The presumptive idol of you
[ Below is the text of the presentation. Note that in the video I sometimes explain statements which are not found in the text. ]
Table of Contents
- What are idols
- Misunderstanding an idol
- The relativity of idols
- How we are made into idols
- We do not control narratives
- The invisible person
- The invisible and lonely person
- The right attitude of honesty
Hello everyone! My name is Protesilaos, also known as “Prot”. In this presentation, I want to talk to you in philosophical terms about how we are perceived in interpersonal relations. What other people think about us and how their thoughts may differ from our actuality. We want to learn more about this possible disconnect and figure out how we may cope with the relevant challenges.
As you can tell from the title I have chosen, I will elaborate on presumptions and how our self is perceived in light of them.
This entry expands on some of the themes I have covered in other recent presentations. I list the most relevant below for your convenience. However, you do not need to check those to understand what I am about to tell you. This is a standalone publication.
Expectations, rules, and role-playing: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-05-03-expectations-rules-roles/
On selfhood: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-05-31-selfhood/
On insecurity, confidence, and aloofness: https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-08-25-insecurity-confidence-aloofness/
If you are watching this on the video hosting platform, the text I am reading from is available on my website (check the video’s description): https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-08-30-presumptive-idol/
What are idols
The word “idol” is derived from Greek (είδωλο). It refers to a representation or image of something. An idol is a simulacrum of a certain presence. A symbol that neatly describes some pattern.
Idols necessarily are simplifications. Even the most faithful representation still is a snapshot of whatever reality it captures. Think, for example, about a photograph that depicts a mountain range. We can see pine trees, goat trails, snowy mountaintop, an eagle flying in the distance, and so on. The photo is faithful to what was happening in that moment from that perspective, given the camera hardware’s capabilities. Though the contents of the picture still are not the actual phenomena that unfolded then and there.
An idol, then, should not be taken in a negative sense. We use symbols practically all the time: in language, in our own thinking, in art, and so on. Idols are part of our capacity to discern and subsequently abstract patterns from the totality of all presence, all experiences, all stimuli.
“Idol” became a smear term that was and is employed by intolerant fanatics. Think, for example, about “idolater” and “idolatry”. What kind of negative emotions do they evoke? They speak of a person who worships falsehoods. These negative connotations are self-righteous, for they imply that the non-idolaters are the ones who know the truth and are, perhaps, justified to carry out certain acts of intolerance.
I don’t use “idol” in this strictly negative way. For me, the term has the original meaning of an image, a representation, a simulacrum, or a symbol. This is how I will be using it throughout this presentation.
Misunderstanding an idol
While faithful idols serve as good approximations of what they symbolise, we often have to deal with idols that do not correspond to the underlying reality they depict. Consider, in simple terms, that a filter is applied to the camera. It tints everything towards the blue side of the colour spectrum. Suddenly all we see in the picture is blue-ish. Though in actuality, we cannot see all this blue: there is no blue! It is a distortion produced by the filter and thus captured in the photograph, else idol, of the scene.
Suppose now, that someone who does not know anything about the contents of the image has to learn about them through the image. That is the only source of relevant information they have. They will then be justified in thinking that everything in those scenes is indeed blue. The point is that idols have the capacity to distort reality.
Imagine a classical Greek statue. It is an idol of Athena, the Goddess of wisdom. Please remember how I use the term “idol”. There is one person who goes to embrace the statue in the hope of gaining wisdom. That person misunderstands what the representation is as well as what wisdom is. They think that the marble is wise and that touching it will somehow transfer that quality of wisdom to the person. It won’t happen!
Whereas another fellow sees the same sculpture and recognises in it an artistic genius, a cultural trope, a historical artefact that might give us insight into an ancient civilisation, and so on. It is the same statue, though it is perceived in profoundly different ways.
We thus realise how symbolism is subjective. It does not have an intrinsic meaning that is impossible to misidentify.
The relativity of idols
Symbols can have a mostly objective meaning or, at least, an underlying objectivity to them. For example, when a photograph is a realistic depiction of a given scene. Though an agreed-upon meaning is also possible through culture or some other kind of institutional arrangement, such as a state edict, or a convention between people.
