Monday, October 12, 2009

The Liberation of Anonymity, Part I

Sorry for taking so long to blog again…been up to my ears in work, but in the future, I will post at least monthly (at the beginning of each month).

Last week, I was part of a symposium at Ashland University; we panelists addressed the question: What is a (Super)hero? Joining me on the panel were Tom DeFalco (current writer and former editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics) and Mark D. White, editor of Batman and Philosophy; Ashland history professor, John Moser, did a great job moderating the panel.

Before the panel, I had a chance to ask Tom DeFalco his opinion about a particular aspect of the alter-ego relationship between Peter Parker and Spiderman. Some background first: I've been doing some reading and thinking (and soon, some writing) on the topic of alter-egos. I've been thinking about what it would be like to be Peter Parker, and then to become Spiderman—to go swinging around the city, cracking wise, acting with derring-do—and then to go back to being Peter Parker. It's the going back to being Peter Parker that's stumped me. I imagined that, for the most part, being Spiderman was liberating. How could he then stuff this big personality (as Spiderman) back into the contained and relatively demure Peter Parker?

Tom helped me see the situation differently. First, he suggested that Peter Parker's appearance is deceiving: Basically, he lets himself be dressed by his aunt. Taking Tom's point a step further, in a way, his Peter Parker clothes are a kind of costume. They make him appear more nerdy or geeky than he actually is (although clearly he's very bright, being bright isn't the same as being nerdy or geeky). Riffing on what Tom said about this, there's a sense in which Parker's high school persona isn't dissimilar to Clark Kent's—the nerdish exterior hides a different personality underneath. (More food for thought in that, I think.)

Back to Tom: He also pointed out that, in fact, Peter Parker often has witty retorts to people, but these comebacks often go over everyone's heads. So Parker and Spiderman are similar in their dry, smart-ass sense of humor, but Parker (at least the high school version) is surrounded by people who don't get his jokes. Spiderman's villains are generally smarter than average, and so more likely to get his jokes. Extending this point, that fact that Parker has a different sense of humor than that of people around him heightens the sense of his being different than his peers (e.g., nerdy/geeky).

Tom's third point about PP/Spiderman was that wearing a mask can be very liberating, and can lead people to act differently—or in more extreme ways—than their usual selves. Tom said he'd talked to people who have gone around wearing masks (e.g., "real life superheroes"), who described the experience as being very liberating.

This last comment of Tom's got me thinking about the something I was pondering over the summer—the ways that the internet allow people to electronically wear a mask (that is, to be anonymous, or a different persona) and how it changes—or can change—our behavior. Just read comments on any newspaper, magazine, or blog website to see proof of how anonymity, or the ability to hide our identity by assuming another one, does change how people behave. The most vitriolic comments are likely to be from people who are not identified by their real names. For some people, the anonymity afforded by an internet mask leads people to let go of some—or all—of the restraint they impose on themselves in their everyday lives.

Psychologists have examined an aspect of this phenomenon that typically happens not over the internet, but in actual face-to-face encounters where otherwise law-abiding citizens lose their moral restraint. One situation in which this occurs is among soccer fans who, after their team has lost, take to the field and become violent. Psychologist explain the underlying phenomenon as deindividuation: the loss of sense of self that occurs when people in a group are anonymous—not seen as individuals and their identities are unknown to others in the group.

More about deindividuation in my next post.

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