Cain #3

DIFFERENT: UNIQUENESS AND JUDGEMENT

My first year at college went fairly smoothly. No big mishaps. No binge drinking, date rape, bulimia, nervous breakdowns or suicide attempts for me, thank goodness. Though that part of the college stereotype has eluded me, for the most part, I actually feel and have felt perfectly normal-- extremely normal, if that's not too much of an oxymoron. This is not to say that there aren't moments when I've felt out of place, in terms of music or fashion tastes or general demeanor, just as I did throughout high school, but those are superficial differences. But it was refreshing to discover during the course of ten months that my classmates tend to treat superficial differences like what they are: superficial. The new environment in which I've been immersed has taken the edges off of more fundamental rifts between personalities. People are seemingly more willing to accept difference. Whether or not they actually succeed is another issue. At any rate, it's interesting to see people's reactions to differences-- from aversion to obsession to indifference.

Indeed, some people at school actively look for ways to be different, for better or worse. I'm sure this is the case on most if not all college campuses across the nation. The desire to fit into the mold of what is popularly defined as "different" frequently compels a rather ordinary teenager to drastically change his or her appearance-- i.e. spike his hair or force himself to do silly, outlandish things-- with the intent of shocking other people in hopes that the ability to "stand apart" from the crowd will attract admirers. In high school, everyone changes because they either have to or want desperately to fit in with one group or another. But as we grow older, to suddenly change your appearance or behavior to alter other people's perception of you seems kind of pointless, when you should instead be broadening your horizons and growing out of the rigid and petty categorization system that dogs us in our formative adolescent years.

And yet, I feel guilty for not being more sympathetic. Although I've never thought that I have a particularly "full" high school experience-- after all, I was always one of the strangest, least social people around-- perhaps I'm able for some reason to cast a more skeptical eye on these jaunts into the realm of contrived non-conformity. Maybe it's because I've lived in a large city all my life and I've seen real strange people. Still, I feel as if I can't really be angry with people for their eagerness to exude "coolness" and "independence" and all of that artsy-fartsy stuff when the reality is that they're quite nondescript. I know I'm pretty jaded about many things, but does that give me the right to see through the transparency of these people's attempts to be pretentious weirdos or tantalizing enigmas? Or maybe it upsets me that people are getting positive attention, succeeding at the same stale charades I witnessed and even attempted in high school-- before I realized that I was destined to awkwardly toe the line between normal and strange, halfway in and halfway out of the crowd, bitter about it for no good reason.

On the other hand, my post-secondary education has thrown me into a jumble of people who differ in real ways-- people from different parts of the country, different social backgrounds, different philosophies, and different goals. At the same time I've become more acutely aware of these subtle differences. I don't know if I've necessarily become more accepting of difference. This is partially because throughout my life thus far I've dealt with people who are relatively unlike me, so I'm accustomed to dealing with different types; partially because I tend to respect people who might feel out of place because I empathize with them on some level; partially because I just don't care very much about how people choose to live their lives and hope that if I leave them alone, they'll let me do my own thing as well. And obviously, it's difficult to evaluate "difference" in general, since it encompasses so many things. Another factor in my indifference toward difference is a belief that there is no real standard of normality to which I can compare each person I've encountered. There's no unit of measurement for conformity or freakishness, because the world is too damn big. To say that someone is or isn't normal is to imply that you've seen it all. This could, of course, just be modern, politically correct academia indoctrinating me ever so slightly with all this preaching about cultural norms and how intellectual conceptions of things vary across cultures and we should embrace "diversity" in our society. But if it is, I suppose the origin of this idea doesn't make a difference to me, because I agree with it, in at least one regard: there is no universality in judging other people. One could argue, naturally, that there are universal rights, universal laws that apply to everyone. Regardless, to steer this digression back to the original topic, individual perceptions of what it means to be normal are more or less ephemeral and meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Individual conceptions of what it means to be different are simply comparisons-- not really between the one "different" person and the standard for regularity, but between two disparate entities. It would be contradictory to suggest that there is a quality of "difference" in and of itself, operating independently of all other phenomena, because the existence of a difference is being compared. Someone is different from the majority of people if they do a certain thing or look a certain way, but they're not different in and of themselves-- only in terms of a contrast. The nature of the difference is the product of a qualitative gap, which is emphasized, maybe distorted, by the quantitative gap between the status quo and the outsider. The problem is how to deal with the arbitrariness of defining variety among people without overlooking the broad significance of it. It probably sounds like I'm reading into the semantics way too much. Nevertheless, I think it's important to view difference as a means of analogy-- not as an aspiration, and certainly not as a curse.