Think about flags. Any flag you want. It has a certain pattern and uses some colours. In one context, the flag is perceived as normal and expected. In another situation, it is treated as a sign of protest or pride. In a third scenario, it is taken as a matter of aggression or insensitivity. It still is the same pattern and the same arrangement of colours and shapes. But the meaning is a function of who interprets, the prevailing conditions, and relevant factors in their interplay.
Notice how an idol has narratives associated with it. When considered holistically, the idol means so much more than what it represents. It is a bundle of actual and potential meanings. Those narratives are beyond the control of any given person. For example, the artist who produced the sculpture of Athena cannot dictate how others will perceive of that work of art. The artist cannot even determine that others will treat the statue as a work of art. There is a possibility that someone sees it as the embodiment of wisdom, or another as some kind of offence against their own values.
The gist is that the meaning of idols is intersubjective and specific to the context. It is relative even when we can all agree to some objective qualities of it. We can all tell, for example, that Athena’s statue is made out of stone. But whether we like what we see or not, is open to debate. The representation remains subject to interpretation.
How we are made into idols
To idolise is to produce a representation out of a certain presence. We tend to use “idolise” in the sense of “worship”, though I am here employing the term in its literal meaning: to make an idol, else symbol, else simulacrum.
We produce an idol out of who we are when we behave in a manner that conforms with expectations. We project an image. We want to look in a certain way and to be treated accordingly.
Let’s consider a practical example, which also shows how the context matters. I had a heterosexual male acquaintance who, in my presence, was an easygoing and funny person. We would go for drink and have a relaxed experience. But, if there were any females around, he would act as a different person. No more jokes, none of that cool attitude. He wanted to look assertive and dominant. He would even change his favourite beverage for something more so-called “manly”.
This fellow was idolising himself in the template of the “alpha male”. It is this quasi-scientific stereotype of a sociopath who is supposed to have leadership qualities and to be sexually attractive to whatever target gender. The wannabe alpha males of this world are fundamentally insecure about their condition. They need to maintain a facade about how great they are. They basically hate themselves. They do not want to show their actuality.
So this acquaintance was projecting an idol of himself which, in this case, was designed to be a misrepresentation of who the underlying person was. Even the choice of drink was an elaborate lie.
I am not blaming anyone who conforms with such stereotypes. There are many prejudices and you are well aware of them. It’s not just the alpha male. We have the “good student”, the “fine lady”, the “hard worker”, the “obedient soldier”, the “true patriot”, the “nerd programmer”, and so on. It is not necessarily your fault. Chances are that you are the victim of those stereotypes. You are being objectified and dehumanised, for it is not the real “you” that people care about, but only the version of you which conforms with those beliefs. So the idol of you. All you want is to fit in. To be a part of the group. You desire attention, recognition, success. It is how humans tend to behave. Deep down, you may just want a hug, assuming your intentions are sincere.
At any rate, what I am saying here is that there is a mechanism in effect by which a person is turned into a representation of the underlying human being. This acquaintance of mine was one type of character with me and another person altogether when in the midst of women. Why was he doing that? Because he was a coward and a fool. He did not want to challenge the status quo, to question the propriety of those roles. He was not prepared to assume agency in earnest because he didn’t know who he really was. He had not yet discovered himself. He was still operating on the basis of certain prejudices in the hope of finding that one hug everybody needs.
Now think of this scenario from the perspective of the females this guy wanted to attract. The alpha male is a stereotype that some women are indoctrinated into liking. Suppose, then, that my acquaintance did not behave like a macho man and was instead funny and relaxed. He would still be dehumanised in the eyes of those women who dismiss anyone not in conformance with the alpha male idol. Perhaps, they would think of him as childish or as a weakling. You know how these things work.
We do not control narratives
The point, then, is the same as with all idols. They are relative. There is an interpretive aspect to them. We are not in control of the narratives and we cannot determine how other people will think of us or whatever other phenomenon for that matter. To their eyes we always are a combination of what they see and what they evaluate.
