As promised, a follow-up on my previous post. The premise: Art gives people permission to be that much more wholly themselves, for good or ill. Preferably for good.
A lot of people misinterpret this as being about "disinhibition" — that "being yourself" is a matter of giving free reign to selfish impulses of one kind or another. They couldn't be more wrong. Being your "true" self is not, strictly speaking, a matter of acting out things that you normally repress.
This one is kind of tricky, so I'll explain it as best I can. (Again, I owe Brad Warner a thank you for these insights.)
All of us — and I mean all — have stuff that we shove down below that is considered undesirable by society, or by our peers (and frequently those amount to the same thing). Somewhere along the way, we picked up on the message that the things we hold deep inside are the "real" parts of ourselves. Some of us go further and say, maybe the best way to be true to myself is to be a gigantic dick, especially since it feels really good to do that. If you think your "true" self is a jackass that gets kicks out of calling people names, you are completely missing the point. Just because you have that stuff buried inside you doesn't make it the "real" you. The fact that something is repressed doesn't make it sincere.
So what's the difference between being your true self and merely giving yourself permission to be a jerk?
One thing Brad likes to talk about a lot is something that amounts to a variation on the Buddhist idea that you are already enlightened, you just need to shut up and notice it. Some part of you always knows when you're being a crummy person. You just elect not to listen to this part of you when it's convenient. It takes actual work to ignore it.
Here's an example. You go into a restaurant and you order a meal, but you don't swear at the waitress, because you know full well if you do you will either be asked to leave or get crummy service. But then some guy gets up to leave and pushes his chair back into yours, and you turn around and curse him out because he jostled your table and sloshed your soup. It's easier to get away with cursing out someone who doesn't work there and is on his way out than it is to curse out someone who might well hock up a loogie into your orange juice.
The more conscious you become of the fact that being a jerk takes effort, the easier it becomes to notice that effort, and also to notice how tiresome and counterproductive it is.
Milton Glaser once gave the following piece of advice: Some people are toxic; avoid them. He was addressing himself mainly to people who worked in his field (advertising and design), and he knew full well that some people couldn't be avoided entirely (don't forget to call your mom), but there will always be some latitude in terms of which people we can associate with. Glaser's criterion for whether a person was toxic was simple: Spend a day with them. If at the end of that day you feel energized, they're probably good for you. If you feel enervated, they're probably not.
Obviously this criterion doesn't cover things like people who incite you to be something terrible, which is superficially energizing but bad for you in the long run. It won't save you if you aren't already in tune with yourself, as it were, but it's not a bad rule of thumb for people who are already somewhat clued-in.
Being your true self should not require the presence of a policeman. If your "true self" involves doing nasty end runs around the rest of society, there's probably nothing true about it.
Some more about this in a third installment to come.