So in a very large nutshell, that's my take on why and how I, and maybe other people too, should put differences in perspective. But back to my college experience. I don't know if I'm more open-minded or more cynical now that I've wrapped up my freshman year. I feel that I've interacted with an extremely variegated array of people. But I've also become aware of underlying currents of homogeneity.

There's an interesting sense of class difference at my school that I would assume is present in most private institutions. In some respects, the school is very much entrenched in the old-boy, blueblood mentality, and despite the admissions office's aim to achieve more diversity, the fact remains that most of the students come from well-off households, ranging from "comfortable" to ridiculously wealthy. But then again, so what? There are many rich kids and a few not-so-rich to genuinely poor kids, and I fall somewhere in between. Issues of class, however, are more political than palpable: there are liberal people and conservative people, and many arguments floating around about redistribution of wealth, affirmative action, and so on, and yet these issues are suffused with ideological rather than actual class tension. I suspect that this is because most people are coming from middle-class to upper-middle class backgrounds. Despite heated political battles, there just isn't much room for dialogue between the haves and the have-nots when most of the people on campus are representative not of the ludicrously broad range of wealth in the Unite States, but just of a comparatively narrow slice of the economy. Furthermore, there seems to be a stereotype of "the rich kid" that people either embrace-- with all the good old boy, cigar-smoking, blue-blazer sporting aesthetics-- or try to escape by just being a more-or-less typical college kid. I've realized lately that besides those who get some twisted satisfaction from flaunting wealth to spite others, virtually no one likes rich kids, including, oddly, many rich kids. There are also, in sharp contrast to the old-boy traditionalists, well-to-do students who have ridden the counter-culture pendulum to the other side of the fashion gamut and assume this indie, neo-beatnik, hippy-like identity that creeps me out as much as those guys who wear bow-ties to class.

There are a few other types of differences that I've witnessed and heard about, including ethnic diversity and fairly open cultural interfaces between different sexual orientations and religions. But there's much more talk about diversity, and what it means to be diverse, than there is actual diversity. Differences and tensions between social groups spark heated debates in student forums, but in everyday life, people seem to be rather bored with these issues. They do what makes them comfortable, and while that could entail latching onto a new clique, coming out of the closet, or becoming really tight with people of your race or nationality or religion, it seldom involves going outside of one's way to seek "diversity" in your group of friends. Diversity in student society is an institutional objective, not a personal one. Sometimes, walking around campus and watching different groups of students siphon off happily into their own cliques, I feel like people are content to find their own niche of similar-minded people, and that the question of "why do I feel comfortable only with these people?" just doesn't gnaw at them. But should it? I try to let others be themselves without imposing my values on them, and my peers are now doing the same, so why should this bother me? Still, there's a distinction between avoiding differences and accepting them. I force myself to wonder whether it's human nature or close-mindedness, or both, which leads to dispersion of my peers. It's not that everyone around me looks and acts the same; it's just that the student body is large enough, and self-contained enough, for individuals to pursue their own interests while easily avoiding conflicts related to diversity if they so choose, and many do. Though this appeals to me somewhat, as people seem less likely to look upon my own "weird" qualities in a negative light, as it was in high school, I think that when you burrow into a relatively homogenous social sphere, you begin to trivialize difference-- to the point that it becomes a convenient "statement" like purple hair or armchair liberalism. It becomes easier to show that you're cosmopolitan and individualistic, because you must venture only inches out of the bounds of the familiar in order to raise a few eyebrows and pat yourself on the back for being "your own person" or the rebel against a popular target.

