To begin with let’s get something out of the way. I know the popular idea of the libertarian out there on the public airwaves is the lone wolf, surviving by him/herself and needing no one.
That I know of that’s not true of any human unless he/she is actually insane — as in profoundly damaged to a level that can’t be retrieved. Humans, whatever else we are, are social animals. Okay, perhaps we’re not precisely animals. Perhaps there is a greater animating spirit, an anima, if you will, there.
But rationality, no matter how shiny and glittery doesn’t overcome instincts laid so deep that they aren’t verbalized most of the time and we’re not even aware of it most of the time.
Whether we were made or just growed, what we came out of is a social animal base, and beneath the speech and the math, beneath the rocks we’ve gotten so good at piling together in sky-high caves, the social animal’s impulses and instincts remain.
Social animals — for our sins — have a need of belonging, and a need for the comfort of the band. If I were a psychologist, instead of just reading a sh*tton about psychology and behavior (and yeah, I read about everything. Wanna take issue with that?) I’d say it was perhaps worse in humans than in other apes because of our prolonged childhood which not only gives us the idea of a “golden age” when the group protects us, but also on the other side of it as an instinctive need to protect our kin, our kith, our tribe.
I’ve said before that tribalism is one of the greatest evils of the human condition. In so far as it is exclusionary, it leads not just to racism and all the other isms that break humanity into bits, but also to things like voting for a president because he’s “our people.” (And that’s not just a matter of race. How many Catholics, whether they admitted it or not, do you think rushed to vote for Kennedy because he was “one of ours”? If the bios I read are any indication, most of them.) Or refusing to listen to someone because he’s NOT our people.
The thing is tribalism is also one of the greatest goods of the human condition. which of us has never had a group of people — friends, family, co-workers — that was just right and to whom we belonged? Which of us doesn’t remember when you all gather together and everything works just right, with this sort of warm golden glow?
All those stories of large families, of kin groups, of villages that work harmoniously — why do you think they’re so successful?
It’s never quite right, of course. There’s always one person who is an annoyance (I think lately at MGC that has been me, with all the late posting and stuff) and one person who is out of step, but it’s worth enduring it all for the golden glow of belonging.
There is a reason solitary confinement is a horrible punishment and few people emerge from it sane particularly if it takes a long time.
Which brings us to various evils of belonging, such as the instinctive ranking of people and positions, which brings us to “bling-radicalism” or “radical chic” which makes horrors like communism a positional good in certain (alas creative and academic above all) circles.
That will be dealt with in a later part of this. Right now I want to talk about the groups that do not and cannot belong harmoniously to the whole, and the problem of their attraction for dictatorial regimes.
First I will give my cred for this. Someone (ah — maybe more than someone, though in one body) on twitter was going on about how Brad and I were not real geeks/nerds and how we didn’t know the pain of not belonging. (Rolls eyes.)
I don’t know what real nerds/geeks are. There has been some intimation it’s tied to high IQ, but as a fan of mine who is a psychologist pointed out, we’ve got really good at measuring IQ. We know it’s a consistent measurement. We know what it does and how to test it. What we don’t, in fact, know is what it’s good for. Beyond that there are people of extraordinary intelligence who suck at testing. Testing is really bad, for instance, when it comes to measuring kinetic intelligence. There are tests that will do it, but not the normally applied ones.
I have reason to know this because there are indications both younger son and I (though doing well enough academically) are best at learning through our fingers. What I mean is, I can figure out how to build something better by manipulating the pieces than by looking at the instructions, either drawn or written out. And younger son, I swear, learned to read by learning to write, which sounds inane, but it’s what he did.
Anyway, so it all brings us to “what are nerds/geeks”? Right now it’s hard to tell since so much geekdom has gone mainstream, but at its roots, and starting with us or our parents, you could substitute for both terms “odd” or even “excluded.”
And who are the excluded ones?
There are certain things that are almost constant about us. We usually have some things in common, like a tendency to overthink things, to have to do by thought what others seem to get instinctively, a tendency to like to take refuge in imaginary worlds and stories, and often (though not always) a tendency to create, whether machines or paintings.
Yes, I am aware that what I describe above sounds like “autistic spectrum” but there are some odds — me, for instance — who can read people quite well, thank you, and understand emotions perhaps a bit too well.
There is a phenomenon that my friend Dave Freer, who is a biologist and used to live in Africa, described to me. Apparently ape bands have “odds” too. He calls them “outliers.” They’re apes whose behavior doesn’t quite mesh with others, and who often become the target of aggression. The thing is they’re also usually the creative ones who figure out how to break the seed to get at the interior, or that a particular berry can be eaten if thoroughly rinsed, or whatever.