My acquaintance is a victim either way. If he conforms with the alpha male idol, he is making a fool of himself. If he is funny and relaxed, others will judge him accordingly. The judgement is always there. What matters then, is whether we attach value to it or not.
When we want to fit in, we really care about what others think. We want to be in good terms with them, because that is the conduit to our perceived comfort and apparent happiness. If we do not live up to those expectations, we lose the relevant benefits. It is a transaction, a cost-benefit calculation.
Trying to fit in is difficult. The opinions of other people are not in our control. From our perspective, they are variable. They are exogenous, as they originate from the exterior and then enter our immediate milieu. We cannot set their value. As such, when we always try to conform with the norms, we subject ourselves to the vicissitudes of public opinion. Now a certain view finds currency. In the past, there was a different view. In the future, it may be something else altogether. Maybe we think we will go with the flow and hope for the best. The problem, though, is that we cannot always adapt to those shifting narratives. There are cases where we will not fit in and will stand out as misfits, as failures in some regard, even when we are not openly criticised for it.
Let me tell you about views that we cannot just adapt to on the spot. I walk a lot with my dog. More than 2 hours per day. People see me and they recognise me. Sometimes one will try to talk with me. They are curious to learn a few things. It’s common, as this wider region has small, sparsely populated villages. Everyone wants to know who the members of their community are. So what do they ask? It’s always personal like “Where is your wife?” and “How many kids do you have?”.
I am not exaggerating. A stranger sees me walking towards a mountain trail, hits the brakes on their vehicle, and tries to confirm what they are already assuming as true. “Of course” I have a wife. “Of course” I have kids. Plural, mind you—lots of them, not just one! In case it is not obvious, I am being sarcastic. The answer to those questions is negative. Though notice what the expectations are. These questions start from a certain position. They take some things for granted.
If we have the wrong attitude, we will feel disturbed by those intrusive questions. We may describe them as insensitive, but merely giving them a name does not make us any less prone to their effects. With the wrong attitude, when we do eventually get those type of questions they will make us feel inadequate, unfulfilled, manqué. We will start thinking that their tacit judgements are correct and internalise the view that we are flawed in some major way. We may then experience self-denial which culminates in self-hatred. Our selfhood will revolve around those ideas.
We cannot afford to be upset about thoughts people have, because then we will suffer every time someone holds an inaccurate view. We will be annoyed, though still powerless to stop it. We can try to correct a person’s thoughts, but we simply cannot do that for each and every opinion in circulation. We must ultimately admit that we are not in control.
The invisible person
The examples I have already provided show that at least a part of our self and out subjectivity is not ours. It belongs to the minds of other people. They interpret what they perceive and they assume things that may or may not correspond to our actuality. Even when these assumptions are wrong, those folks still substantiate our personhood in their thoughts.
For example, the local resident who asks me about wife and kids already considers me husband and father, respectively. To their mind, this is an integral part of who I am. Extend this to all facets of our selfhood, to everything that is a characteristic of us, either through its presence or absence. Whether it is or isn’t—and the manner in which it is or isn’t—defines us.
The fundamental constraint we have of not controlling the narratives has a flip-side. Some parts of our self become inscrutable to others. They are inaccessible to them. This is because they already believe in certain ideas which obscure whatever we could exhibit. Our reality, then, can easily go unnoticed. The more presumptuous people are, the more elusive our actuality is for them. They live with the presumptive idol of our self and they treat us on the basis of that representation.
If we add together all the presumptions that others have about us, then we are already starting from a position of undoing beliefs and asking people to learn things from scratch. In essence, our truth is invisible to them and we must make an even greater effort to reveal what we can. This effort though, cannot be one-sided. The others need to have the appropriate disposition of wanting to learn more and, therefore, of keeping an open mind. This is not always a given. As such, any unilateral measures will prove futile.
Let’s consider a scenario so that I don’t speak in abstract terms. There is this person who is very attractive. Everybody has a crush on them. This person is judged on the basis of their appearance. Yes, good looks have their advantages, which I do not need to elaborate here as you all know about them. Though what about the disadvantages? This super attractive person is also invisible, because everyone’s opinions revolve around the surface-level features. It’s all about appearances.
