Wearing a Mask the Face Grows Into


The purpose behind the short story, Shooting the Elephant, is to describe our lifelong struggle between acting in an authentic manner and ceding to group thought. As anyone that has ever attempted to write a story, the true story lies within the story. As anyone that has attempted to write a story, stories are stories. Some of them list a chronology of seemingly irrelevant events that happened in a person’s life and documenting them. A great writer can take one of those moments and translate them into a meaningful moment, and they do so by attempting to dig into the depths of why the players involved acted the way they did. The author may also become obsessed with why they acted the way they did. What was my motivation at the time, a writer may ask, and what does it say about me, or what does it say about humanity as a whole? 

As a standalone, i.e., listing off the events that took place, I’m guessing that the aspiring writer –that was Eric Arthur Blair– considered the story incomplete and without purpose. I’m guessing that it was probably written numerous times, in search of a driving force, and that that probably was not achieved without some creativity on George Orwell’s part in the rewrites.

We can also guess, based upon what Blair would achieve under the pseudonym George Orwell, that the search for the quality story, supported by a quality theme, was the driving force behind his effort. If the driving force behind writing a story is to achieve fame or acclaim, so goes the theory, you’ll have neither the fame nor a quality story. The mentality most quality writers bring to a piece is that fame and acclaim are great, but it should be nothing more than a welcome byproduct of a well-written piece. Shooting the Elephant is a good story, but it’s the fact that it has a fantastic purpose-driven, central message that led Eric Arthur Blair to achieve fame as George Orwell.

HappyFaceResizeIn the pre-Facebook world, the story Shooting the Elephant –sans the purpose-driven, central message– would’ve probably been viewed as nothing more than one man describing an eventful day in an otherwise uneventful life in his youth. It may have also been considered a decent travelogue piece, as the setting of the story occurred in Burma. Without the central theme, however, it may have sat on a shelf somewhere and Eric Blair may never have become George Orwell. The writer may never have published the piece. It may have sat on his shelf as a chronicle of an event with no home.

It’s also possible –knowing that Shooting the Elephant was one of Orwell’s first stories– that the theme of the story occurred in the exact manner Orwell portrays, and he built the story around that theme, and he then proceeded to build a writing career around that theme. The actuality of what happened to Orwell, while employed as the British Empire’s police officer in Burma is impossible to know, and subject to debate, but the quality of the psychological examination Orwell puts into the first person, ‘I’ character is not debatable, as it relays to the pressure the onlookers exert on the main character, based on his mystique. It’s also the reason Orwell wrote this story, and the many other stories that examine this theme in many different ways.

The first person, ‘I’ character of George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant was a sub-divisional police officer of the town of Burma. Orwell writes how this job, as sub-divisional police officer, brought him to a point where he began to see the evil underbelly of imperialism for what it was, a result of the Burmese people resenting him for his role as the one placed among them to provide the order the British Empire for the otherwise disorderly “natives” of Burma. Orwell writes, how he in turn, began to loathe some of the Burmese as a result, while secretly cheering them on against the occupiers, his home country Britain. It all came to a head, for him, when a tamed elephant went must<1>. As the sub-divisional police officer, Orwell was called upon to shoot the elephant.

Orwell describes the encounter in this manner:

“It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.”

The escaped elephant gone must wreaked some carnage in his path from the bazaar to the spot where Orwell came upon him. En route to the eventual spot where Orwell came upon the elephant, Orwell encountered several Burmese people that informed him of the elephant gone must. Orwell then discovered a dead man on the elephant’s destructive path that Orwell describes as a black Dravidian<2>coolie in one spot of the story, and a Coringhee<3> coolie in another. Several witnesses confirmed, for Orwell, the fact that the elephant had killed the man.

When the ‘I character’ finally comes upon the elephant, he sees it “peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow,” Orwell then describes the Burmese throng that surrounded him:

“It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib<4>. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me.  And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

Orwell states that he did not want to shoot the elephant, but he felt compelled by the very presence of the thousands of “natives” surrounding him to proceed.  He writes:

“A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that (coolie) up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh.”

