Deconstructing a Character

On a frigid spring day this past semester, my Humanities 10 section was debating how the protagonist’s promiscuous and destructive sexuality in “The Tale of Genji,” an 11th century Japanese novel, compared to the social norms of his time. Ideas bounced around the cramped semicircle of chairs, with the rustling of pages and scratching of pens filling the occasional pauses.

Our question of social norms sparked a discussion about the difference between a “character” and a “construct,” a distinction that one of my fellow Hum 10ers put very succinctly.

My classmate defined a construct as a metacommentary on what it means to be of a certain condition, an understanding of what it means to be part of a given group. A character is more individualized and exceptional, a person with unique agency.

That nuance struck me more than anything else that day, and I walked out of Boylston into the glacial Cambridge air, wondering how that distinction could be applied to my world. My contention is that we should treat people as characters much more often than we currently do, reducing our dependence on constructs.

In our society, especially in the opinion pages of The Crimson, I have observed that people frequently frame their experiences and views within the confines of a construct rather than describing themselves as characters. People introduce themselves and their ideas in a template: “As a [insert ethnicity] [insert sexuality] [insert gender identity] from [insert geographical location] with [insert socioeconomic background], I think/feel ______.”

There are several issues with this framework. When we make statements in the format of, “As a ______, I think ______,” we are presumptive enough to believe that an entire group’s experiences mirror our own. It also encourages people to fixate on checkboxes, characteristics ranging from political affiliation to religion to occupation to race to gender to immigration status. Those terms are appropriate for a generic survey, but are inadequate when attempting to truly understand the complex inner workings of a human being.

There is a significant difference between this intellectual error and saying something along the lines of: “I am a ______ and here’s what I think about ______.” That statement makes some attempt to separate between membership in a group and individual, character-driven thoughts on a subject.

We deviate from this notion, though, because we are unwilling to take the risk of framing ourselves in terms of our own lives and experiences. By implying that an entire group shares our experiences and opinions with the “As a ______” format, we can hide behind these constructs and reduce the risk that we will be personally criticized.

Although this template is sometimes convenient, it is irresponsible. Constructs lump people together, making them into generic labels, beliefs, and experiences that can be checked off in boxes on questionnaires. These generalizations erase our character. In the process, it discounts our agency and assumes that we are merely the sum of past experiences. It ascribes all opinions to the past and is not an adequate means of learning about another human being or even about ourselves.

Moreover, it is highly hypocritical. People abhor the thought of someone else applying a group construct to them, but we constantly do it to ourselves. It’s hypocritical to expect others to avoid jumping to conclusions based on our group membership when we constantly define ourselves by these limitations from the outset.

Don’t misunderstand—I do not believe that we should disregard the role that both history as a whole and our personal histories play in our lives. In the words of William Faulkner, “History is not was; it is.” However, I have to believe that we are more than the sum of our experiences; history “is” present, as Faulkner says, but we are more than our histories. That’s how people with difficult backgrounds are able to surmount their past challenges, writing their own success stories. No one claims that it’s easy, but it requires risking vulnerability and refusing to accept limitations. It means we must refuse to blindly accept the constructs that are imposed on us and that we too often impose on ourselves.

One of my professors told us that, “Complexity is something we try to avoid because it’s a pain in the ass, but it’s the only honest way to look at something that you care about.” We have a responsibility to look at each other and ourselves with complexity, and to ask genuine questions to learn what’s beneath the surface rather than attributing everything to a construct.

Don’t sell yourself or others short. Have the courage to embrace complexity, probe supposed anomalies, and see people for who they really are. That will make all of us characters worth knowing.

Jordan E. Virtue ’20 lives in Winthrop House.