All the World’s a Stage: Shakespeare and Goffman

Erving Goffman believed in social interactionism, in the concepts of micro-interactions. According to Goffman’s dramaturgic theory, social life is a theatrical performance in which we are all actors on metaphysical stages with roles, scripts, costumes, and sets. He suggests that depending on our surroundings and what our concepts are of them, we act differently. Just like how behavior when around elderly people can be extremely different from behavior when around peers. Goffman’s theory reminded me of something written a long time ago. In Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It, the character Jaques performs a monologue about the different parts of a man’s life. 

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.” –As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

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The words seem similar to Goffman’s idea. People are actors that play specific parts in their lives, whether it is when they are a child or when they are an adult. Shakespeare suggested that people do not continue to remain the same as they grow older. We are constantly evolving, though perhaps in more than just “seven ages”.

This can be seen clearly in young adults. For the first time, they are truly beginning to find themselves, rather than live with their parent’s influence. When around their parents, for the most part, young adults are respectful. They attempt to avoid cursing, put on a mask of obedience. However, when around their friends, these same young adults may become more vulgar and unfiltered. They may drink or do drugs (two highly discouraged acts in their parents’ eyes) because they are in a different setting with different characters and different props.

What makes this concept fascinating is the idea that society truly shapes us. The dramaturgic theory is clear in its attempt to emphasize that we are never truly ourselves as long as we are around other people. This leads me to wonder, if we consistently put on new mask depending on the environment around us and its contents, then how can we find our own identity. While isolation is typically seen as a more negative part of life, maybe it is sometimes necessary in order to gain a better idea of our self. So what can we do to find the balance between our masks and the identity we form alone?

Why Is the Word Normal Used In the Wrong Context?

Normal is a very generalized word. It is defined in the dictionary as “according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle”, but if norms differ from place to place, and from person to person, this definition does nothing to explain exactly what normal is in general, especially considering that it is usually used incorrectly in a broad context. We label things as “strange” or “weird”, yet we can be seen as just as strange or weird because there is no norm that encompasses all of us. Our differences define us, but they also separate us, because we feel comfortable with normal, yet we often do not acknowledge that normal is not the same everywhere.

Social norms are unspoken. They are silent rules and regulations that govern our behaviors, habits that we have learned through observation and interaction with society from a young age. I know that personally my actions can often conform to the standard of the group, even if I am unaware that I am doing so. My life seems “normal” to me, even though from the viewpoint of someone who is not part of the culture and society that shaped me, I am a radical change from their concept of normal.

An example of this that comes to mind for me is a close friend of mine. In my junior year of high school, I met a girl who was new to California. She had moved from Utah, near the center of Mormon activity. Most of her friends were Mormon, and she was as well. It was fascinating the way our perspectives differed. I was completely unique (and apparently a heathen) according to her friends still in Utah, but here in California I was blissfully average. My personality, my clothing, my religion, and more all contrasted with what she was used to, since I had observed and learned from a different environment growing up. Furthermore, as she spent more time in California interacting with these different sets of group standards, she began to change. She used different slang, wore different clothing, lost her Mormon faith, and even came out as lesbian because her new environment encouraged her sexuality compared to a hometown that had suppressed it. My normal became her normal, because we were both part of Southern California’s in-group.

An article in the Wall Street Journal questions not just social norms, but what causes certain people to become the “trendsetters” that facilitate new norms and encourage old ones. What is it that causes certain people to become the leaders of these groups and why do others follow them? Continuing this line of thought, with different accounts from researchers, are the leaders of these movements conforming more to these norms to set more of a standard, or are they deviating from the standard to create the norms in the first place? This can even be applied to political events. Over the past months, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made comments on women, Muslims, etc. that have incited large amounts of controversy. Particularly, recently leaked tapes capture him making demeaning comments about women and his treatment of them. There are two ways to look at his comments, as demonstrated by his supporters and his opposers.

  1. His comments are the norm for American men. This attitude can be seen in those who argue that his recent scandal involving derogatory comments about groping women caught on a hot mic can be considered “locker room talk”, to quote the candidate himself. That viewpoint suggests that it is a norm for men in America to speak in that way about women behind close doors.
  2. His comments demonstrate a large deviation from the norm among most people. Those who argue that Trump’s statements are uncommon and facilitate disrespect towards women between men behind closed doors show an attitude viewing him as deviating from what is now the more common norm in America.

Personally, I agree with the second perspective. It is not normal, it is a deviation from the norms, to speak about sexual assault in a joking, degrading manner. To suggest it is locker room talk generalizes all men as those who would disrespect and degrade women in a way that is vulgar and crude, which fosters an attitude that leads to rape culture.

Clearly, normal can be seen in many different ways and oftentimes it can create conflict. To generalize all of society through the use of one word shows ignorance, since what we see as normal defines how we are different. However, there is one similarity overall: Normal is used in the wrong context.

Good vs. Evil: Considering The Lucifer Effect’s Argument On Society and Its Influences

From: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/12/09/worst-horrors-cia-torture-report/20146081/
From a USA Today article on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal

If we are constantly bombarded with societal influences, do we blame society or ourselves?

The book,  The Lucifer Effectby social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, argues that our choices when responding to the influences around us are what define the difference between good and evil. Zimbardo coins the phrase, “the  banality of heroism”, suggesting that being what he considers to be good requires more than just not participating when faced with a bad situation, it requires actual action against that evil. According to the author, lack of an authority to put limits on power, dehumanization and deindividuation, and other factors all contribute to a situation where individuals allow themselves to succumb to evil.

The book constantly circles back to the same concept, and it’s somewhat terrifying: Ordinary people, like myself or any stranger I see walking down the street, have the potential to act like monsters when placed in the right circumstances. There are not “bad apples” in groups, the group itself is a “bad barrel”.

Zimbardo has a point. Societies have been guilty of some horrendous actions. The author makes sure to remind us of that, citing several examples including the Rwandan genocide, the My Lai Massacre, and the Holocaust. However, I was somewhat disappointed in his counter argument, that humans are capable of bravery and goodness even when faced with bad situations. Zimbardo makes it sound as though any act going against “the System” will be one resulting in extreme danger and/or possible death. His attempts to offer some hope in the face of  the bleak disillusionment he provides are only a half measure.

In my opinion, society is not a force that must constantly be fought against. The author’s view seems to coincide somewhat with the conflict theory, considering that he focuses heavily on the issues with domination and abuse. However, I believe that it is not as difficult to resist negative temptation as Zimbardo makes it out to be. Every day, we make conscientious decisions when it comes to right and wrong, and Zimbardo’s book focuses on the more extreme cases when it comes to negative actions, suggesting that everyone can be capable of committing murder or abusing innocents.

Good and evil are not strict definitions, but Zimbardo’s book does make a compelling point. Not everyone is “evil”, but everyone has the capability for evil if they allow negative societal influences to control their decisions.