Chelsea Manning has me considering reputation and vulnerability. There is an article about her in the NYTimes this week, The Long, Lonely Road of Chelsea Manning, by Matthew Shaer. Toward the end of the article the reporter describes the time they spent together after her release from prison,
“But she is determined not to dwell on her reputation, and for that week in Manhattan, she seemed happy being free.”
That comment stuck a cord with me.
Repute means the things other people say about you – gossip. Reputation is a more formal version of gossip. Reputation is associated with the time, place and community in which a person exists. It is temporal but feels at times as if it is eternal. Reputation relies upon the word of the people around you and how you interact with them. Reputation is subjective and easily altered at the whim of ‘others’.
Reputation has weight. People often carry that weight through life without exploring what it truly means. They become attached to the values they associate with reputation and work to maintain them. They identify with the reputed merit of their reputation and believe it follows them around like some sort of aura that anyone can perceive. If they are merely consistent in their approach to life and moral actions that aura may indeed be perceptible to all people in areas beyond the home space.
Some people construct a facade to maintain a reputation. They don’t have the consistency of character to allow a natural aura so they construct a theatrical costume to wear in the world. This conveys for them the elements of reputation in a socially acceptable manner. Society establishes rules to guide everyone toward a unified facade of conformity. Those who don’t abide by the rules acquire ill-repute.
So, you could be a ‘natural,’ a good and consistent person who happens to fit the mould of conformity easily and earn a good reputation. You could be a person who doesn’t fit the mould comfortably who wants to be a conformist by making a ‘facade’ of conformity. There are those who will ‘never fit’ the mould through choice, circumstance or misfortune. Then there are those who choose to ‘change’ the mould as Chelsea Manning has done.
It is an easy thing for a conformist to condemn a non-conformist, after all there are a lot of identical opinions out there. But then there is what Ben Platt said in his Tony Award acceptance speech this weekend: “The things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.” This is blasphemy to the conformists yet obvious to the Chelsea Mannings of the world. If your strangeness makes you double-down on your facade, or excludes you like a never-fit, life is less comfortable and often painful.
When you nurture and honor the unique strangeness that is you, the facade is unnecessary, you declare yourself as one who will fit, and you cast a new mould that includes your contribution to society. Chelsea’s path had many twist in it that made it even more of a challenge, and she was ready to die rather than conform. The strength of her character built her a new reputation more noble than any she’d had before. It’s a bittersweet place to be, but anytime you fight a bully there is no reward for winning. Society and the pressures of reputation in that society are a bully-like force, it is the way of the world, to break the pattern is to re-define “reputation”.
The character of a natural is the same as Chelsea Manning’s. Her’s is an honest state of being; it is natural for her. She is not living behind a facade, a lie to deceive the world, she doesn’t need one. She has demanded a place to fit within the greater culture. The things that made her strange to the norms of reputation are the things that made her strong.
Think about the journey her reputation has taken. She was bullied in school and boot camp until she found her niche in intelligence. She, out of principle, broke rules and was sentenced to jail. She was vulnerable in that place, but had little reputation to lose. She transitioned quite publicly there, teaching the world about that process through her unasked-for notoriety and survived the process as an enemy to some and a hero to others.
If you fear the destruction of your reputation then the bully can keep you right where he wants you. Get rid of that fear and the bully no longer has power over you. A reputation is ephemeral, it ebbs and flows, it can be rebuilt when it is damaged. It is based in what other people think and you can’t control that. But you can control what you think about yourself.
The best way to get rid of the fear of damage to your reputation is to “know thyself.” Confidence in who and what you are allows you the fortitude to endure the inevitable assault. When you choose to oppose the attacking force, being fearless is like pulling their horses out from under them; they lose their momentum and gravity throws them into the dirt. This is especially effective when sexual and gender identity issues are in play; those old stereotypes are lies based in ignorance, they deserve to loose momentum.