by Chelsea Obodoechina
On December 26, 2020, the day after Christmas, a 22-year-old woman is caught on camera assaulting a 14-year-old boy over an iPhone.
The woman in question, lovingly dubbed “SoHo Karen” by the internet, realized her phone had been stolen when she arrived at a New York City hotel. As the teenager was leaving the hotel lobby with his father, the woman approached them and claimed the boy had stolen the phone. There was a tense back and forth. The boy tried to leave and, as he was doing so, the woman was caught on camera pursuing and even tackling him.
“I’m not letting him walk away with my phone!” She was quite convinced of his guilt.
It was later confirmed that SoHo Karen had forgotten her phone in an Uber car.
This SoHo Karen would be arrested two weeks later, tracked down by police and forcibly arrested when she refused to be taken into custody. She was charged with assault and grand larceny. As it turns out, her real name is Miya Ponsetto. And she is convinced that the person in the footage is not her.
To be more specific, she is convinced that that is not the real her.
“I don’t feel that that is who I am as a person,” said Ponsetto in a CBS interview with Gayle King. “I don’t feel like this one mistake defines me.”
But the average human being is multifaceted, diverse, a myriad of masks and personas and faces. The amalgamation of memories, from one’s upbringing, the intersections of their identity, their triumphs and mishaps.
Erving Goffman, one of the more notable sociologists of the 20th century, would call this phenomenon “dramaturgy”: the concept in which a person has no central identity, per se, but a collection of masks to put on and slide off on demand. They are the mundane theatrics of the everyday and are not only a completely normal part of our lives but are (arguably) necessary for our survival. If not our physical survival, then certainly our social survival, which is just as important.
In a sense, Ponsetto is correct in saying that this one mistake does not define her, but she is mistaken (at least by Goffmanian standards) in saying that that person is not who she is. In fact, it very much is her. Just a different part of her. Another mask. When one places the Ponsetto on that Boxing Day video to the Ponsetto being interviewed by Gayle King, we see two different facets of one Ponsetto. Regardless, they are all each a part of her, among many other faces we are unaware of.
There are, of course, layers of sociological theory that inform this analysis; it builds off the understanding and consensus that every person within any given society undergoes the pivotal realization that they are not alone in the world: there is their immediate family, their circle of friends, their cultural community. However, we are encountered with the distinct unknown that lurks beyond our realm of familiarity.
This is what George Herbert Mead called the “Generalized Other”—those who you have never met, perhaps will never meet, but whose opinions of you dictate your every action, behaviour, and even emotional reflex. The moment we are made aware of this collective stranger, we are forced to act in accordance with their unspoken standards and regulations.
The “soul”, as we understand it in Western cultures, the command center we attribute as the purest form of the Self, is fractured into an indeterminate number of pieces.
The “soul”, as we understand it in Western cultures, the command center we attribute as the purest form of the Self, is fractured into an indeterminate number of pieces. How we present ourselves to our parents will not be the same as when we are among our friends; the way we act and behave with a partner will greatly differ from how we interact with our boss. To mix up any of your personas in the presence of the wrong crowd is only asking for you to lose your social status and ruin your painstakingly cultivated reputation. We must pause, assess, and evaluate every social situation we find ourselves in. Then, we must execute an action based on our findings, then pause and reassess before proceeding. In this way, our brains calculate the path of least resistance. This is a verifiable human condition.
My concern when writing “The Soul is Ten Thousand Parts” [in our September/October issue, on sale now!] revolved around this inherently human social trait. How our general understanding of the Self is created, parsed together by a patchwork of masks that we assume when in a specific situation. What it means to be deemed true or inauthentic as well as how that dichotomy further polices the conduct of others. Why we feel so beholden to these social contracts. In confronting these questions, one thought starkly stood out: “What would happen if someone knew nothing about this contract?”
By contrast, how would a person without the capacity to understand these unspoken contracts be received by others, especially by those whose entire livelihoods were based on the opinions of others? Through this line of thought, my protagonist naturally materialized: an android who knows everything and nothing at once. A non-human intelligence who is confronted with the confounding social dictums that come so naturally to us. In this way, I was able to tackle these questions in the best way I knew how, which was through the art of creative writing. Because it is one thing to know the theories of Goffman and Mead, but it is quite another to interact with their theories when realized in chaotic practice.
The reason we can so quickly switch roles, as it were, between one set of friends and another, is because we have been implicitly trained to do so. By parents who scold you for staring at strangers, by friends who shame you for attacking teenagers over a phone, by social media which both forms and regurgitates societal norms and pressures for wealth, beauty, and fame. For every circle and circumstance, there is a new face to be crafted in order to show your best self (or to live your most “authentic” self, whatever that means to you).
This is, after all, a part of our rudimentary social training. It is what ensures us that we fit in, no matter what our surroundings. A non-human intelligence, one that has only read and heard about the intricacies of the everyday, will not possess the same inclinations or reflexes. There is no need for them to fracture their Self, until they have no choice but to integrate into human society. And that is how we learn: we must break before we reassemble ourselves into an entirely new entity, one that can be reconfigured at any given moment.
The soul breaks. But that is not a bad thing. It is one of the most beautiful things about being a social creature, for better or for worse.
Luperon, A. (2021, June 30). As ‘Soho Karen’ Pleads Not Guilty to Felony Hate Crimes, Her Attorney Tells Prosecutors to Target ‘Truly Violent Criminals’. Retrieved from https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/crime/as-soho-karen-pleads-not-guilty-to-felony-hate-crimes-her-attorney-tells-prosecutors-to-target-truly-violent-criminals/ar-AALDnII
CBS This Morning. (2021, January 8). Miya Ponsetto speaks out about viral confrontation with Black teen . YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3AYRvAvO58
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group.
Mead, G. (1993). Sociology an Introduction: From the Classics to Contemporary Feminism. Gordon Bailey and Noga Gayle (Eds.) Oxford University Press.