One’s looks then can produce this paradoxical phenomenon where they capture the attention of others while simultaneously rendering the underlying person obscure. There is no consideration about what that human being is like beyond appearances. It’s just a pretty face or whatever. Every view follows from there. And the same for appearances in general. While they are all about visuals, they actually conceal things behind layers upon layers of presumptions and biases.
Imagine that this fabled beauty of my example here is actually not interested in all this attention. They would like some quietude. They cannot simply be relaxed and do how they feel, as everyone treats them inhumanly as nothing but a pretty face, not as a fully fledged human being. They are an object of admiration or desire. Emphasis on “object”.
The real person can suffer greatly from the presumptive idol of their self. I mention beauty to show how these things work. Our culture places a disproportionate value on appearances. We are conditioned to think that “good looks”, however defined, are a blessing. Nothing bad can come out of them. In truth, they can be a curse. Not because there is anything wrong with one’s appearance. It simply is due to how we do not control the narratives. Others will make judgements and we will be at the receiving of them, either we like it or not.
Continuing with this theme. You may have heard the term “catcalling”. It describes the act of verbal harassment and sexually suggestive comments that are made in public towards another person. Females usually are the targets of such catcalling.
Imagine this. A female walks down the street and random strangers call them names, whistle at them, make intrusive or threatening comments, and so on. You know what I am talking about. Did this female ask for any this? Or are others being presumptuous and are perhaps feeling entitled to acquire certain things?
This too is a case where the presumptive idol comes to the fore to haunt the person. Not because the person wants. They are not, by themselves, in control of the narratives. You see how this works? It is not just about some weird philosopher in the mountains who gets asked about his ten kids while walking along goat trails. Everyone is subject to prejudice, to inane expectations, unsettling standards, inconsiderate beliefs.
The gist is that the real person is lost to all this cacophony. The female who gets catcalled is reduced to an object, with no personality, no feelings, no interests, no aspirations, nothing! Whatever sincere sense of self remains invisible and may, ultimately, be crushed by those ignorant narratives.
I thus ask you to be more considerate with people. Don’t judge. Keep an open mind. Assume you are wrong. Tell yourself not to be fooled by idols. Recognise that representations are just that and they may be deceiving. Admit that the idol of a person is not the actual person. The world will be a better place with those tweaks to your disposition.
The invisible and lonely person
Let me now tell you about loneliness. We have already discussed how appearances obscure whatever underlying sense of self. They turn the person into an idol. But it doesn’t stop there. One can remain invisible even when others do not judge them on the basis of their looks. This can be due to one’s status, for instance.
The “good soldier” is just obedient and, basically, a killing machine or fodder for the cannons. The army, the nation, the homeland, or whatever impersonal agency may be invoked, does not care about who the soldier is. It does not want to know whether the person has emotions, talents, or whatever. Within the confines of this narrative, the “good soldier” is not a human. It’s an instrument in the hands of an establishment, the means to an ulterior end, a pawn in the stratagems of a political elite.
Again, we have the same mechanics at play. Expectations condition how people behave and how they are treated. The person who is a victim of their presumptive idol, the person who experiences this “invisibility” at a deep level, starts to feel marginalised and alone. Not because they hate society or that they are awkward and too shy about it. No! They may be perfectly happy to be around people. They are simply forced to the side by inconsiderate beliefs that beget intolerance, inflexible standards that deny diversity, and inane stereotypes that twist the minds of people.
Loneliness is not the same as isolation. One can feel alone in the vicinity of others. Or, even, especially when they are with other people.
Consider my case. I don’t get any attention for my devilish good looks, or for my ugliness. People do talk to me though, but they still do not know who I am. I am not hiding anything, it’s just that they are not looking for what I can provide.
Here’s how it goes. They start a conversation with me. I go along with the flow. At some point, I will mention something that is conceptual and does not revolve around my private life or whatever. It is just a topic that you don’t normally get in small talk. What I want to do is to tell the person about who I am. I am amiable and would like to be friends with that person. But the “who I am” is a problem as it does not correspond to what the other person is expecting.