I've come to the conclusion lately that the dichotomy among students between political ideals and pragmatic, individualistic pursuits, is totally natural in a sheltered, lovingly padded environment like a college with a huge endowment and rolling lawns. What disturbs me, however, is that ethnic and socioeconomic tensions exist on a very real, often very painful level, just outside the gates of many institutions not unlike mine. In the real world, people tend to hurt each other when they push for their own own interests and exclude those who can't cut it for shallow reasons. And diversity isn't just a nice concept or pop cultural buzzword-- it's an issue that alienates groups, gets thrown around by sleazy politicians at the expense of the public, and generally disconcerts people. My problem right now is trying to reason out why such a sobering dichotomy exists between the real world and college. I know the issues of the real world extend into the political climate of my college campus, but it seems like it's all just a model reality constructed to make kids feel more proactive-- a mock trial of sorts. I wish there were some way of knowing right now whether this reality of symbols and gestures is adequate preparation for a tense and harsh world out there. Maybe ordinary American adults are just as apathetic and self-absorbed, but that would be sad. Younger generations should be encouraged to act upon their ideals, not sit on them. Why do people waver between wanting to challenge themselves "out there" and burying themselves in their own self-importance "in here?"

By no means do I assert that the apathy among my peers hasn't encroached upon me at all. I grimly suspect that since beginning college I've become more adept at judging people upon first impressions. Oh, I say to myself, it's just another jock, or another suburbanite, or another spoiled brat, or another valley girl, the list goes on and on. All those things have fluttered through my mind when I've surveyed the scene at a party or glanced at classmates in a lecture hall. And it upsets me, although I know I'm not alone in my propensity to judge others based on superficial perceptions. Reading what I've just written upsets me. Am I an asshole for being condescending toward wealthy people who betray their class through their style of dress? Am I petty for not being alarmed that my classmates covertly close themselves off from people who are not similar? And what gives me the right to sit here and judge the way other people deal with difference as if I'm somehow wiser or more open-minded? I'm not. I'm just as judgmental as anyone, though I'm more conscious of the motivations behind my judgement than most. Due to a variety of reasons, I think I'm sensitive to cultural indicators of diversity, or lack thereof. That probably sounds really pretentious right now, but I mean to say I think I'm pretty attuned to the political and cultural stereotypes or anomalies that make up the plurality of a "multicultural" society, whether via a cloistered microcosm like my school, or real life. I enjoy exploring what these cultural differences consist of, what different modes of personal style refer to in our society, and questions of how personal identity interacts with group mentality. That still sounds pretentious, but I can't help it, because it's inherently pretentious to write about respecting differences. To say you respect differences is, as stated before, to insinuate you've seen it all, and that all differences are good. And to make a blanket statement about diversity is almost an oxymoron. You can accept difference, but you can't reify it into a positive thing without obliterating the fact that different things should be treated accordingly, each different thing holding a unique personal value.

A parallel hypocrisy is at the crux of the entire debate on the role diversity should have in our lives. By imposing a certain view of diversity onto the general public through policy and political correctness, authority figures are in fact looking for a quick, extremely general fix for problems that go much deeper than simply statistics indicating how much of group X has been "integrated" into group Y. I'm not underestimating the necessity of institutional policies ensuring that some level of diversity is maintained to prevent complete homogeneity. Nonetheless, there's a rather disturbing ignorance here of diversity on an individual level; by nature, diversity as policy, with its generalities and focus on public image, ignores the value of accepting differences on an interpersonal level and incorporating new perspectives into one's worldview. Between individuals, acceptance means trying to look beyond the surface, underneath the guise of conformity or anti-conformity, deconstructing what's wrong and what's right about preconceived beliefs. Diversity isn't just a matter of sheer numbers-- it's a matter of getting it into your head that there are some things in this world that you thought you could understand but don't. It's a matter of reconciling your ideals with those of other people, whether this involves learning to appreciate others' fashion senses or recognizing the fact that you don't have to appreciate all differences in order to live in peace with them. This idea probably seems obvious to us, but we might be afraid to believe in it because doing so might reveal our shortsightedness. Eventually, however, you do have to face, with humility, sincerity, and humanity, the existence of differences, lest you be forced to go through life with a skewed picture of reality.

There's no policy that can accomplish this. The responsibility is yours and mine, and it's that weird kind of responsibility that we can't assume overzealously, for learning to live with differences is something that comes slowly, awkwardly and, fortunately for us, naturally.

there is no real standard for conformity.

from cain #3 by Michelle Chen

Published with the author's permission 12/12/2008