In the aftermath of the shooting of the animal, Orwell describes the controversy that arose, and he concluded it with:

“I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”

The Hard-Ass Boss

A boss of mine enjoyed the mystique of being a hard-ass. He enjoyed having those of us under him believe that he would do whatever it took to get maximum efficiency out of his employees. If we did well, he took credit for it. If we did poorly, say for a week or a month, not only did he direct 100% of the blame on us, he informed us that he would not be there to defend us in an indirect fashion. I cannot speak for all of the employees that were on his team, but I was not motivated by fear of this man, or the need to impress him. I was motivated by the idea that one slip up on my part could land me my walking papers.

Those of us that worked under this hard ass boss knew he would not defend us, even if we had verifiable reasons that warranted a defense. We figured that if we had that reason that we might have to go to our Human Resources department to mount a defense, and there was also a sneaking suspicion we had that he may mount a defense against us in that meeting.

This resulted in most of us believing that he cared little-to-nothing about us and only about advancing his mystique, until it advanced him within the company. Was this a fair characterization? It may not have been, but it was pervasive throughout the team, and he never did anything to dispel us of this notion.

Thus, when I was called upon to meet with him in a closed-door, one-on-one session to discuss a punishment I was to receive for a transgression, I was surprised to find him congenial and unassuming. I had expected the worst. I was wrong. He cut my punishment in half, and he did so with a smile, a pleasant and unassuming smile.

I was disappointed, and I also lost some respect for him. I couldn’t explain it, and I could’t avoid pursuing it. The characterization I had of him was such that when he didn’t punish me in an unfair manner, above and beyond that which his superiors accorded to him. I was left to fill in the blanks with pleasant and assumptive characterizations. 

He offered me another pleasant and unassuming smile in the silence that followed.

“See, I’m not such a bad guy,” he said.

If he had asked me what I thought, before leaving this closed-door session, I would’ve told him that he might have been better off refraining from those smiles, and he would’ve been better off just giving me the full punishment. I would’ve told him that the mystique he had a hand in creating was so firmly entrenched, by the time we spoke in this one-on-one, that he was in a no-win situation … If it was his hope that I like him, or think that he’s not such a bad guy after all. I would’ve informed him that once you establish a firm, hard-ass leadership mystique, doing otherwise will only lead the recipient of your leniency to believe that you are flexing your authoritative muscle as a condescending reminder to those that are under your stewardship that they will forever be subjected to your whims and moods, until they leave the room loathing you more than they had when they entered.

I would’ve ended my assessment by informing him that he’s worked hard to foster this image, and sustain this mystique, that he should probably just sit back and enjoy it. The employees on your team are now working harder than they ever have, because they fear what you won’t do to help them if they don’t. They’re also putting a great deal of effort into avoiding anything that could even be reasonably perceived as wrongdoing, based on the idea that if they get caught up in something that you won’t defend them. I would tell him that by firmly establishing yourself as a hard-ass boss you’ve given up the freedom of latitude in your reactions. We’ve adjusted our working lives to this mask you created, and any attempt you make, going forward, to foster a “nice guy” image will be perceived as weakness, and it will not redound to the benefit of any of the parties involved.

It’s too late for you, and your current mystique, I would inform him, but if you want to escape this cycle in your next management position, clear your desk library of all of these unread “how-to lead” guides that you have arranged for maximum visibility and pick up a copy of Orwell’s Shooting the Elephant. In this story, you will find the true detriment of creating a hard-ass boss mask, until your face grows into it, and while it may impress your superiors to be this way, the downside will arrive when you try to impress upon the natives” the idea that you’re not such a bad guy after all, and you spend the rest of your days trying to escape the spiraling duality of these expectations.

<1> Must, or Musth, is a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones.

<2> A Dravidian is described as any of a group of intermixed peoples chiefly in S India and N Sri Lanka

<3> A Coringhee coolie” refers to such an Indian immigrant working in colonial Burma as an unskilled laborer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

<4> Sahib –A name of Arabic origin meaning “holder, master or owner”.