A Sense of Self

In the old days, the television journalist Mike Wallace ranked as the most important news reporter for CBS News. He had a singularly confrontational style of interviewing guests and made himself many enemies for extracting confessions. He held the evidence of malfeasance in front of his guests like a damn prosecutor. The higher-ups at CBS sometimes winced if he skewered important public figures, but they said nothing publicly about Wallace until after his death. His confrontational style did not appear again until Tim Russert started hosting Meet the Press.

I learned through Mike Wallace's interviews that most publicly-oriented people have, at least, two faces—two identities. Some have more than two—or no face at all! I know this because Wallace's interviewees sometimes had to switch faces while he interviewed them. Public figures need to learn how to keep a straight face, so to speak. By acting two-faced with someone like Mike Wallace, they expose themselves to accusations of hypocrisy or dishonesty. Just acting two-faced or dishonest, by averting their eyes for instance, they can wreck their careers.

In one notable instance, Wallace was doing an exposé of real-estate swindles in Connecticut. As his guests sat in the studio, he introduced them to the man who had swindled them out of thousands of dollars. The couple greeted the swindler as if at a cocktail party: "How do you do?"

Wallace affected amazement and said to them, "This is how you greet a man who stole from you?"

As if on cue, the swindled couple changed from friendly accessibility to angry scowls, whereas the street-savvy swindler stared at them unmoved.

Wallace taught me that most people in modern America lack an integrated, enduring sense-of-self.  Modern Life requires us to mesh gears with our social environment, thus sidestepping conflicts that might damage relations. Americans expect the same standards of behavior in others, so that they can interact profitably with each other and accomplish tasks with cordiality, without having to cross the line into antagonism and coercion. But deep down, we need to know who we are and when to stop. We need to recognize bullying and stampeding and step away from the tumult to sort out either the real intentions of our counterpart, or measure the deviation from our intended direction..

We think we know other people, but we may know only one aspect of them. We see another side if disagreements disable the mask of agreeableness and unleash raw anger. After the futility of trading insults sinks in, we hang back and let the lawyers determine if there is something actionable in the disagreements. The disagreement may require some mending of relations, as well as rebuilding the fences of separate identity.  
We try to define ourselves and each other through hearing rote doctrines in church, the dramatized presentations of the news we hear on the TV, or through input from friends and family members; but cross-currents in our thought-process may lead to contradictions that confuse others, as well as ourselves.

Exposés, like Mike Wallace's, involve unearthing the "real" feelings or attitudes of interviewees or ideological groups—when, in truth, there is no such thing. They run into problems when they cross from one social environment to an opposing one and do not check their bearings. Mike Wallace's exposés really causes more problems than the supposed hypocrisy of the transitions.

I no longer read the Bible or attend church, myself, but I retain a Christian viewpoint, inasmuch as I believe philosophy, doctrine, and a version of unalterable truth should define a person. The article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine neglects to mention this. A church-oriented life shods people in sturdy ideological boots, an orientation that enables them to risk death.

Someone needs to remind you who your friends are, who your enemies are, what direction you are going, and what your personal values are. In the hub-bub of daily life, jostled by human interaction, you tend to forget, under pressure from others. A church that teaches only tolerance, equivocates on the value of other religions, and advocates a pointless acceptance of others' diverging opinions will produce an empty church—witness the Episcopal church. Churchgoers want self-definition and a sense of direction.