When your actuality contradicts expectations, others will tend to take a step back. In my case, this means that they change the subject. It is as if they are running out of oxygen all of a sudden and need to catch a breath. They do not engage with what I tell them about. Not because I use difficult words or allude to some niche concept that no-one has heard of. I never do that! I might be talking about responsible handling of dogs in our neighbourhood, for instance, yet the way I do it requires thoughtfulness; thoughtfulness that others are not used to.
It’s not that they are not smart. But they suddenly feel unsettled. They belittle themselves as they worry I might judge them or that they may say something stupid. I get this a lot with emails as well. People will message me and have an introduction which goes along the lines of asking me to forgive their ostensible ignorance and stupidity. Please don’t do that. I don’t know things and don’t pass judgement. The reason I say that you can call me “Prot” is to keep things simple and make you feel comfortable. I am as relaxed and stress-free as it gets.
Still, the reality is that people do not always believe in themselves. They have deep-seated fears that something terrible will happen if they dare speak their mind in earnest and reveal their true colours. So they don’t do it. They remain at the surface level where things are thought to be safe.
For me, however, this results in loneliness. Every face-to-face exchange I have must be limited to generic chit-chat that never goes anywhere. So even though I am perfectly fine to share more about me, my thoughts, my interests, my views… I just can’t. It is not possible. There is no-one ready to listen and to converse with me.
I don’t feel sad about this state of affairs because I have no expectations whatsoever. Though I do want to understand it better. There must be idols in effect: these presumptive idols of who I am. There may be this stereotype that philosophers talk in a language that others do not comprehend. Perhaps they also think philosophers are judgemental and will dismiss anyone who cannot think like them.
None of this is true and I am trying to prove as much through all my publications. Sure, there are some difficult concepts and cases where we need to think about lots of different magnitudes. Though this applies to everything in life that involves a degree of sophistication. At some point things are a bit more challenging. Though there is no intent to use language as a way of showing off. And there is none of that pretentiousness to appear smart or to fish for compliments. These are behaviours that are inconsistent with philosophy: they contradict wisdom.
But I do not control those narratives and I cannot reach people who do not have the right attitude of overcoming biases. Hence my loneliness.
The right attitude of honesty
Let’s return to some of the previous examples and I will tie everything together with what I just explained about loneliness.
Think again about my acquaintance who wanted to be an alpha male in the presence of women. In truth, he was being prejudiced about what a woman even is and what this imaginary figure wants. Isn’t this the same as someone worrying that they are not smart enough to talk with me?
Consider once more that person who is too beautiful and who has to suffer the consequences of appearing attractive to everybody else. That person is, as I already explained, a victim of the prevailing narratives. There is a presumptive idol of self made out of their appearance and this idol takes on a life of its own. That person can feel lonely, as well.
Though change the parameters a bit. Suppose you talk to your crush. To this uniquely attractive person. Is your behaviour the same as with everybody else? If not, why not? Perhaps because you have also made an idol out of your crush. You have a representation in your mind which your imagination has moulded in certain ways. For as long as you are not aware of this process of idolisation, you are not really searching for the fully fledged human being that is concealed behind all those simulacra.
Extend this principle: imagine that what you are doing by misunderstanding your crush, is what everybody does. You then realise how harsh this reality is on that person.
Loneliness comes from being misunderstood and misjudged. How exactly we are treated does not really matter for the disconnect to happen. The mismatch between our actuality and what the current views about us are, keeps us in stasis, in a condition that we cannot really escape from.
There is a balancing act to be made between the competing priorities of expressing ourselves in full or perfectly aligning our conduct with social norms. Where that balance is depends on the individual and on the prevailing conditions.
We are fighting an uphill battle where we constantly need to dispel presumptuous views. Though as they keep occurring, we realise that we are powerless to stop them. We cannot disentangle ourselves from all those associations that are made about our idol. We are essentially trapped in a situation where we are condemned to never share who we really are. No-one is prepared for that eventuality, it seems.
