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How the hard-man mask can affect a prisoner’s sense of self

What happens to a person's identity when they are forced to play a hypermasculine role just to survive?

  • Prison is not a place where it pays to be vulnerable.
  • Living in prison involves survival through developing a front, or a mask to live behind.
  • Many men in prison develop a hypermasculine sense of self that shows no fear, emotion or distress to cope with the threatening overtones of the prison community.

On my first day teaching philosophy in a maximum-security prison, I stood at my classroom door, nervously waiting for my participants to arrive.

As I watched the flow of men into the education department, I was immediately struck by the swagger on display. They marched down the corridor with over-developed muscles, projecting authority and machismo, hollering to their friends and acquaintances, displaying a front of the "hard man" as they headed to their classrooms. However, when they entered, their demeanors changed dramatically. Their swagger would disappear as they took their seats, and looked at me with apprehension, uncertain of what was about to happen. In those early days of teaching, I discovered that prison involves survival through developing a front, or a mask to live behind. But, in reality, these men had fragile egos and complex vulnerabilities. Prison is not a place where it pays to be vulnerable.

No thinker has better encapsulated the complexities of self-presentation in a context where there is almost no place to hide than Erving Goffman. In 1957, the Canadian-American sociologist called such contexts "total institutions"; having done participant observation in a psychiatric hospital by feigning insanity, he knew firsthand what he was writing about, and the special pressures that come from forcible imprisonment.

In what became a classic text, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1956), Goffman takes seriously William Shakespeare's line that 'All the world's a stage,' examining the ways in which we manage our appearance for different audiences. He explores how our identities shape, and are shaped by, the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Goffman describes identity using the metaphors of a 'front' and a 'backstage' self, which we now refer to as the 'dramaturgical' self. Goffman extends this metaphor by discussing how we play out various roles for the benefit of others. These roles shape how we act, and how we think about ourselves.

For those of us attempting to understand prisons and the prisoner society, Goffman's metaphor is particularly powerful. This way of thinking about human interactions characterizes the ways in which men within the prison system act towards each other, and helps to illustrate the long-term harm that can come from this. In my own research working with men in prison, Goffman's dramaturgical self provided the foundation for articulating a distinction between 'survival' and 'growth' in this context. Specifically, it provided a vocabulary to describe how the closed institution of the prison, and the culture that develops there, affects the individual. I was interested in exploring how prison culture affects the individual's sense of self. Goffman helped me understand the macho swagger on display in the corridor, and the change in demeanor as the classroom door closed. What I found was that prison encourages a hypermasculine 'survival' front that is not conducive to growth and personal development. And, without growth and personal development, our fundamental sense of self is challenged.

I'm far from the first prison researcher to reach back to Goffman's dramaturgical metaphor of the self. For more than 50 years, prison scholars have used his theories to describe the conscious effort prisoners make to project a front in order to successfully navigate prisoner society. Given prisoners' preoccupation with personal safety and the need to negotiate the complex and unwelcoming environment of the prison, thinking of identity in this way is helpful. However, Goffman's theory that the 'backstage' self represents the individual's 'true' self is, arguably, oversimplified. An individual has a range of 'selves' that present in different circumstances, which are not necessarily dissonant, nor are they necessarily a departure from the true self – a notion that Goffman would have questioned. Rather, they reflect different aspects of a person's identity, with different versions of the self being allowed to come to the fore according to what is appropriate in a given social setting.

But what really happens to a person's identity when the "stage" for his performance is a prison and he must play the 'role' of prisoner? In prison, the 'performance' is one that is necessary for survival – survival of the self physically and psychologically. Prisons can be dangerous places, with a climate of distrust and threatening overtones, underpinned by a divided atmosphere. For men in prison, the survival "front" typically involves developing a hypermasculine sense of self that shows no fear, emotion or distress in the face of the prison community; a kind of Stoicism that takes violence, bullying and deprivation in one's stride, relying on no-one but oneself to get through the prison day. The prisoner role, if not performed well, carries great risk to the individual. The mask mustn't be allowed to slip.

Importantly, Goffman discusses place and space; not only is there a front- and backstage self, there are front- and backstage areas. Frontstage areas are the places where the individual must 'don the mask' and 'play the role' assigned. Importantly, Goffman describes the backstage areas as places where the performers can relax, where they can conduct themselves more casually and engage in open conversation. Backstage areas can provide opportunity for people to create bonds, and group status can be emphasized or consolidated. These are private places, where outsiders come with caution, respectfully announcing their presence, and requesting a level of permission before entering.

In prisons, there is no private place. Prisoners can't relax, don't know whom to trust, they feel watched and monitored at every turn, even when they aren't. And even where the prisoner has the luxury of being alone in a cell, prison officers enter without permission, listen to private phone calls, and note whom they socialize with. Furthermore, the ever-present possibility of exploitation and intimidation within the prisoner community reduces the possibility of friendship or trust.

So, what happens in such places? Prisoners employ strategies to blend into the background or develop a persona (or 'front') as a means of achieving personal and psychological survival. These 'fronts' mean that true identities are suppressed, prisoners can't be seen to being having fun or making friends within the environment, which stifles individuality or any form of self-expression. Goffman's account gives a useful way of understanding how imprisoning people in a total institution can lead to the transformation of self, but in a way that is completely at odds with the hoped-for outcome of imprisonment: the prisoner has to maintain a 'hard man' mask as a matter of survival, but then he actually becomes a hard man, and leaves the prison psychologically damaged by the experience, likely to continue playing the hard-man role after release. The fear, expressed by my research participants, is that the cultivated 'macho' identity gradually becomes who they are, no longer a front for survival, but an expression of the fundamental self. The mask becomes the personality.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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