The Mask

Zachary Crippen: 2011 saw the moral facades of many public figures crumble, and with them much of the value of the public square. How can better politics be restored?

[twitter-follow screen_name='humanepursuits']

There’s a face that we wear in the cold light of day –
It’s society’s mask, it’s society’s way,
And the truth is that it’s all a facade.

There’s a face that we hide till the nighttime appears,
And what’s hiding inside, behind all of our fears,
Is our true self, locked inside the facade.

-From Jekyll and Hyde (1997 Broadway Production)

2011 saw many scandals—Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, much of Penn State’s leadership, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s executives, and a GOP frontrunner all saw their careers suffer devastating blows as their masks of morality fell away. These people had been able to survive for a time under dreadfully beautiful disguises, maintaining faithful followings despite disastrously skewed internal compasses. The mask, the public face that hid their worst wrongdoing, has facilitated the deterioration of the public square.

“Every profound spirit needs a mask,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche.  He recognized that humanity has a love affair with the disguise. The mask is a pervasive part of who we are; we need it and love it. It evolves and grows subtly around the core of our beings, and becomes indistinguishable from our actual selves.  At the same time, our misuse of the mask has consequences for our civic society, manifested in the moral vacuum that now characterizes our politics. We are in need of a paradigm shift—one that recognizes the limited value of the mask while valuing transparency over duplicity.

But such a shift requires more candor about the mask than we often indulge.

Our own masks give us the tendency to accept others who obviously don one. They also spur us to look with suspicion on the apparent absence of such a disguise. Failing public figures capture our imaginations and conversations in ways that no amount of virtue ever can. The failures of such leaders and executives excuse our wrongdoing and simultaneously strengthen the masks that we ourselves wear. Our failures, safe in our memories, dwindle when laid alongside the exposed misdeeds of our leaders.

Those leaders have excuses, of course: the pressures on political candidates cause lapses in judgment; intercollegiate athletics lends itself to systemic ethical shortcomings; the institutional structures of businesses become “too big to fail.” We disdain these excuses from others, and yet prefer them to the alternative recognition that failure is endemic to human nature. Ironically, the failures of those in power spur us on in our own duplicity, giving us hope that we too can be successful behind the mask, like the wartime veteran who responds to another’s death only with the calloused shrug: “Oh well; it wasn’t me.” However much we tut-tut disapprovingly at another’s exposed mask, the fact is we want it ourselves, and the reminder that others have it gives us comfort.

The converse is also true:  those who do not appear to be wearing a mask make us supremely uncomfortable. Tim Tebow hasn’t made headlines because of his athletic prowess or off-the-field behavior. He has become one of the day’s most controversial sports figures simply because he seems to be genuine; honest about his personal life and apparently immune to the temptations of other mortals.

We don’t like that. We want mystery and scandal. When we place our faith in someone, we want a risk. Masks equal risks; uncertainty; paradoxically, their absence is both dull and unsettling.

Partly this is because we know an idyllic world without the mask is not possible. Nor should we want it to be. The beauty of the mask is that it is not a cloak of invisibility. It does not completely hide us. Every mask adopts at least some of the visage of its wearer. The mask can be used for good—not to disguise our worst but to develop our best.

No one expects that the people and personalities they encounter in formal political settings are entirely genuine. Virginia Woolf observed that the human habit of making masks “is so universal that probably it preserves our sanity. If we had not this device for shutting people off from our sympathies we might perhaps dissolve utterly; separateness would be impossible.” Some of those masks, in short, are worn out of an intense respect for humanity; an acknowledgment that the wearer cannot “measure up” to the rest without putting forth extra effort towards worthiness. This wearer is not simply hiding wrongdoing behind a mask; he is admitting his own inadequacies and working to correct them.

The problem, as Woolf further pointed out, is that “the [masks] are in the excess, not the sympathy.” We tend to place unlimited confidence in the mask as a disguise. It has no ability to absolve our consciences or reorient our compasses. The mask is a means of politics, not an end. The destruction of another’s mask can be a source of delight at our own escape, or a sobering reminder of our moral equivalence and the limitations of the mask—but not both.

The ultimate irony is that the mask, originally intended to hide our worst, can display our best only when our worst is acknowledged. We would do well to remember this as we embark on a new year that will surely present all the challenges of the old.

If we’re not one, but two,
Are we evil or good?
Do we walk the fine line –
That we’d cross if we could?
Are we waiting –
To break through the facade?

-From Jekyll and Hyde

Zachary Crippen, a senior at the Air Force Academy, is a 2012 Rhodes Scholar. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

1 Comment