In recent days it has been very hard not to be aware of Charlie Sheen and his curiously uninhibited life-style; indeed the media coverage of his each and every action or utterance has been such that even one so generally ignorant of popular culture as I has (eventually) noticed that something excitingly strange was going on. And I was struck, rather forcibly, by the nature of much of the commentary on Mr Sheen, which, I felt exposed certain structural features of our society. And, indeed, of any sufficiently large society. So that is what I am going to write about.
Now, before you get all happy and excited, I am afraid that I do not intend to delve into Mr Sheen’s unconventional sexual arrangements or to attempt to understand what it says about his psychology that he describes his concubines as ‘goddesses’. Nor do I intend to discuss ‘tiger blood’ or a drug habit that Hunter S Thompson might have envied. No, this is going to be a simple philosophical piece about societal roles, and what transgression of said roles means.
The reason, before we go on, why I shall not delve into the ‘goddesses’ (and that double entendre was entirely unintentional) is not that I have any objection to discussing attractive women (rather the converse), but simply because they are just one of many symptoms that go to mark out Mr Sheen as a role transgressor. Likewise, I shall make no moral judgement about his behaviour; the details of what he does are unimportant for my argument: all that matters is that (in a telling phrase) he is a ‘bad role model’.
What are societal roles?
We all play out roles. Some roles are very explicit and deliberately assumed, like the doctor’s bedside manner, but the roles that are really interesting are those that we don’t think about. So, for example, there are gender roles or stereotypes. Men, we are told, are emotionally null, logical, aggressive and goal-oriented, while women are nurturing peace-makers, concerned with feeling and emotion. Men like to get drunk and watch sports. Women gossip and talk about their children, while men talk about sport and exchange crude sexual banter. Likewise students are radical drunkards who take drugs by the ton and have sex with everything that moves; their parents are conservative conformists with empty lives of quiet despair; their grand-parents are (depending on which stereotype you’re using) either sclerotic, racist, sexist fascists or wild party animals. There are even roles based on jobs: secretaries are air-headed young women who wear very short skirts and plunging necklines and are generally assumed to be sexually available to anyone who asks; anyone doing anything faintly scientific has no personal skills, has dubious personal hygeine, looks strange, is probably male and will never, ever get off with a girl. And so on and so forth.
Now, in daily life we will normally deploy one or more roles at any time (so the aggressive executive who talks corporate-speak by day might morph into a party-animal male by night). And that’s just fine for those people whose psychological make-up makes them comfortable with the existing portfolio of societal roles. But say somebody doesn’t? What is to be done by (or with) a man who loathes all sports, doesn’t enjoy being drunk and who finds sexist banter offensive? Well, what generally happens is that the unhappy individual builds a protective shell which enables them to function socially by appearing to fit their expected role, while protecting their true self which is hidden underneath. It need hardly be said that this is not necessarily psychologically healthy. And in very rare cases, an individual (like Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Katharine Hepburn, Freddie Mercury or Mr Sheen) decides to ignore the roles and be in public what they are in private. So they become transgressive.
Where do they come from?
I’ll come back to being transgressive in a moment. Before that, let’s see where roles come from and why it’s so important to society that people act them out. In small, static societies, like, say, a pre-industrial revolution European village, where one may encounter at most a few dozens of people, and new people arrive only infrequently, it’s possible to interact with people on a basis of knowing them as individuals. That is to say, if the list of ‘people I know’ is small and changes slowly, I can interact with each person based on my detailed knowledge of them. However, in large, dynamic societies, like a major metropolis, one can encounter hundreds of people on a regular basis, and the roster of people one interacts with is constantly changing. And in this case, one cannot rely on knowing everyone well. So, if society is not to fall apart, it is necessary to have a relatively simple way of classifying people one encounters casually so that one knows how to relate to them. And thus societal roles are born.
So, we can see why it might be good to have stereotypes or roles that help you relate to people you don’t know very well. How do we get from that to people actually living the role? Well, it turns out that there’s actually an advantage in acting the role too. Because if you don’t clearly signal to someone how they should treat you, then they won’t know how to interact with you at all, and most likely anything you might have hoped to gain from encountering them will be lost. So, just as you seeing someone else acting out a role helps you relate to them, which is good for you, you acting out a role helps them relate to you, which is also good for you.
This means that there is a feedback loop, which has three main drivers. First, that the roles should cover sufficiently much of the available space that most people should fit in at least one, second that there should be a relatively small number of roles (so everyone can learn all of them), and third, that they should be clearly identifiable, so you know which one applies when. So the first driver promotes creating lots of very specific roles, while the second driver counteracts that by driving their number down, and the third driver ensures that they are fairly generic and clear-cut. And that is precisely what we see: the roles are almost Platonic, extracting the essence of the normative behaviour of their respective group.
When do they break down?
Now, you’ll note that I said that the first driver was to cover nearly everyone. Clearly any categorisation as crude as subdivision into a small number of roles cannot hope to cover everyone. But, given that society has a huge investment in the roles, largely because its smooth functioning is predicated on their continued effectiveness, there is pressure for even those individuals who are not covered by any of the roles to conform to some role. And usually that is what happens, the end-result being that the aberrant individual becomes just a little less well-adjusted than they might be. But sometimes people transgress.
So what happens when an individual transgresses, and so insists on behaving as they want to, rather than how society says they ought to given their categorisation? Well, it’s fairly obvious, really. If you don’t fit, society doesn’t know what to do with you, and there are two things that can happen. The easiest approach is to marginalise you – squeeze you out – so you become isolated from the mainstream of society: in a rather exact analogy, this is like the formation of a pearl around an irritant. And, not surprisingly, we find that a lot of non-stereotypical people live alternative lifestyles and are more or less divorced from mainstream society.
But some individuals, whether it is due to the extreme nature of their transgression, or simply because their sheer ability makes them impossible to ignore, cannot be marginalised and rendered safe. They are a threat to the stability of the system of roles, because if one person can get away with transgression, then the precedent is set for others to follow and simply be themselves. Organisms (and we can view society as a meta-organism) tend to respond to threats in one of two ways: retreat or attack. In this case, just as with a body responding to infection, there is nowhere to retreat to, so the only option is to attack.
And this, regrettably, is precisely what we see: Wilde and Crowley were vilified and hounded during their lives to an extent quite disproportionate with their (really rather tame) exploits. Indeed, what are arguably Crowley’s worst acts (his irresponsible imperilment of fellow mountaineers) tended to be ignored entirely in favour of hysteria over his largely harmless magickal activities. Hepburn was just too great a talent and too popular post 1940, but the near-terminal collapse of her career in the late ’30s and the post mortem revisionism that she is now subject to are clear evidence of society objecting to someone who defiantly created her own role. Freddie Mercury was vilified in his lifetime, but he was loved by millions, so the forces of normativeness had to wait until after his death. Mr Sheen is no Hepburn or Mercury, so he is attacked as a lunatic, etc, etc, etc and, of course, an unfit role model.
Which is where we came in. Transgressive individuals suggest the need for new roles to add to the existing system. But the system has huge inertia, and is (as we noted above) resistant to creation of new roles. And this is its great weakness. For transgressive individuals should be seen as a safety value. They point to failures of the normative typology, and hence ways it could be improved. And if the typology were the result of intelligent action that is, no doubt, what would happen. But, of course, there is no intelligence at work, just an emergent structure deriving from the chaotic interactions of millions of individuals. So, unfortunately, unless the millenium comes, we have to live with a society in which we are pigeon-holed into roles which fit some of us better than others, while only the occasional individual braves society’s ridicule by being themself.