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Monday, August 15, 2016

On individuality vs. Individuality.


I'm not sure what it says about me that I spend a good portion of my downtime trying to understand why humans behave the way they do. Maybe I have nothing better to do. Maybe I'm an alien sleeper agent carrying out my work. Maybe I'm exactly as out of touch as I've always worried I might be.

One thing that's gotten to me lately isn't something I just observe, but something I also feel — and when I feel something as well as observing it, I really start wondering. I mean, it's completely true (and I remind myself often) that we dislike traits in others that we often fail to observe in ourselves. Hypocrisy is easy. It's why I step back before I call someone out on something: have I done the thing? Am I really just cross with myself?

Today's case: dislike of popular things based on popularity.

This one really nailed me to a wall mentally. I mean, I definitely experience 'cultural burnout' when it comes to certain things: you hear about it day after day after day, and you may even have people asking if you've tried it yet. It can get wearying. It's like that feeling you get when you were totally fine with taking the trash out, but then someone nagged you to do it five times and now there's no force in the universe that could get you to do it. Humans are extremely contrary like that. Especially me.

But that's not what I'm talking about here. I'll address that some other time, I suppose. I'm more referring to the tendency many people have to decided that, if a visibly large crowd enjoys something — a TV show, a game, a style of music, a social media platform, etc. — they are sheep. If something is widely popular, enduring, and lucrative, then you will have an extremely vocal set damning its followers as mindless. Shockingly, it's always something the person in question has no interest in.

Now, I tend not to feel this way. But once in a while, I will get a twinge in the back of my mind when I see a sold-out stadium for a singer I don't listen to. Something that just immediately makes my brain go BAD. But then I sort of shake it off because that's ridiculous. I engage in many popular things: Doctor Who (though College Kara would never believe how popular it is now), anime (ditto), your occasional Top 40 music, Facebook and Twitter...

So why do I get kicked in the head with it, too?

My first thought was that it was brain stem stuff... but that makes no sense. If our ancestors saw a few dozen people happily eating a certain type of berry with no adverse effects, they wouldn't scoff and go eat off the bush no one's touching. If they saw everyone running in one direction, they wouldn't run in the other. From an evolutionary standpoint, if literally everyone is doing something, our hind brain should kick in and tell us that maybe there's a good reason.

So clearly this is evolved human thought. And honestly, that's a good thing, because the crowd is not always right. We are gifted with the ability to think, reason, and investigate, even when it comes to non-life-or-death elements like television shows. But it's still a knee-jerk reaction. It's as good as brain stem. So what has led modern evolved humans to immediately wince in the face of The Popular?

Individuality.

There's a fab singer named Estelle (whom fellow Steven Universe fans will also know as the voice of Garnet). She and Janelle Monáe collaborated on a song called 'Do My Thing,' which ended up on a mix CD sent to me by a friend. It's a kicky little song about expressing yourself even when other people don't understand, directed at an indefinite 'you' who doesn't appreciate the singer's hair, clothes, flow, etc. I will blast this out my car windows on the bad days. I like it.

But I can also appreciate that a flat, thoughtless reading of the lyrics can present a very different attitude. Not that we all should be free to be who we are and express ourselves without retaliation, but that Everyone Else Is The Same And I'm Different.

That's absolutely not what the song is saying. But it's the sentiment of many people out there; the idea that Different is a complete personality, and it is what should be aspired to. And you know, that's understandable. It really is. We are one of seven billion people in this world, and we're stuck with ourselves for our entire lives. Being human is not easy, especially when it comes to trying to figure out who we are and feel like an individual unit in an enormous world.

And here lies the issue. Finding your own identity, being an individual, can be hard. So what happens? We begin to identify ourselves based on what we're not. And the easiest way to be an individual fast? Turn our backs on the popular. We've just separated ourselves from a large percentage of the population... And we can keep doing that for as long as there are popular things.

It doubles down when we're called out on it. 'Oh, I don't dislike it because it's popular,' we insist. 'It's because of this very particular thing in my life.' And maybe that's true. There are certain popular shows I actively dislike because of the message they send, the imagery used, or the memories they bring up related to people or events in my own life. All valid. But we rush to make sure people know. Because disliking popular things is... starting to become popular. And we need to make sure people know our reason for dislike is special. When really it's no one's business but our own.

I'm not saying we sit and do this on purpose. (Well, maybe some do. Like I said, there are seven billion people in the world; there are good odds at least one person is fully aware of this.) But much of it is subconscious. We don't know we're pushing ourselves away from popular things on purpose. It's what our brain reverts to. 'Oh, everyone likes that? Well, being an individual is important, so I'd better not like the popular thing.'

Here's the thing of it. The ideal of being An Individual — something different, undefinable, quirky and weird and special — has overtaken the idea of being ourselves. To the point that, if you look around Facebook a lot, you'll be able to see which people are Quirky Individuals. It's not hard. They tell you.

There's no reason to dislike those people. They've found one route for a very hard thing. But it's not a helpful route. We all go through it at some point. Hopefully, for our sakes, we all come out of it.

Look at me. I'm a writer. There are tons of writers. I'm a predominantly sci-fi/genre writer. There's tons of those. There are tons of guinea pig owners. Tons of Whovians. Tons of tea drinkers, fencers, bass players, and wearers of Doc Martens. If you look hard enough, I am sure you will find someone whose interests, roles, and tastes are mostly similar, if not identical, to mine.

But we are greater than the sum of our parts. Even if another guinea-pig-owning, bass-playing, fencing, Doc-and-dress-wearing sci-fi writer exists out there, they're not Kara. I spent a lot of my childhood and youth searching around for something I could do that no one else did, because I felt that the only way to stake my claim was to be the first or only to do something. And I burned myself out so fast.

Being the first or only is pretty impressive, but it is not how we are all required to earn our individuality. Nor is being As Different As Possible. And the people who cling to that will find that it wears thin after a while. What I hope they find is that they already have so many things that make them unique: their love for their family and friends. Their special mix of experiences and knowledge. What they take on their pizza. Whatever.

We lose so much when we laud 'being different' over being in touch with who we ourselves are. When we forget that being true to ourselves doesn't require us to first pressure ourselves to be absolutely unlike anyone else. It's become the way of many to identify ourselves by what we aren't, but we — and the people around us — gain so much more when we identify ourselves by what we are.

So... if you honestly don't like reality competition shows? Or Candy Crush? Or Harry Potter? That's fine. But that rejection doesn't make you a complete individual any more than liking them makes someone else a sheep or a lemming. And no amount of editorial cartoons will ever change that.