Thoughts on Phoniness #1: An Introduction

An Introduction to Phoniness


Preface:  In the novel The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, the protagonist, Holden Caufield, spends much of his time accusing people of being phonies.  In his view most people go about their lives in a somewhat manufactured and not so genuine way. By no means do I agree with everything that is put forth in the novel and I certainly do not feel that I identify with Holden very far beyond the surface. Although, Holden and I are both riddled with a large list of our own issues.  That being said, I believe that many of us, myself included, often go through life wearing masks and trying to bend our personalities into the people we think we should be rather than the people we are. This  is dangerous and not good. In this blog series, i will barely scratch the surface of how i see phoniness (based on my life), our response to phoniness and the Christian response to phoniness.  I am not a scholar. These are just thoughts. So….

Call me Holden.

Something that stirs the feels in me a lot is phoniness. This is not mere hypocrisy or blatant lying. Rather, it is an ignorance of self. It’s not necessarily an involuntary ignorance, but ignorance where someone bends into a person that they are not. To understand the difference between lying, hypocrisy, and an idea of being morally weak I’ll use the idea of drinking alcohol – I do not think drinking is inherently bad, so let’s not start on that conversation. A person who is morally weak, in respect to his or her own moral view, may say that drinking is bad and then drink. There is acknowledgement of a good and a bad and an active choice to take part in the bad. This person doesn’t deny the negative but accepts it for what it is and whatever negative result can come from the bad is not enough to persuade this person to not take part in it. The hypocrite might say “I do not drink” and then drink; a blatant contradiction between word and action. Hypocrisy has a degree of dishonesty involved.  It desires an association to the good side of the situation while participating in the bad. Notice that the morally weak person doesn’t necessarily have a dishonest quality to their action. The one who exhibits phoniness in his character however, rather than a moral weakness or general hypocrisy, tries to embrace an identity that isn’t truly him.  He is the one who says, drinking is bad nor do I like drinking, but I will drink and do so anyway as if I do like it. There is a degree that a person is lying to oneself with phoniness. This is the seed that will then grow to outwardly express itself in lying to others; the development of a false personality.

The embracing of this false personality is internally, and sometimes externally, hard. If it’s a matter of impressing others, which I assume it is most of the time in western civilization, I believe it can be harmful to a person. If a man changes how he acts to impress a specific group of people, then he is seemingly conscious and aware of that group’s opinions and views. But, if our man doesn’t like acting in such way which he feels is necessitated to be part of the group, he really doesn’t like the assumed behavior of the group and therefore probably doesn’t actually like the group itself. In the least, even if he doesn’t dislike the members of the group, he still disagrees with their actions. So why try to impress this group of people? Rather than simple social involvement, some other motive must be playing a part.

Being in the group will not be satisfactory in itself. More so, he must be using his potential involvement in the group as a means to an end; a perceived increase in status, relationship with certain members or perhaps one of many other motives. Whatever the actual reasoning is, it is driven by a desire to have the status quo of his pre-group experience changed. The man has grown discontent with some current aspect of life and believes that participation, and therefore like action, with a group will help fix his situation. At least two things will happen. 1) The man will continue into a situation that temporarily brings a  certain degree of satisfaction but troubles him internally and 2) he arrives at a new point where he is once again discouraged by the status quo, now that of an in-group experience.  Whether or not he has satisfied his original motives for joining the group, his behavior is still counter intuitive to how he feels at a deeper level that he should act.  Whether he recedes or proceeds with his façade is a matter of specific deliberation.  With each new change that he seeks, parts of a new identity are layered on top of our man, like corrections to a portrait.  The previous identity layer may show through into the current, but with each new layer, the original, though still at the base of his being, becomes increasingly unnoticeable until it is undetectable to a majority of outside perspectives.

Unknown ignorance is the true form of ignorance where there is a legitimate lack of information that would lead to informed decisions and action. With this, a person genuinely does not know something, and at that, they probably do not know that they do not know. Phoniness, a willed ignorance, however, is really just avoidance often mixed with passivity; an out of sight out of mind mentality. Without some trauma or a lobotomy, we can’t ever really put things out of the mind completely.  They’re always there somewhere but perhaps just not at the forefront of the day-to-day consciousness. But a person behaving in a manner that competes with their deep inner-self will always, at some level, be able to recognize it. This awareness is strong at first but the longer someone is in dark, the less their eyes function and the greater the sting of light that reveals. Sometimes, from walking in dark for too long, the person loses his eyesight and is stuck in perpetual darkness. The longer someone lives in an act, the more likely they are to become that person, or more accurately, to become less of the person that they are. The transition isn’t so much an acquisition of the bad, but a loss of the good. Not a growing darkness, but a loss of light.

As I wrap up this first post in the series, I should make it clear that I am not against change and furthermore, I believe that changes in personality are inevitable. Some are action driven with a clear mindset, think the Grinch, and others are more subtle and common such as growing into adulthood. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Isn’t it funny how day-to-day, nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different.” We are always changing; there is no static person. The idea of phoniness is not just about a change in personality though. It is about a forced outward appearance that is contrary to one’s inner feelings and true self.  People should not wear masks and try to face reality in a way that is different from what it is.

Keeping up appearances, with its inherent degree of lying isn’t so difficult with practice though. Children can do it. Animals can do it. But, in order for there to be true change and not a gilded personality, we must be able to look at our true selves and start from there. This becomes harder the longer we live in a phony life and with each new identity layer that we put on. You will not become happy by smiling. You will not undo the damage of a hurtful joke by simply saying “I was only joking”. We recognize brokenness and we tend to avoid it. If we really push ourselves to address it, we usually do the least amount of effort to do anything about it. We ignore the cracks in the walls and foundation of our house and when we do have to face them, we simply cover them with a nice looking portrait of ourselves. With this mentality, it is only a matter of time until the whole thing comes toppling down.

Stay up to date for the next posts from the “Phoniness” Series.  Topics I will address are..

  1. The response to phoniness
  2. Why do we put forth the effort to have phony personalities?
  3. Chosen personality and Inherent personality
  4. From a Christian context, embracing “new life” and becoming a religious phony
  5. The contingency of phoniness relative to different systems of morality

Sources from this post

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