My dear friend, Pete Ford is today’s guest blogger. Pete has been a huge supporter of Preppy Bohemia from day one and is a fellow Inklykr (My amazing writing group). He just launched his own blog Pete Tweets which features samples of his creative non-fiction and poetry and lots and lots of haiku. I have been so impressed by the growth Pete has made in the past couple of years, both as an artist as well as a young man. He loves writing, philosophy, and swing dance and often does all of them simultaneously… or not. In this piece, Pete writes about fitting in and acceptance.
Tommy is different. Jacob is different. Jacob is popular, captain of the football team, has tons of “friends”, even a girlfriend. Tommy sits alone in his wheelchair at lunch, has never had any friends, has never been the champion of anything. Tommy is “special”. Jacob is “extraordinary”. If racism is dead, then why is discrimination so rampant?
Jacob and Tommy have some things in common, though. Both were created with the dignity of humanity and uniqueness. No one talks to Tommy and everyone talks to Jacob, and yet no one really cares about either. If you hang out with Jacob, you’re cool by association–and he is cool because someone decided he is. Yet if you are seen saying hi to Tommy, you are uncool by association–and he’s uncool because we decide so. Whose opinion counts, anyway? Why do individual opinions always bow to “public opinion”–which is made up of multiple individual opinions? Why does the minority always bow to the majority rule? Because the majority has more power from more members. Yet the majority could switch its decision. Why do we chase after something so fickle?
Tommy is different. Jacob is different.
Pete is different. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at him–or so he hopes. He tries his hardest to fit in and be unnoticeable. He does anything to avoid detection and especially avoid conflict. If only he can please people then maybe he can avoid conflict, and obviously what everyone wants is to be left alone. So be it. Or so he tells himself. If he stands out too much, he is scared of being treated like Tommy, as “different”. So Pete hides. Tommy hides. Jacob hides. Each in different ways; but each is hiding.
Pete is afraid of being like Tommy, but being like Jacob doesn’t sound too bad. Popularity sounds good. He longs for a place to belong, a place he is accepted. What if standing out–in a good way–would help him fit in? Why is it always easier to see the fun parts of being like Jacob than the hard parts? Why do we assume being like Tommy is bad and never see any of the blessings? What if having less is really more? So if Pete can’t achieve standing out in a good way–popularity– then he is determined to aim for a balance between the two and never stand out.
For how different they seem, Jacob and Tommy are remarkably similar. Neither Tommy nor Jacob have friends. Which is worse: shallow “friends” or none at all? If they leave during hard times, are they even real friends during the fair weather? Pete doesn’t have friends because he is still hiding.
To fix these problems of everyone being different, we pick the lowest common denominator. We teach to the level of the dumbest student. (And with our low expectations, we don’t offer anything to strive for.) But what of the smart students? We waste potential in some because others don’t have the exact same potential. “Fairness” is unfair to everyone because it demands conformity in place of uniqueness. So is saying that one is “better” at something also saying that (s)he is a better person? If we admit that one person is special, do we deny the specialness of everyone else? By definition, special means unique. We kill uniqueness. We all dress the same, learn the same, act the same.
We are also told to tolerate the differences of others–or at least you must tolerate me, but I don’t have to tolerate you. Apparently, we should tolerate diverse evil, but good doesn’t need to be tolerated because it claims to be too exclusive. We are told tolerance is acceptance and acceptance is participation. Is it even possible to respect something and not participate at the same time? And if you don’t conform, you are spitting in the face of the minority by not “tolerating” them. Boy, those people really can’t tolerate intolerance. Because they absolutely know there is no absolute right or wrong.
Why all this confusion? Because the majority rules, and the majority has declared that we must especially tolerate the minority–because it is a minority. Minorities deserve better treatment. But what happens if the minority becomes a majority: is it to be less protected? Somehow, the minority of people has the majority voice through media. We have bought the story that “everyone buys into it.” “All scientists believe in Evolution.” “99% of people are homosexual.” And if you don’t participate, you’re an outsider, going against the wisdom of the times. But since I don’t fit into the majority of “tolerators” (and by this I mean “participators”), I have become a minority, yet I am still not “tolerated.”
We band together based on similarities, yet to figure out who a person is, we ask how they are unique: that’s what makes them cool. When we describe a person, we point out how they are different from us, yet we also associate them with a group they are similar to. A white man tells his wife that he met a black man–this is not negative discrimination, it is description. He uses himself as a basis for introducing the other person: he points out differences between himself and the man and similarities the man has to an ethnic group. When a white man reads a story, is it wrong to naturally assume that the main character is similar to himself? Must he assume that the character is white, black, hispanic, Native American, and tribal African (all at the same time), just to be inclusive?
I understand that the language we use reflects our beliefs, but why do we have such specific euphemisms for “Native Americans” and such? Why do we get our shorts in a knot because someone uses a “politically incorrect” phrase to describe us? And if he’s a white male, he must be racist! Why are we so sensitive?
Yet for all our desire to fit in, we still create reasons to celebrate our uniquenesses from the crowd and our bonds to a group. Even though Pete wants to fit in and be accepted, he hates being stereotyped or lost in the shuffle. He wants to stand out somehow. Yet for all this trying to be the same and fit in and assimilate, we compete to be differently hipster to stand out. We feel the need to stand out and defy stereotypes. We take pride in being different (positive different, not negative different). We avoid using cliches and create our own brand of uniqueness to distinguish ourselves from the other 6,999,999,999 people in the world. But the different is only cool until the different becomes the same. Hipster ceases to be cool as soon as it becomes mainstream. Then we have to search for a new form of hipster. Because of this, we are protective about our differences and hold others at arms-length because we don’t want them to adopt our brand of uniqueness. Uncool is cool until it becomes cool.
Well, I should say that uncool is cool only as long as you associate with other uncool people. Uncool is not cool in and of itself since uncool is lonely. But together, with others who are “uncool”, we can be cool. And here lies a paradox: Association is required both to be cool (hang out with the cool kids) and to be coolly uncool (hang out with the geeks)–yet we are told that if we let others come too close, they will rob us–so we only let them get so close. We need other people to validate our worth, so we use them. But what if everyone else is trying to figure out life just like me and is just as vulnerable and self-protective as me?
There is a unique bond in being different so even outsiders band together based on similarities. We have a deep desire to fit in, belong, be accepted, find a home. Geeks hang out with other geeks–even if they geek about different things. Outsiders become insiders amongst themselves–even though they are different. The things they share in common include being outsiders and being passionate about something.
What would the world be like if everyone decided that being a geek is cool and people became geeks to “fit in” with the crowd? For one, there would be a whole lot of counterfeit geeks: being a geek requires passion and a willingness to be different, not a need to fit in. But if geek became mainstream, geeks would naturally separate themselves off again.
Pete finally asks himself why he cares about what people think of him, what people call him, if he fits in. He realizes how stupid it is to base everything he does on what he thinks others will think of him because of that. Indeed, everything we do, we do out of our self-image: not only what I think of myself, but also what I think others think of me (which usually isn’t true). Now, Pete is different. Pete is unique. Pete has friends who care about him because he isn’t always self-protective and can be vulnerable. He can trust. And just as much as he doesn’t want to be judged and stereotyped, Pete also extends the same grace to others.