Unmasking the Clown – Cedar Sanderson
I’m not only a writer. I’m also a student working on a science degree, but for fifteen years now, I have been a performer; an entertainer whose job was to amuse others, make children smile, and generally forget their cares for a short time. Although this was a long, slow development for me, and originally not my intent to do, I was thinking about it the other day as I put the red nose on.
We all wear masks. Most of us would no sooner go out in public without that barrier between us and them than we would walk out of the house in our underwear. My mask for performing is simply more visible than the intangible most people use. When you see a clown, with the nose and the smile and the silly clothes, you expect to laugh, be amused, and enjoy the show. Before I ever tried clowning, I was on the puppet team for a year, and was really hidden. The thing is, you can do things while you are hiding behind the mask you would never consider doing without it.
I have a touch of agoraphobia, and for me to just walk into a party as me, and start talking to strangers is impossibly difficult (agora = the marketplace, or the mall, in Greek. So, literally fear of the mall). But as a performer (even without the red nose, which I rarely wear) I can make an entrance, dominate the room, and keep them laughing until I’m ready to go.
It’s exhilarating, and exhausting. I was thinking about it the other day because I was so unprepared to be a clown that day. It had been a stressful week, capped with arguing on the internet, and the last thing I wanted was to walk into a room full of strangers. But I’m a professional and I can slip the mask down and go onstage at the drop of a hat. I pay a cost for it, though. It takes a lot of energy to do this, even though I’m not a physical performer.
I once watched a professional entertainer I worked closely with go through what once would have been called a mental breakdown. The audience never guessed. He’d get up and have them all in stitches, and go home to sit in the dark and contemplate ending it all. It was only when, very near the end, he was finally unable to force himself to go to performances that his clientele had any idea something was wrong. He didn’t end his life, but he did leave performing. It’s a huge part of your life, when you do this job.
The arguments I’d been involved with online – one direct and personal, the other tangential and more amusing than stressful – reminded me of these masks we wear. It seems to me that when we are online we forget that the masks give us a buffer. We leave them off, and with them, the manners and courtesies we would observe if we were in that roomful of people. Not that we are all clowns. Nor that introverts can, with enough training and given little choice in the matter, become clowns (although I am living proof of that).
Rather than attempting to understand the other, to put ourselves in their shoes, people unmask on the internet and focus only on their concerns. Presented with a statement they see as wrong, they instantly go on the attack. Presented with the opportunity to attack, they lose all empathy and forget that there is another person on the other side of the screen, with feelings, thoughts, and differences. The dehumanizing effect of unmasking and then attacking leads them into behaviours they would never consider if they were looking into the other person’s eyes.
Consider this. If you assume that everyone you interact with knows the same things you do, has had the same education, shares the faith and beliefs you profess, then you are impossibly naïve. But I see this online. It may happen in a more personal setting, but there at least you can read the body language of your audience. That confused puppy cock of the head, wide eyes, and mental ‘baroo?” reaction to an angry statement. Online, you don’t get that. If you react with unthinking anger, they can’t, in turn, see the assumptions you have made to reach the conclusions you did.
We risk much, by stripping off our masks and letting our inner selves show. We risk more by the loss of empathy that communications without body language bring. Unmasking the clown can show the depth of pain and anger that most of us have learned to keep in check. But it boils out when the mask is off and we don’t care what others see.
I watched this happen the other day. A knee-jerk reaction to a badly phrased statement. One forgot, or never bothered to learn, that the other didn’t have the background he did. He went on the attack, to the deep bewilderment of the person being attacked. But worse than the public attacker was another who kept on a mask, but in private went about spreading lies. Humans are all too fallible. Unmasked, they can be downright repulsive.
And then there are the trolls. I’ve written more than once about the fuzzy edge of normalcy. The internet can facilitate the person who is borderline incapable of living a normal life to contribute to society. It can also enable a person who is full of venom to prey on anyone weaker than themselves. Some trolls are capable of rationale, others make you scratch your head and wonder if they really do live in a cave or under a rock, they are that far out of touch with reality.
I screencapped this conversation segment because it was literally jawdroppingly wrong. There are times you simply have to wonder how much of a mask they can put on, to hide behind? What did trolls do before the internet?
This exchange left me amused rather than angry. It’s fairly clear in the course of the conversation that something was seriously wrong with the mental workings of the mind behind the screen. This, I find, doesn’t upset me.
What upsets and angers me is the sort of mind that feels the need to bully those who are unable to fend them off for whatever reason. The first argument I referred to, the one where a person went off privately, that was a bully in action. They took advantage of another who was at a vulnerable point, goading them into going on the attack rather than directly confronting themselves. I have no sympathy for cowards.
I find that I am also upset by people who I liked and respected suddenly going off the deep end. Being able to have a debate sometimes means that not everyone will agree with you. If you cannot bear to be disagreed with ever, then you need to withdraw from social media. If you can disagree, except on that one thing… then you may need to stop before hitting send and decide if this is worth the fight.
And above all, we must learn to remember that there is another person on the other side of the screen. One that is, or isn’t, self. I was explaining the immune system to my son the other day, and how the body reacts to invaders that aren’t self cells. The angry inflammation isn’t caused by the invader, it’s caused by the overreaction to the invasion by the body’s systems.
I’ve seen that, in groups of likeminded people. Feeling under attack by those who are outside the group, for whatever reason, they overreact when their personal pet beliefs are prodded. Yes, they are tender, but they can’t realistically expect everyone around them to walk on eggshells. Stripped of their masks and vulnerable, they overreact and as I can attest, an out-of-control immune system can kill a person. So can the overreaction and immaturity of group members.
Moderation is key, I was taught as a girl, to everything. We put the masks on to moderate our behavior to suit the environment we enter. We must remember to moderate our reactions, or risk shocking and killing the support group that keeps us all functioning as a body.