Which is more real, the blogger or the blog?

Posted: February 4, 2010 in Philosophy, Social Media

Thoughts on what it means to live authentically in a world of virtual identity.

A person who professes to believe one thing and does another is commonly known as a hypocrite. Their beliefs and actions lack congruence and so their very existence is inauthentic.

In everyday life however, we often act in ways which are in conflict with our beliefs – professed or otherwise. Is it worth striving for congruence if we are all hypocrites anyway?

In Herd, Mark Earls reflects on the ancient Greek problem of akrasia – or “weakness of the will”. The problem features in one of Plato’s dialogues, and means acting against your beliefs or judgement.

Earls sums it up when he asks: “How can a person be said to truly believe something and yet not act in accordance with that belief? … Surely, if you don’t act in accordance with your beliefs, doesn’t that suggest that you don’t believe them at all?”

Within akrasia is the problem of incongruence. Somebody who behaves this way is untrustworthy and unreliable. Practically speaking, how can you trade with a person who does not walk his talk? How can you form alliances with him, to protect your family/tribe/community?

Religion reinforces our distrust of such people. Jesus uses the word akrasia when he calls the Pharisees hypocrites. Throughout the New Testament Jesus talks of a god that looks at your inner self and not your outward appearance. In doing so he makes it clear that the state of akrasia is an immoral state – that beliefs and actions should be congruent.

Jean-Paul Sartre also argued for congruence, calling it “authenticity”. For Sartre, authenticity means staying true to one’s ‘inner self’ in the face of external pressures. Of course, this raises a host of other questions, such as how do we know what our ‘inner self’ is? How much of our ‘inner self’ is influenced by language and culture?

Many existentialists believe that you can only really know your inner self after a brush with death – an experience which removes all external influence and forces you to find value in yourself. (Read this for a good overview of Sartre’s existentialism).

All of this is difficult to stomach if you, like me, often find that your actions do not match your beliefs. It becomes even more problematic with the rise of the internet and the ‘virtual’ self.

The ‘virtual’ self is the online version of the ‘real’ self. For me, it exists on my blogs and on Facebook. With the rise of the virtual self we have an interesting situation where for some people, the virtual self feels more real than the real self.

For example, somebody could be gay in the virtual world, but ‘in the closet’ in the real world. That person is likely to feel liberated by their virtual self. A different example could be a person who writes at length about ‘family values’ on their blog, while having an adulterous affair in the real world. In both cases, the virtual self expresses beliefs that the real self does not act on.

Does it matter if the virtual self and the real self are not congruent? Can’t they just exist separately, with the virtual self embodying all beliefs that cannot be acted on in the real world because of social/cultural pressure, or lack of will?

The Japanese seem content with this idea. They even have specific words for the two different versions of your self – honne (referring to a person’s true feelings or desires) and tatemae (literally ‘façade’ – a person’s public behaviour).

Samuel Johnson was also understanding of this divide. In Rambler No. 14 he wrote,

“Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.”

Johnson seems to suggest that people who have not achieved congruence of the virtual and real selves have not yet had “victory” over the forces that prevent that congruence: social/culture pressure and lack of will. However, Johnson says, this lack of victory should not prevent them from expressing themselves.

Many people see the virtual self /real self divide as an inevitable fact of life, necessary for the smooth running of society. Does this make us all hypocrites? Maybe so. After all, ‘hypocrite’ comes from the ancient Greek word ‘hypocrites’ which means “stage actor”.

This view of humanity argues that we are all essentially actors, born to play different roles at different stages in our lives. While one role might seem more real than another, it is not. It is just one of many in the great theatre of life.

What is your experience of the ‘virtual’ self and the ‘real’ self? Do you believe that congruence is something to strive for? What is your opinion?

Photo credit: Karola Riegler

  1. LucidlyLost says:

    This is interesting. I can’t speak for the general human psyche, nor can I cite philosophical or psychiatric theory – I am not trained as such. I will simply raise thoughts on how I have been involved with and effected by the issues raised.

    I will first comment on the hypocrisy argument. I live in hypocrisy everyday.

    Things I hate:
    The system

    Things I do:
    Shop and buy brands
    Set alarms
    Don’t protest or demonstrate.

    I’m a vegetarian and have volunteered for environmental charities, but nothing more. What is holding me back? It’s a pessimistic realisation that I cannot change anything. Ideally the world would change. There’d be huge redistribution and abolition of the capitalist system as we know it.

    But, instead, my family nag me to work and demand that I do. My friends carry on as normal. So, the way I act is to make the best of a bad world. Rather than feel pressure and anxiety at trying to be different I dress in labels, I listen and read about trendy music and films, I pay vast amounts of money to footballers and I fly.

