The “Charisma Code” has not been cracked by sloppy thinking

From Salon.com’s portrait of Reality TV casting guru Doron Ofir:

That certain something which transforms an unknown nobody into a national celebrity is what we call charisma. This mysterious phenomenon of personal magnetism is usually thought of as defying definition. We can never seem to put our finger on what exactly that force of personality is exactly or where it comes from. But Doron’s ability to find star after star suggests that charisma isn’t the enigma we once assumed it to be. 

Right – because if there’s one truly mysterious quality about Charisma, it’s that you never know it when you see it.  If only there were some way to tell who the charismatic people are!

The idea that you need a formula to tell who’s charismatic is the stuff that great sketch comedy is made of.  But writer Rupert Russell goes on in very serious tones to explain that Ofir has discovered a profound secret of human nature that opens charisma like a high school locker:  “totemism.”

Take, for example, the clans that live in the Amazon rainforest around the Pirá-paraná river in the Vaupés region of Columbia, just off the border with Brazil. When the young anthropologist Stephen Hugh-Jones from Cambridge University arrived there at the end of the 1960s, he discovered that each clan was distinguished by its own totem derived from a shared creation mythology. The Bara were descended from the anaconda, the Barasana from the jaguar, and the Tatuyo from the eagle. Each of these animals was special because they were misfits. They broke through the divisions of the cosmos — air, water, sky — that ordered their world. Eagles fish in rivers and fly in the air, jaguars climb trees and swim, and anacondas leave the water to come to land.  They’re rule breakers.

Right.  Got it.  Animals that have something to do with more than one environment are rule breakers, and hence totemic.  So my dog … which runs on land and swims … is totemic.  As are frogs … well, all amphibians, really … pelicans, sea gulls, penguins …

… wait a minute, there are a hell of a lot of “totemic” animals by this definition.  In fact, almost any animal could, if you are willing to put your mind to it, “operate” in multiple elements.  I mean, if “jaguars climb trees” and “eagles fish in rivers” is your baseline, anyone can play.  Too many for it to usefully distinguish “totemic” animals from the other kind.  I mean:  why are there no penguin clans?  Why no tribes devoting themselves to the mighty hippo?

This may not be such a well thought out theory.  But Russell believes it explains charisma.

Not only could this cognitive explanation account for universal nature of totemism, it also explains how societies decide which people are believed to be special. If you look at people that believe in magic, you’ll find those who become sorcerers have one thing in common: They are all misfits. One prevalent commonality is the “madness of the gods,” such as a neurotic temperament or a frenzied episode. It is enough for societies as varied as the African Zulu, the Siberian Koriak, and the Andaman Islanders to suspect evidence of spirit possession and powers of the occult. This is usually combined with strange dreams, spending days and nights in the wilderness outside the encampment, surviving severe illness, and forgoing food for days on end. And all of this takes place in adolescence: precisely the time when we are on the margins of personhood, neither children nor adults. They break the cultural rules of “normal” behavior and by doing so challenge our intuitive sense of natural order. This evokes the contradictory feelings fear and fascination, danger and wonder. It empowers these adolescents with a personal magnetism that feels like magic. They are the beneficiaries of the universal socio-psychological foundations of charisma: the charismatic code.

Uh huh.  Because if there’s one thing everybody knows, it’s that society loves misfits.  We are drawn to them by our basic biology.  Go to any school playground and you’ll see that kids can’t help worshipping the misfits among them.  Go to any office in corporate America and you’ll find them celebrating the people among them who don’t fit in.  Our fashion magazines are filled with a wide variety of body types and our politicians are all clamoring to be perceived as ignoring the mainstream.

Because that happens, right?

Even the most cursory survey of human culture suggests that God had better help the misfits because no one else will.  I mean, if you can’t persecute people who break arbitrary social norms … who can you persecute?

Charisma, as it happens, is a very complicated subject on which both Max Weber and Philip Rieff have written entire volumes.  There’s a lot to talk about.  A lot more than just “misfits are the secret to Charisma.”  Especially given how reductively Russell makes that argument:

For a military themed show we see “A Muslim & A Marine,” on a political show there’s the “Socialist Stripper,” a dating show includes a “Cut Throat Cupid,” and on the fan-boy show we have “Tiffany Strikes Back.” Each one is an inverted cultural archetype. They’re taking your expectations of what Marines, socialists and fanboys “should” be and turning them on their head. They’re misfits. What you’d be looking at is the charismatic code.

The suggestion, then, is that ANY Muslim marine will be charismatic – not one of them would ever bore you to tears.  More to the point:  every human being is complex enough that a similar tagline can be written up about their lives.  “He’s a carpenter … with a PhD!”  “He’s a scientist … who believes in God!”  “She’s a smoker … who’s a health nut!”  “She’s a librarian … who rides a motorcycle!”

Do you want to play this game? Because you can.  Literally every human being can be given a tag line – but not all human beings are charismatic.  The formula fails.

Which isn’t to say there’s nothing to the idea of “misfit charisma” – it’s just that it isn’t a “charisma code” that explains everything else.  What I would suggest is this:  misfits who can thrive in society despite their failure to fit tend to be charismatic.

Get it?  There’s nothing inherently charismatic about someone who doesn’t fit in:  but someone who can break society’s taboos and still thrive very well may inspire an awed “how do they do that?” response in the rest of us who go about our daily lives mindful of what we can and can’t get away with.   A successful misfit, a fabulous monster, can be very charismatic indeed – but only because they get away with it.

Or … or … maybe they get away with it because they’re charismatic.  Or both.  And maybe they’re charismatic in some contexts but not in others.

It’s complicated.  Definitely not reduceable to a “totemism” or a reality TV show casting call.  The “charisma code” remains uncracked – and there may not even be such a thing.