23 December 2015

Masks replace faces, clothes replace skins and we are not who we want to be

When we wear the clothes that are demanded of us, do we stuff our unhappy skins in a trash can or turn them into drums beaten to unfamiliar rhythms?” 

Do we wear the clothes we like to wear, the colours we prefer?  In a superficial sense, yes, we do.  Of course some of us are never really happy with that which we can get given limitations of purchasing power, but we do get to pick and choose and it makes us feel good that we are able to.  We like to think that we have picking power, but the truth is that the picking process is more often than not something that operates within fairly well defined limits.  Income, wealth, social location, propriety of place, status etc. and other things determine what we can and what we cannot and/or should not wear, how we should or shout not be. 

So yes, we get to choose, but only after we’ve been told you’ve got to choose from this, this, this and this only.  Sometimes we can’t help it; sometimes we can.  If you really think, we are for the most part a conforming species.  We adapt to circumstances and rarely adapt circumstances to suit ourselves. 

Maybe all this is too abstract. Let’s get concrete.  Isn’t it true that we often find ourselves in situations where we really cannot say what we really want to say, when we hold ourselves back because pointing out the obvious is embarrassing or inappropriate given the specifics of power relations?

I think we all find ourselves in situations where we have reason to burst out laughing but would stifle all that because it might annoy or embarrass someone, usually someone who could if he/she wanted to make things uncomfortable for us at a later point.  This is what I mean when I say we wear clothes that are demanded of us.  We have to have the ‘correct’ make-up, manufacture on our faces the appropriate countenance, adopt the correct posture, say the right words, keep our silence and steer clear of certain subjects.  If we do all that we are ‘nice’, ‘courteous’, ‘proper’; if we don’t, we are ‘uncouth’, ‘irreverent’, ‘rude’, ‘crude’ etc. 

A lot of times we don’t have a choice.  We just ‘grin and bear’ as it were.  Until of course some kid comes and tells us and the world that the emperor is naked.  In those rare and remarkable moment we are liberated and can ourselves be naked, i.e. be who we are, who we want to be; but for the most part we were the clothes someone else demand we wear and perforce are rendered naked and vulnerable and open to all manner of humiliation. 

Take democracy, for example. On election day we are gods.  We are worshipped. Well, not just on election day, for we are worshipped by all kinds of ‘devotees’ throughout the several weeks that constitute campaign-time as well.  And then on election-day us gods go to a polling booth, thrust a piece of paper inside a small box and thus do we willingly relinquish our divinity.  Thus are we robbed of our divinity, to put it another way.  The point is, we can be gods, but only for a limited time.  After the Elections Commissioner announces the results, there is a quick reversal of role: the elected, formerly devotee, is conferred with divinity, and the elector, formerly god, is now devotee.  Democracy allows us to wear a dress called ‘participation’ but we are stripped naked immediately after we ‘participate’ and revert to our ‘natural’ skin; that of ‘marginal’ and ‘inconsequential’.  Add ‘to be exploited and humiliated’ to that.

There are other dimensions to this dress-code trap.  It is a serious epidemic among those who engage in politics.  I noticed this first in my first year at Peradeniya where the JVP, avowedly a Marxist-Leninist party, consistently took up positions that were quite antithetical to the ideology that claimed to be inspired by.  There was a single-word justification: ‘strategy’.  When survival and relevancy are more important than anything else, I suppose anything and everything can be justified with that dismissive and misleading term, ‘strategy’. 

I wonder, though, about the degree of comfort experienced or missed by those who have to wear clothes that are not necessary of their choosing.  When Anura Kumara Dissanayake gets an elephant badge and has to wear it, what happens to the hammer and sickle of his sensibilities, the bell that has rung for him for half his life or more? 

How about those who cross over from one party to another and sometimes back to the original political residence?  No sweat, no guilt, no embarrassment? 

It is true that life makes us wear garments that we are not keen on wearing but we have to for reasons beyond our control, although it is also true that sometimes we can be ourselves in other people’s skins or in garments we are required to wear.  We just have to be smart, creative, enterprising and quick footed.  It’s rare though.

More typically, we drop ‘self’ when we put on the face we are supposed to wear.  We can and do collect our unhappy skins so that we can get back into it and recover who we are after our drudgery of imposed self-deception is done.

The issue is this:  when we leave our skins behind, sometimes they are stolen.  Sometimes we don’t remember where we left them.  And we can never become ourselves again. That’s the ultimate condition of slavery. 

We all face this situation in numerous ways at numerous times of our lives; we are often slaves, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, sometimes happily and sometimes unhappily.  Through it all, there is I think one thing that we must all keep in mind and I am not sure if we do: it is possible, quite possible, that there comes a moment when your mask could replace your face forever.  We do not know if it is preordained, sacred or tragic, but it is a moment we need to watch out for, simply because the way we respond to this moment can make our skins relevant or irrelevant. As per our choice.

First published on December 24, 2009 in the Daily News