Masks of Anonymity and Shame

If you’re not familiar with William Golding’s allegorical novel ‘Lord of the Flies’ then I suggest you find a seat next to a roaring log fire and become familiar! I studied it last year with some students and although many strongly disagreed with Golding’s somewhat pessimistic outlook on human nature; it certainly got them talking.

One of the moments we considered in some detail was when Jack, a boy fighting for power, cakes his face in island gunk. This mask lends the boys the ability to commit a whole range of savage sins including the brutal murder of some of their peers (ah, so you haven’t even found that log fire yet? Sorry about that). Golding states in the novel that ‘the mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.’ As one of my students observed: ‘the mask liberates the boys from their moral selves; they are free to commit all kinds of terrible acts because they have gained anonymity’ (Golding, 1954).

The class discussion left me wondering about my own mask as a teacher and those of people around me.

Being ‘teacher’ is most definitely not a natural occurrence for me. As a more introverted character, the role expects a great deal more than is generally demanded of me. It requires hours of preparation, thought and planning. Before a lesson it is necessary for me to put on the mask of someone confident, outgoing and assertive so that I can make my way to the end of the lesson with my self (and my self-belief) intact. My mask’s elastic is wearing thin and I wondered if I would be brave enough to take it off to escape my ‘anonymity’.

This week I watched Kate Middleton’s speech at the Tree House Hospice with fascination to see how she would perform. I realised it was probably the first time the nation, who so willingly let her intrude into their lives, had heard her speak. My hopes were quickly dashed as the extent to which the speech had been rehearsed, planned and scripted for her dawned on me. Her mask restrained her, like the shackles that hold a prisoner. Her own voice seemed stifled and as nerves got the better of her my toes curled as though I’d crunched a snail underfoot, reminded of my own performance in similar situations. The viewing certainly served as a warning of the damage caused by wearing a mask that is so far removed from your natural self.

I also considered the masks of ‘Trolls’ this week after watching ‘Richard Bacon’s Search for Cyber Trolls’. It was a wholly disappointing programme for me; he speculated about the reasons behind their vicious actions but never reached any conclusions. I still wonder why they choose to hide behind their insulting masks. My motivations for mask donning seem obvious; theirs less so.

As news of the London riots broke, I thought about the mask put on by Jamie Waylett as he played Crabbe in the Harry Potter films; was he always secretly craving rebellion and riot? Did the end of the franchise not only leave the nation feeling a sense of loss but also caused his mask to fall and reveal his true riot-loving self?

I was challenged by the more tragic consequences of a mask being knowingly removed. The actions of Mohammed Merah in France this week were a shock to many. The fact that such a sleepy and trouble-free area could be changed overnight by a crazed gunman is disturbing. I think seriously about what life he played out before this time with his mask as a cover. Did he have a loving family? Did he have a 9-5 job where he was known as the office clown? These kinds of masks haunt me and even make me consider that Golding was onto something with his ‘beast within all’ message.

All of us don masks at some point in our lives and sometimes they can provide the freedom to enjoy a masked ball with others and for a moonlit night it can be fun. I guess in the case of Romeo and Juliet, even one evening of mask wearing led to a fate worse than death. Perhaps if Merah had been open with others about his feelings and beliefs then deaths could have been prevented. Perhaps if Kate hadn’t worn the royal mask of shame then she could have delivered a speech to render her a strong role model for young women around the nation. Instead young children died needlessly and Kate only reinforced popular opinion that women are good at wearing pretty dresses.

The only point on Golding’s island when the mask comes off and the boys have to face up to what they’ve done is when they’re ‘rescued’ from their masked fate by a sailor in white. I’m not certain, but I don’t think that’s written into the future plan for most of us so we’ll have to find an alternative.

This week I challenge you to give your masks a rest and let the world enjoy what you have to offer. I await the carnage as earth-shattering speeches are made and I hope that riots will be avoided because I believe your unmasked selves are free to offer much more to the world than a Slytherin can.

Written March 2012.

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