Sunday, November 9, 2014

Mask Theory

Friday I had a phone conversation with someone at the end of my work-day so truly frustrating I got so angry after it I felt as if I weren't going to be able to think for the whole weekend.  It was one of those fumy, funky feelings you get when you are confronted with a point of view so completely outside of your own it feels as if you've been kidnapped and thrown in a basement for a while. 

The different point of view has to do with all kinds of stuff, but mainly the topic of heated discussion was about the people with developmental disabilities we were both trying to support.  I'm not going to get into anything specific because it's not worth it here, but I figure I might as well blog about the Big Issue which is:  how do you separate people from their historical origins, from their tropes?  How do you pull the "type" away from the way you talk about and connect with them? 

The person on the other end kept laying claim to people, as in "my clients," or "my people," and I just don't do that.  That "my" becomes plantation-esque somehow, indicating an ownership that feels grounded in institutions and brainwaves from the past.  I think the fury I felt truly came from that alone mainly, hearing that "my" over and over and over, and then today rehashing the whole thing I thought about Diane Arbus' photographs of people with developmental disabilities taken during a Halloween party at a state institution back in the early 1960s.  One of them is above.  Somehow that "my" is trapped in that same moment above, that cryptic, masked sense of no-self, no-determination, no-ambition, just a group of identities only given identities as a group.  

How do we help get rid of those masks?  How can we separate the way we think and act from that instant classification, that instant knowing what's best, that "my-ness"? 

One way I guess is by always knowing what's up, and by not saying the "my" and also knowing why you don't say "my."  Still that's just semantics, still just a version of self censorship.  The move to make might be empathetically created (as in "I wouldn't only want to be thought of as only part of a group," etc.) but also it has to be functionally practiced.  We often think of ethics as only connected to an HR training or a high school course we took and slept through, rules that don't really matter outside of saying they do, ephemeral pontificating.  But ethics, in the way I'm trying to figure them out, are only important when acted on, as in erasing that ownership sensibility by understanding its weirdness and unkindness and moving forward from that, outside of platitudes, outside of words.  Doing something about it.

It was words, of course, that pissed me off so much on Friday.  That and the fact it was Friday and nobody wants to get into a work argument or any kind of argument on Friday afternoon.  But the words highlighted something very deep:  you can't take action until you figure out what's wrong with the way you're thinking about the actions you take. 

In this stuff, ethics are so important because they can allow you to unmask yourself.  And without a mask you, and everyone else, can see exactly who you are.