Social Roles and The Theatre of MormonismBy: Jake
Our lives are governed by social roles. From the the minute we first speak we are indoctrinated in a set of social scripts that determine the way we behave and act in certain situations. Social roles are the set of expectations which are imposed upon us that we expected to play and conform to. As Shakespeare phrased it:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
(As you Like It, Act II Scene VII)
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, Act V Scene I)
Shakespeare was speaking about what many psychologist now think is a universal part of humanity. That it is a truth for everyone to accept social roles and play out these parts, certainly the sociologist Robert Ezra Park thought so when he said:
‘Everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves.’ (Race and Culture, 1950, p249)
One of the advantages of being a member is that you have a very well defined set of social roles. As a missionary this stood out to me when I was reading the white handbook that provided me with the missionary rules. It essentially was making explicit the social rules that as a missionary you were expected to conform to. The new missionary hand book – I say new as it came out on my mission but it is now in fact 8 years old – demonstrates this. It is full of phrases that are imperative in their tone and state what is expected, for instance in the section on Charity and Love it says:
‘when you are filled with charity, you obey God’s commandments… you will avoid negative feelings such as anger, envy, lust, or covetousness.’
The tone of the whole section is imposing a set of expectations and behaviours that certain attributes the missionary should have if they are to conform to the role of a charitable person. In another passage it very clearly states that ‘you can know you have been a successful missionary when…’ and then lists ten signs that are seen to embody what a successful missionary is. The whole manual is a way of defining the role of a missionary and outlines what a missionary must do to perform this role convincingly.
Missionaries are not the only ones in the church that have very clearly defined roles in the theatre of Mormonism. The church has narratives and expectations for every single member from the primary child with its rituals of reverence to the codes of decorum expected of Bishops and Stake Presidents. You only have to look through the past few Priesthood and Relief Society general conference sessions to see how the Church articulates and cultivates a set of behaviours that define the various social roles that members are expected to conform to. Part of this social role is wearing the correct uniform and outfit. As Hawkgrrrl pointed out a few weeks ago we have a very well defined uniform that we must conform to if we are to play our role correctly. The psychologist Philip Zimbardo also noticed this in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he created a mock prison for students that got out of hand within four days. One of the things that Zimbardo noted was the psychological power of the uniforms in cultivating the role of prisoner and guard as he said:
“The source of their power is to be found in the psychological material that went into each group’s subjective constructions of the meaning of these uniforms.” (ZImbardo, The Lucifer Effect, p.221)
Perhaps this is why members become so fanatical in the devotion to following the church uniform. Following the code of dress is crucial to the cultivation of the social role of a ‘righteous’ member of the church. When we endow the clothes that we wear with a greater meaning as a signifier of our righteousness, or to put it in church speak “an outward sign of an inward commitment,” they become a key part in the social performance and the self-expression of this role. To allow deviation from this uniform risks undermining the system that supports it. Flip flops and second earrings are not sinful in themselves, but the fact that they undermine the traditional role and narratives that the church wants members to perform that endows them with being a threat to the system.
It is worth remembering that the church is an institution and like any institution; it has systems that create situations and ideologies. The church is a system that both creates and preserves social roles by giving us sets of rules. To allow an alternate set of roles outside of those prescribed by the church undermines its authority as a system. The church requires strict adherence to the uniform and the set behavioural patterns such as reading your scriptures daily, family home evening, home teaching etc. because conformity in the performance of righteousness preserves the system. They are dramatic actions that realise the social role the church has provided establishing its systems further.
These behavioural patterns are not simply a means of preserving the churches role as guardian of social roles but they are also important for our self-expression and identity as members. The sociologist Irving Goffman discussed this in his work The Presentation of self in everyday life. Goffman said that we need dramatic realisation as a way of self expressing our self. As Goffman describes it:
“the individual typically infuses his activity with signs which dramatically highlight and portray confirmatory facts that might otherwise remain unapparent or obscure.” (Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Every-day Life, p37)
The church social structure looks at outward acts to assess the intangible principle of inner righteousness. This is why we focus on measurable acts like scripture reading and attending meetings. The more rigid and measurable the activity is the more effective it is at establishing our church identity and our perceived righteousness. The set of social roles have their benefits in that following a prescribed pattern and script reduces the cognitive load that we as individuals have. It allows us the liberty of not having to ponder each reaction whenever we confront a new situation. It makes life easier if you have a prefabricated set of answers to the various situations that you will encounter through life.
