core identity and more affiliated with the wisdom of the quote you put on a post a few weeks back,variously ascribed to Al Rogers or Eric Hoffer:In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.To be a a depth learner in our world (this has probably always been true) requires agility of mind and keen lack of ego-identification. Thanks for this thoughtful probe, Dave-

  2. Jon Husband says:

    I might argue that we have already begun creating, perhaps subconsciously, a “new” language stitched together with images, soundbites and pointers (oral and digita) to what someone else might have said that we think we might agree with in the moment. Those of us who write to express ourselves need to understand that this is how those who don’t, are learning to express themselves and connect with the world.Language creates reality, no ? Does reality need ‘anchors” or common points of reference ? What are our anchors in an increasingly horizontal society ? Will myths and archetypes hold up ?

  3. How interesting…I’ve also been thinking along similar lines recently. It’s fascinating that our musings have followed these similar pathways recently. You wax poetic, but I was thinking of things in a far more literal manner. I have been very frustrated with the fact that looking around me 95% or more of the folks I see around me seem to be posturers, in the way you describe. They are like chameleons who put on different garb for different occassions. And really they are mostly focused on serving their own needs from day to day. This is why, I believe, we have this custom of the 40 hour work week and the intense and competitive career paths which people take. People are out to get that pot of gold at the end of rainbow – the yearly salary which they can use for so many things.It’s fascinating also that you mention the “wise fool” so prominently in your post. This is how we non-posturers appear to the posturers. People who have thought deeply about all these areas of life, and who consequently feel the need to prod good social trends into motion in small groups and large groups – while they may indeed be doing much good for their world – they are held in contempt by most of those around them. Why? Well, part of it has to do with how they think outside the box when it comes to issues. Many folks have used plato’s “parable of the cave” to muse about this way in which they are misconstrued. Also, though, there is the fact that posturers tend to expect others to also be posturing. When a person is simply being transparent and talking about big ideas, it can really unnerve such people, I think. I’m glad to hear that you are exploring SecondLife. It sounds as if you havea group there which meets regularly? I’d love to join it. I’ve spent a lot of time at SecondLife during certain months over the past few years. I’ve learned building, landscaping, and some rudimentary scripting. I think that virtual worlds are going to be the future of the way people interact with others on the internet. All the teenagers today are thoroughly immersing themselves in these kinds of video games, and they will want to continue as adults at places like SecondLife. What does all the role playing in SecondLife mean? It’s possible to trace every trend back to it’s roots. We in North America have just gone through a very odd hundred year period of our history – where mass media has really created some profound changes in the way we think and do things. Whereas the word “common” was an insult in the 1800s and carried connotations of poverty, it’s synonym “normal” became our creed in the 1900s. With the freedom afforded by the anonymity of the internet, many people are indulging in new ways of thinking and acting which they have been repressing for a long time. The more negative stuff which you mention in SecondLife is subsumed within role play based on a series of novels – the Gor science fiction novels written by John Norman. That is a structured role playing community that affords many the opportunity to try out ways of talking and acting that they would never do in real life. I think that these kinds of actions in SecondLife should be thought of in the same way fiction novels are thought of. It’s ok to read and write novels about any subject, even taboo and controversial ones – and in like manner it should be acceptable to role play these things. It’s all about thinking deeply about the topic – which is exactly what people need to do in order to grow up and finally adopt mature attitudes about these things.

  4. Amy Lenzo says:

    Dave,This post is a great exposition of what it is to be a Heyokah Chief, or Trickster, sometimes called Coyote. An honorable role whose purpose is exactly to “shake things up” when they get too stolid or dense. I applaud your creativity and sense of play, and appreciate hearing your thinking on this very important, but all too often forgotten subject. I too am comfortable both playing and working (and at some level there is no difference at all) in Second Life. I find it a magical place, but then I think the world is magical :-) and I love that I can manifest almost anything I can image in Second Life. I have a number of in-world “personas” that I like to play with, but I must admit find it hard to be anything but myself, whether that “self” is wearing butterfly wings or a suit, dancing in faery rings, exploring new terrain, or hosting World Cafés. And I’m definitely one of those people you mentioned who look better in Second Life! :-) If you’d be willing to share your avatar’s name with me (via email), I’d very much enjoy meeting you there. Apparently I’m going to have the pleasure of meeting you in RL next month at a dinner instigated by one of our many mutual friends. I’m very much looking forward to it!Warm Wishes,Amy

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