Kerry & Noël Dawkins, 2012
Most plural collectives can’t afford to be wholly open in the societies in which they live. That means that for most people they interact with, they’ll have to present as nonplural, and try to consolidate their individual natures, as awkward as it may be. We often refer to this as ‘being The Front’. The problem with ‘being the front’ is that you’re taking several disparate people’s interests, reactions, worldviews and identities and clumsily combining them into one for the benefit of society at large. We, as individuals, have distinct speech patterns, postures and modes of expression.
Systems that have a ‘main frontrunner’ that handles the majority of daily-life tasks may feel this tension less, as the general public would be interacting with them anyway. In systems whose resources are more spread out, as is the case with ours, there is no ‘main person’ that people would be interacting with all the time, so it’s a bit more difficult to do the constant ‘identity management’. We do it, because we have to with most people, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t tiring, and we feel the contrast keenly when interacting with people who do know who we are and treat us as individual people. Is this an indictment on systems who don’t feel the same tension between their ‘front identity’ and their individual ones? Definitely not; different systems—and the people in them—may feel differently about their level of openness, self-expression and their attitude towards ‘the front’.
When we interact with the world at large, we feel as though we are interacting as a ‘construct’, and it feels as though we are dealing with people through a thick fog sometimes. A friend of ours recently noticed that our ‘front voice’ was clearly a construct, since they had interacted with us as individuals, and there was something more forced and less natural about our ‘front voice’ and behaviour. It’s a clunky interface for interacting with us, without the intuitiveness that exists when dealing with us as individuals.
And no, this isn’t just a case of ‘wanting to talk about your imaginary friends’; there are behavioural changes that happen naturally. When Hess is around, he reacts differently from things than either of us do, or Lilly does, or Richard does. Before we came out as plural, our individual differences were often striking enough for people to notice—whether this occurred online or offline—and wonder why our behaviour and reactions kept shifting, even though we were not out as plural, even to ourselves. In a way, the ‘layer of consistency’ is relatively new, at least in comparison to how we were when we were younger. When systems have one or two main frontrunners, it can be easier for them, but it may not be; feeling restricted from mentioning others who are important to them may be similarly difficult.
Yes, people in general do have some forms of compartmentalisation, in which they are their ‘work self’ or ‘family-time self’, or things like that. Sometimes you’re a salesperson or a CEO or a gallery owner or a plumber; sometimes you’re a parent or a child or a sibling. You’re still you, but your behaviour shifts a bit. But with plural systems, each individual may have ‘work selves’ or ‘family-time selves’, but they’ve got to try and combine all of those ‘selves’ into one that people will not react negatively to. It’s like being your ‘work self’ constantly, basically, but it’s somewhat more potent. And when people in a system are rather disparate, it can be stifling. Hess isn’t our ‘silly self’ or our ‘nerdy self’; he’s Hess, with his own behaviour changes around different people and what role he happens to be playing. Both of us writing this have our own personal shifts too, and there is a difference between an individual’s own roles, the Front Construct and other individuals in the system. When Yavari comes to the front, we do not become our ‘shy self’; Yavari is here, and his moods and personal expression may vary depending on what he’s doing.
Is it oppression? We hesitate to use the term to refer to something that isn’t systematic, unlike racism, sexism or homophobia. However, it can certainly be oppressive. When you are constantly interacting with the world as a ‘construct’, that takes up mental resources that would be used more efficiently if you were able to interact with people in a more comfortable way.