    It almost seems I have no choice. I cannot function in my family, in my life, without aspiring to a job and home ownership. If there was revolution I’d be at the front of the pack with a rifle, but that is not going to happen. So, until then my only option seems to be to carry on as normal, or turn my back on everything and go and live on my own in the middle of nowhere in the USA, for example, and have as little interaction with the world and the system as possible.

    This conflict between what you believe in and want to do, and, what everyone around you expects and demands you to also spreads into the discussion on the virtual world and virtual self.

    What does interest me about it though is my own personal experience of the attraction of the virtual world, and the internal battles it creates.

    I have co-existed the on-line and real world now for more than 7 years. This started around the age of 16 and onwards. At that time, the real world was not great. I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back now I can see it was pretty damn awful and miserable. During the last 3 years of school, I looked about 12 so couldn’t go out anywhere, was unpopular so never got invited many places, and until the last year lacked friends. So, always being at home on Fridays and Saturdays I became a good live in baby sitter for my younger brothers. Thus, Friday and Saturday nights I would spend hours at a time in chat rooms, living a second life.

    This had it’s downsides, it did change my brain, the artificialness of it, the obvious sexual nature of many internet activities. I became addicted to it without realising.

    This has continued since then and I lead numerous lives on numerous fora, social networking and other such sites. These have severely compromised much of my real life. I have a constant struggle to keep the two very separate, very few people in the real world know anything about what things I have said to, done with etc with people from the cyber-world.

    No one I have met in real life has ever seen my Myspace page. And other fora, sports, music, emotional, adult etc are the same, an anonymous user name and again, precautions taken to keep it secret.

    This activity damages relationships. Some examples:

    1)A few years back rather than socialise with flat mates I would lie and say I had work to do, and just go to my room to go into the on-line world. The real people asked questions, and thought it strange. They were insulted.

    2) One Christmas, and one New Years I spent a lot of time away from friends and family to speak to two people, one on MSN and one on the phone. These were people I met on-line, and never in real life. But I loved them. I haven’t spoken to them for more than 2 years and I think about at least one of them every day.

    One of these two refused to be a friend on Facebook, as that was for her real friends only. It threw me, I was very angry and it contributed to the events that stopped us ever talking. Now, someone else has transcended that boundary towards me – someone from Myspace is now a Facebook friend, and I am always scared real friends will ask about them and think it odd. Yet I can’t delete them as I know how that affected me!

    3) I spent one year in a real proper relationship with a friend of a friend. We lived a long way apart so much of our communication was on line. It reached the stage where I couldn’t resist entering my on-line world at the same time as speaking to my partner on line. It ended with me neglecting them, giving short sharp replies whilst spending ages reading and writing in the on-line realm. This created the atmosphere that made them decide to leave me.

    This post is a prime example. Very few people will know who I am. Some will, and some will guess, but these are people I am allowing to know.

    Recently, as I have more time and less happiness, I have spent more time in the virtual world, and the prospect of returning to a proper functional adult life, as expected and demanded of me seems a distance away as a result.

  2. tommellors says:

    You hit many important points here, and one key point which I neglected to mention in the post. How people see you (and expect to see you in the future) has a big impact on how you behave. Although our culture is more individualist than say a traditionally Confucian culture, we are still highly influenced by others’ perceptions of us.

    R. M. Pirsig talks about this in relation to being a celebrity – “You split into two people, who they think you are and who you really are, and that produces Zen hell.” I don’t know if that schism is really ‘Zen hell’, but when the external perception feels strong, then the tension can be too much for people. How to live authentically without alienating yourself from those around you is a real conundrum. Heading off into the middle of nowhere is not such a bad idea though – it worked for Thoreau. I don’t know if it will provide a lasting solution though.

    I’m certian that your experience of the virtual world is familiar to many people. I also used to spend a lot of time on MSN and in chatrooms when I was younger. Like you, I found this to be addictive. I remember being in chatrooms on sunny weekends – sunny, in England! I stopped after a while though. I suppose what I was searching for was a kind of authenticity, and I found that the virtual world of second lives didn’t have that.

    For me, the ideal situation is if your virtual life and real life are more or less congruent. I realise that not everybody can achieve this though, and not everybody wants to. Having a virtual self can be liberating, and some people are happy co-existing between the two worlds. If you are not happy though, you could try bridging the gap between the real and the virtual. You could try creating virtual spaces and introducing elements of the real world into them. This blog could be seen as an example of such a space, as it is open to my friends & family in the ‘real’ world.

    These are just my ideas. I’d be curious to hear what other people think.

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