I recently watched The Crown, a fictional dramatisation of the early years of Queen Elizabeth II. I found the portrayal of the young Queen struggling to balance her person, role, and identity engrossing. And watching her try to maintain her personal identity within the role of Queen.
Her grandmother, Queen Mary, helpfully tells her that her role as Queen is to do nothing. Doing something is to take sides, and the Crown cannot be seen to be taking a side. She finds that as a Constitutional Monarch, her personal opinions and actions curtailed by Acts of Parliament. A bunch of old white guys, very keen to maintain things as they were.
She also faces difficulties with her family’s inability to separate her from the role of Queen. Or to see that her role as Queen must, now and again, take precedence over her personal wishes. That sometimes, she can only be Queen, and they her subjects. They have no more claim upon her than any other Commonwealth subject.
What are Person, Role, and Identity?
Person, role, and identity are all aspects of you. They are the faces you put on when you interact with the world.
- The person is you as an individual human being. This is who you are when you deal with generic humans, hopefully using common basics of civility.
- Your role is your character or function. The things like parent, child, sibling, manager, co-worker, actress, bookshop owner or Queen. Your roles are contextual; who you are as a parent should be very different to who you are as a co-worker.
- Your identity is the condition of being yourself. All the little things that make you different from other humans and roles. You can choose who you are.
Why They Matter
It is important to separate the person, role, and identity. Not doing so leads to misunderstanding, hurt feelings and potentially much worse.
You can see this in the movie Notting Hill; world-famous actress Anna Scott and local bookseller William Thacker negotiate an intimate relationship. They have to find the place where her person, role, and identity can meet him. And how to manage his friends.
A Football Based Example
A few months ago an award-winning sports journalist suggested that after two decades in the role, the President of a Football Club should consider a succession plan. Particularly given that club found itself closer to the bottom than the top of the ladder. This upset the President as a person, who “joked” that he would like to see the person of the journalist subjected to a particular kind of unpleasant death. In fact, the person of the president would pay money to see it happen. (Is it just me or does this make you think in passing of English King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury Saint Thomas à Becket?)
I have to mention that this took place in the context of a sometimes rocky relationship between the two spanning several decades; they work for rival media groups and support rival football clubs.
Having done the barest minimum research into the President’s background, his current public roles include business person, author, media personality (!!!), sporting event host, live event host, radio show host, game show host, talk show host, face of sport coverage (!!!), president of two sports clubs, chairman of another board, and member of yet more boards (blah, blah, blah).
The journalist, on the other hand, has one public role; that of Journalist.
The President’s response was made by the Radio Show Host. I, as well as the President, may be a little hazy about where the line between the public and private person is, but I think it’s somewhere around what you believe is your identity. This is clearly going to be difficult for the President as his identity includes so many roles (or maybe we could call them characters) and of course, they get mashed up together so none of them knows where the line is.
I once saw a Patrick Stewart interview, and he said that towards the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation, he had difficulty drawing the line between himself and the character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, so clearly it’s a problem for better people than the President. Just as Jean-Luc Picard ultimately drew against Patrick Stewart, so the President’s roles draw on him; they all built on the essential core of his private person.
Now you might think that there is no difference between our public and private roles or characters and that you can’t manage or control them. But you would be wrong. American serial killer Ted Bundy controlled his essential private core so well that he could assault and kill at least 30 women before his capture.
Even you have public versions of yourself; the Facebook version that’s living an amazing life, the one at work that doesn’t tell people they are morons, the one that does tell the ex to f*ck off, the one that hugs your kids and tells them bedtime stories. Somehow you manage to control your private essence and present those characters in the right places, at the right times, to the right people.
The President’s identity is very much bound up in President of a Football Club, so potentially he felt like he was told no one likes him, and he should go eat worms. Oddly, this issue of quitting or transitioning a leadership role comes up all the time in the context of business reporting, and it must have come up a lot at the end of his term as Chief Executive of the media channel he still works for as Game Show Host and Media Personality. I don’t recall hearing him “joke” about paying to see business journalists subjected to particular kinds of unpleasant deaths.
However, the President is notorious for saying what the person thinks about people who are not the same gender, colour, or sexual orientation as him, and those comments are well documented elsewhere.
In the real world
In the real world, most of us manage to constrain our essential core. You generally conform with social expectations and censor your thoughts to prevent your feelings from coming out of your mouth. You apply your social conscience, think of the greater good, and act accordingly.
Though person, role, and identity conflicts still cause damage.
Once, as part of a role on an organisational committee, I had to ask a Human Resources Director to issue an amendment to an organisational directive. The short-term directive conflicted with a long-term organisational policy. Potentially, aside from requiring it to go out, the Director had nothing to do with it. A staff member may have written it, a second edited, and a third approved before the assistant sent it. But given the content, and the sender, in an ideal universe, the Director would take responsibility. Issue an amendment, and maybe even a quick apology for the confusion.
Sadly that’s not what happened. The Director interpreted it as personal criticism, and I was asked to apologise to the person. This completely removed the directive and subsequent interpretation issues as organisational concerns. Which meant that a person dealing with the organisational issue did not have clear support from the organisation.
The conflict between the person, role, and identity is not going to be satisfactorily resolved in a 1,500-word blog post. It may never be resolved if we don’t start considering the different characters we share our bodies with, and who the essential core is. I think you can see who the essential core is through the quality and consistency of their approach to others. Are they consistently impartial? Or are they consistently sexist or racist? Do they hold the same opinions over time, or do they change them when they gain more benefit from opposing them?
And I think that we have to take responsibility for our role confronting or condoning the behaviour of others. People take sides because we let them. People make sexist and racist comments because we let them. We give them an inch, and they take a mile, and we let them.
I think it’s time we started holding people to account, don’t you?