Can we fix this? How do we remove the pressure of conformity with all those standards and expectations? It’s not going to be easy. We have to acknowledge that this is an interpersonal phenomenon. Whatever change has to come about through concerted action. It cannot be done unilaterally because no single party owns and controls the narrative.
Unless, then, we can join some kind of movement for raising awareness or for enacting the requisite reforms, we really cannot do anything to change what people think. We must then learn to live with the reality of no control and be honest about our case.
Honesty is not the same as those exhortations parents tell their kids about not lying. It primarily is an inward-looking attitude of recognising how we operate in evolving states of affairs. For example, can you admit to yourself that you are idolising your crush? Are you prepared to face whatever truth may be hiding behind this little lie of yours?
Honesty involves awareness of one’s condition. It must be conducted consistently, in a spirit of dubitativeness and inquisitiveness. In other words, it remains open-minded. It does not stay at the level of performances; at that initial stage of not “telling lies”. Instead, it has the rigour and concomitant resolve to delve into the specifics and to examine the underpinnings or triggers of relevant phenomena.
Honesty consists in discipline. There isn’t a supreme authority, some boss, for instance, that tells you how things ought to be done and compels into action. There is none of that. In one’s private sphere, honesty can only reveal what the person is willing to discover and what is rendered perceptible by this very willingness.
It is entirely possible for someone to be formally honest, in the sense of not telling any lies. Yet they can still withhold some aspect of the truth from their self. This happens by never exiting their comfort zone.
The person always does what has worked for them and never questions their behavioural pattern and sense of self derived therefrom. As such, their experience is conditioned by their comfort zone. In turn, the feedback from those actions is proof of the comfort zone’s presumed significance. Too much comfort may be the sign of complacency, else a pernicious delusion.
To be honest in this disciplined and consistent fashion, one must ultimately be prepared to disturb their own truths. We must check and double-check that whatever presumptive idol of self we have created is not distorting our reality. Just remember those photographs with the blue filter. There is no blue! It’s all an added effect.
I am being schematic with the photographs to cut the long story short. We want to focus on our disposition: how we approach things. On the one hand, we cannot afford to have this cult of personality where we think we are perfect and everybody else is a fool. On the other hand, we cannot simply presume that others know better and what they say about us must be true. There has to be a balance, hence the significance of being dubitative, of questioning things, and inquisitive, searching for things.
Through life experiences we learn that what we once took for granted is now revealed to have been ephemeral and coincidental. Maybe you grew up as a cool, popular kid. You moved countries and suddenly no-one thinks of you as cool. What you once believed to be a part of you, was but an illusion of ownership. You have to recognise that and challenge your sense of self. This is a life-long process.
It is not possible to undo through our own subjectivity what is done intersubjectively. We have to recognise what the boundaries are and to not be emotionally invested in what lies beyond that terminus. Much like my loneliness in this place. There is nothing I can do to change the innocuous albeit presumptuous attitudes of people. I can try to persuade maybe one among them, but even that presupposes some degree of prior open-mindedness, which simply isn’t there for what I am looking for.
Idols will exist, as will all sorts of presumptions. The key, insofar as one’s subjectivity is concerned, is to maintain the right attitude of patience and honesty. We eventually learn to remain aloof and observe phenomena in third-person view, just as with my case here.
Though we cannot stop there. Intersubjectivity necessarily brings in matters of culture and politics. If we believe that all those idols are harming lots of people, we need to think about collective action. We do not exist in some bubble of subjectivity where we simply disconnect from the views of others and find solace in our aloofness. There are situations where such a state is not possible.
Consider again the example with catcalling. Can I really tell the victim that they will philosophise and suddenly all abuse and harassment will disappear. No! That’s nonsense. Everyone can benefit to a degree from a philosophical disposition, yet the environment must also be conducive for such an outlook.
Next time you find yourself in an interpersonal situation, try to think how the other side feels. What are the expectations they have to meet and did they ever have a say in that matter?
Make an effort to let go of your fears and prior judgements. People will always be invisible to those who are not ready to see. It takes a lot of courage to be honest and to give the other person a chance to reveal their humanity.
Take it easy.