Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the sixth episode of Dexter season 6 (Showtime), Dexter’s sister Lt. Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter, Limitless) attends her last psychiatrist appointment with Dr. Michelle Ross (Rya Kihlstedt, Nashville). She was made to see that doctor after she got into a shooting in a bar during her leisure time. Ever since Debra was made lieutenant, her relations with her colleagues have somehow become awkward.
Dr. ROSS: Well, as far as the shooting at Don Aldo’s, you’re good to go. There’s no need for us to meet again.
DEBRA: There’s one more thing.
Dr. ROSS: Yes?
DEBRA: I feel like my whole world has been turned upside down.
Dr. ROSS: That’s kind of more than an afterthought. Go on.
DEBRA: For the first time, I feel lost… in a place that’s always felt like home. I look at my co-workers and I see the doubt in their eyes… and it makes me doubt myself. I mean, they used to be my friends. Now they’re my subordinates. It used to be simple. I feel like shit about Quinn. I think he thinks that… I dumped him because I think I’m better than him now. And I used to be able to talk to Batista… but that’s awkward because I made Lieutenant over him. I still have Dexter. We’ve always been close, since we were kids. But that’s different too, because… it’s weird to be my big brother’s boss. I just don’t know how to act around anyone anymore.
Dr. ROSS: So don’t.
Dr. ROSS: Don’t act. Just be Debra.
Don’t act?! Well… can she? Does a change in your social status have any impact on the way you relate to others or on the way the others relate to you? Does your profession influence your self?
In Being and Nothingness (1942), the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) advances for the first time the notion of “bad faith” to describe people’s consious or unconscious tendency to disguise their true self in order to please other people. Bad faith is also lying to oneself about who we really are. He cites the example of a café waiter who behaves with a little too much eagerness to please: his voice, his attitude, the way he stands are too “waiter-esque” to be natural.
“Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the in flexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually reestablishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.”
The waiter plays at being a waiter, the girlfriend (in Simone de Beauvoir‘s famous example of bad faith) plays at being a girlfriend, Debra Morgan does not know which role to play anymore, as the others (her ex-boyfriend Quinn, her brother Dexter, her mentor and friend Batista) have become her subordinates at work: is she supposed to be a friend, a sister or a boss? The shrink says: “Be Debra”, as if it were simple. But as Sartre puts it (1942), “the Other is the indispensable mediator between myself and me. I am ashamed of myself as I appear to the Other.” The presence of others impedes our freedom of being ourselves: “Hell is other people” (Sartre, No Exit, 1944).
Moreover, Debra sees doubt in the others’ eyes and it makes her doubt herself: the others are like a mirror to herself, they show her who she is to them, how they see her. In The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel (1770-1831) writes that the constitutive Other, the Other Self is like a mirror that tells us who we are, it is the only adequate mirror of our own self-conscious self. The difference between the lunatic that pretends to be Napoleon and Napoleon himself is that the Other does not acknowledge that the lunatic is what he thinks he is.
The Self seems to be a product of society: we are made by society with a certain history. The way we are, the way we think, the way we behave depend on them. Bourdieu names it “habitus”. The ‘I‘ and the ‘me’ are two core notions of George Herbert Mead‘s (1863–1931) social psychology: the ‘Me’ is what we learned from the interactions with others, it results from the internalization of other people’s attitudes. As for the ‘I’, Meads defines it as “the response of the individual to the attitude of the community”. In other words, there is neither an ‘I’ nor a ‘me’ without a group.
How can we ever be ourselves if we need other selves to acknowledge who we are while adjusting our selves to them? Quoting the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the American psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987) wrote that ‘the deepest form of despair is to choose “to be another than himself” (On Becoming a Person, 1961). He thus defends the idea of a true self, a term that was first introduced in 1960 by the English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1896-1971). But here is the thing about the true self: it does not adjust itself to any public, just like an autistic person who cannot tell whether they just hurt your feelings or made your day. The true self is spontaneous, it does not think twice, it does not hold back.
So when people suggest you should “be yourself” in job interviews, maybe you had better not. You had better show your better self or even your ideal self, as you do on Instagram or whenever you generate content on social media. You do not want to tackle the subject of your sex life (see Are you ashamed of your sex life?) in front of the recruiter, even though you are extremely proud of it.