The church struggles with intellectuals, critics, feminists, homosexuals and single members because they do not fit into these ready made social roles. If characters in a play started to act out of character and change the lines they spoke it would cause the play to descend into chaos. In a church setting, this is even more difficult as the social roles are often perceived as revealed prototypes from God, the fundamental constitution of heaven; to disrupt and not conform is a threat to God’s order itself. This veneer of divinity that is woven through the social roles that the church provides comes to its dramatic height in the temple. Indeed the plan of salvation has been described as a cosmic drama that each plays its role, even Christ himself is conforming to a social role given to him by God, in Cleon Skousen’s famous talk the meaning of the atonement.We are all actors taking up the parts as part of the great drama of the plan of salvation.
Becoming or Bad Faith?
The fact that the church provides us with prefabricated social roles can be seen as a good or bad thing. A cynical view of the social roles given to us by the church and conforming entirely to them is that it is living someone else’s life and that it is inauthentic. A great critic of this is the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre who called this bad faith which is the habit that people have of deceiving themselves into thinking that they do not have the freedom to make choices for fear of the potential consequences of making a choice outside of the social role. As a result of this fear they conform entirely to social roles. An example Sartre cites to demonstrate this is of a a café waiter, whose movements and conversation are a little too “waiter-esque.” His voice oozes with an eagerness to please; he carries food rigidly and ostentatiously. His exaggerated behaviour illustrates that he is play-acting as a waiter, as an object in the world: an automaton whose essence is to be a waiter. But that he is obviously acting belies that he is aware that he is not (merely) a waiter, but is rather consciously deceiving himself. He is pretending to us and to himself that he is a waiter. For Mormons perhaps bad faith is seen in those who are seen to be too Mormon, those who have a desire to appear righteous and who go out of their way to demonstrate how Mormon they are, kowtowing to impress the bishop and stake president in order to gain acceptance, but in performing a role they deceive themselves. They lose their own identity in this shallow performance of righteousness. In contrast Sartre suggest that to live in good faith means to strive for authenticity and to continually be aware of the tendency to slip into bad faith.
A less cynical view suggests that we all have to act and pretend in order to become ourselves. That since we are all here to become like God that we need to emulate the social scripts given to us by God in order to become like God. Boyd K. Packer seems to suggest this when he suggests that in bearing a testimony you gain a testimony.
It is not unusual to have a missionary say, “How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would it not be dishonest?”
Oh, if I could teach you this one principle. A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it! Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that “leap of faith,” as the philosophers call it.
There is certainly psychological support to suggest that adopting a social script and pretending to follow it has benefits. For instance the great surrealist artist Salvador Dali was described as morbidly shy. He had a great fear of blushing and his shame about being ashamed drove him into solitude. It was not until his uncle gave him the advice to become an actor in his relations with the people around him. Dali was told to pretend that he was an extrovert with everyone including closest companions. He went through the motions of being an extrovert. He pretended and acted out a social script and as a result eventually, he became celebrated as the most extroverted, fearless, uninhibited and gregarious personalities of his time. He became what he pretended to be. Maybe the church’s scripted social roles and scripts help us to become better people. Maybe in performing the role of God’s chosen church members we in time will become God’s chosen people.
Yet I remain sceptical. Part of me wonders if the social roles the church has constructed are just self-aggrandising scripts to make us feel special, God’s chosen people. Our youth are not just teenagers, but valiant members of God’s army. Such biased social roles may boost our self-esteem and protect us from the cruel reality of life for a time, but do they really build character and strength? Would God really create a social theatre that so intolerant of social roles outside of the normal? Would God create social roles that make me feel special at the expense of making the rest of humanity not special? I suspect not, which makes the church’s roles mere social constructions like any other.