In the past few days, the Internet has richly justified its invention with the news that Spokane NAACP official Rachel Dolezal is not, in fact, African-American, but just another white woman trying to do some good.
My interest in this subject is from the perspective of someone who has worked on scandals about personal or institutional misrepresentations. One of the challenges working with fabulists is that they often have deep psychic and narcissistic investments in aspects of their personal stories that are attenuated at best, false at worst.
But let's dispense with the "false memory syndrome" blather that surfaced during the Brian Williams/Iraq affair and establish that people make up stories about themselves for the same reason athletes take steroids: Because it helps them get ahead. Like Breaking Bad's ethically-challenged attorney Saul Goodman, who said, "My real name's McGill. The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak." Or even Seinfeld's dentist Tim Whatley who converted to Judaism "for the jokes."
Ambition and bullshitting go hand in hand, but there is a difference, albeit sometimes a subtle one, between puffing up hard kernels of truth in one's background and lying about who you are and what you've done.
Social scientists refer to the stories people tell about themselves in order to get ahead as "narratives of ascent." Think George Washington and his boyhood honesty about chopping down the cherry tree, a story that supported his brand of personal integrity. I'd rather call these poses "schtick," a Yiddish phrase referring to a stage act one uses to draw attention to themselves.
So, now we have Brian Williams who falsely said he was in a helicopter that was forced down during combat in Iraq, Senator Elizabeth Warren who identified herself as being part Native American in an effort to shore up her minority bona fides and Former Yahoo! CEO Scott Thompson who was fired after his college education was exposed to have not, in fact, included a degree in computer science.
Dolezal's angry reaction when confronted by the falsity of her claims ("I don't give two shits what you guys think...") is typical of the kind of responses you get when probing narcissistic wounds. Anything to avoid saying "I am not who I said I was." The most painful discussion I have ever had during my career involved a religious woman who fabricated a sexual assault because she could not tell her family what really happened: She had had an affair.
One corporate scandal client so desperately needed to be known as the visionary architect who created his company's innovative business model that he couldn't see the contradiction in his defense strategy, which was to emphasize that he didn't know about the bad things that were going on. As his defense team tried to explain, you can't be both an omniscient mastermind and an oblivious ditz.
While Vaudeville is long gone, we are very much in the Age of Digital Schtick, identity poses even if they don't always equate with lying per se. One of the ongoing conceits of HBO's mordant Silicon Valley is the preoccupation some of the characters have with Steve Jobs' sage-on-the-stage routine. They care less about product development than they do about what their genius persona will be now that they can't use Steve Job's black turtleneck or Mark Zuckerberg's hoodie. What will go best with their headsets and flesh-colored microphones spouting half-baked mottos about changing the world? As one mogul says in a rare moment of candor, "I don't want to live in a world where someone else is making the world a better place than we are."
As Dolezal's choice suggests, given the desire to feel special in an age when we are all micro-celebrities with Facebook pages, perhaps the most boring thing you can be is an upper middle-class white person. If F. Scott Fitzgerald came back to life and revised The Great Gatsby for today's audience, his fraudulent Jay Gatsby might be a member of a victimized cohort giving a TED talk to win the affections of Daisy Buchanan instead of the Midwestern Caucasian bootlegging fabulist, Jimmy Gatz.
In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, Elaine dates a man she wrongly believes to be African-American while he wrongly believes Elaine is Mexican-American. When they both learn the truth about each other, Elaine's dejected boyfriend says, "So, we're just a couple of white people?" To which Elaine responds, "I guess...So, do you want to go to The Gap?"
Alas, there is nowhere for Dolezal to hide in the Digital Age. Better call Saul?