This brings us to the fact I think the medicalization of oddness, as well as the marginalization of it might be a factor of our mass culture. With the advent of industrialization that required large scale machines, investment and labor, the concept of “normal” set in. Since I grew up in a very weird place and time, I can still, sort of, see not so much through it as around it.
I’m not talking about “normal” as in “can look after self” but “normal” as in “does the expected.”
For instance, while dragging my kids behinds to school every day at the same time, and trying to get them to turn in homework, I became acutely aware that I’d have failed elementary school in the US. You see, the village hadn’t yet got the standardization thing and since my family was known to be — well — odd, but okay with all the learning stuff, the teacher didn’t bat an eye if I showed up at 9 or 8 or 10 or 11 or whenever mom persuaded me to go dragging into school. And as for homework, well, the teacher proved willing to accept, in lieu of essays on “my favorite holiday” short stories about colonizing a planet. Because standardization hadn’t hit.
But modern life and standardization have little room for outliers, which is why we medicalize it and treat it as an abnormality.
Recently (!) a friendly acquaintance in the field was lamenting that his son was “autistic” but the symptoms he gave was that the other kids wouldn’t play with him, and that he still couldn’t ride a bike or jump rope.
Well, by that definition, my entire paternal line is autistic. When my brother was a star handball player, and part of the training involved rope-jumping, mom tried to teach him (and me.) It couldn’t be done. Brother never learned to ride a bike, even though it was the normal mode of transport over somewhat longer distances. I’ve learned three times… and forgotten each time (and I was never great at it.) And while mom used to go all over the surrounding areas on a bike as a young woman, I don’t think dad ever learned to ride, because all his stories are of WALKING everywhere, including high school which was hours away on foot.
As for getting along…
We might not know what Odds/Geeks/Nerds are, but normal people do. They tend to be the rejected kids, hanging out, solitary, often with a book (I suppose these days with a tablet) in a corner of the playground.
In my family we usually figured it out and could “ape” normality enough to have a social life by the end of elementary/middle school. Some of us were so good at it that we got a little lost, and the suppressed oddness came out with a vengeance in old age.
But anyway, I know what it is like not to belong. My normal number of close friends is three or four. I was “popular” in college but the acting and constant watching yourself in public made it difficult. And even then I was only popular as the “Weird friend.”
So while I can’t point and say “I was a different color/gender/orientation and that’s why I was excluded” I can say I was an odd and an outlier, and I know what it is like to be outside. (And in point of fact, at least in high school and college, I was a different social strata and a provincial — even though the village was only ten kilometers from the city, it’s a long distance when your transportation is mostly public buses — and my gestures/dress/speech showed it.)
Now I know, I understand, the desire and need to belong, and how, like a mirage, it recedes the more within your reach you think it is. Short of denying who you really are you can’t “fit”. It’s just not there. And particularly for kids, this is very painful. You don’t expect no to belong. And when you don’t it comes as a shock and anger.
I think this explains why racial, orientation and gender minorities both tend to resent the regime they live under, particularly if it’s more or less free, and wish for a more top-down system.
Our first experience of belonging (or not, for some) is of a family. And even in dysfunctional families, the parental authority, if it’s worth anything enforces the “he/she is weird, but he/she is ours.” In school, also, for the truly odd kid, the teacher and the supervising assistant, or whatever, are the ones who intervene to stop abuse by peers.
So at the back of a mind of a lot of oddlings — no matter how or what makes you odd — is the idea that a benevolent dictator could MAKE others accept you. That you could fit in.
I completely understand the radicalization of minorities.
But I submit to you it also comes from a total lack of knowledge/acceptance of history.
There is a reason in my revolution-against-a-suffocating regime I had a gay couple as heroes.
I know that in many places, from Nazi Germany to Soviet Russia, Odds, including racial and sexual minorities, were part of the supporters that brought the regime to power and were also the effective target of those regimes, sometimes to the death.
I know that in no dictatorial/oppressive regime is ANY minority free to express itself. It might be tolerated as long as it stays hidden. And that definitely includes those undefinable individuals who are “merely” odd.
This is because cohesiveness is the greatest tool of an oppressive regime. You can’t kill all dissidents, but if you create the impression “we’re all this way” you stop a lot of rebellion before it happens. Hence minorities must become invisible in the whole, or perish.
In the Soviet Union (refer to Nicki’s essay yesterday) racial/ethnic minorities were excluded/treated like second class citizens/encouraged to hide themselves. Sexual minorities…
I invite you to tell me in which communist or otherwise dictatorial regime homosexuality is free to express itself. In China, apparently, there’s a concerted effort to deny that Chinese CAN be homosexual (and sexuality as a whole is considered a sort of downfall unless it’s married sexuality in its proper place.) And we all remember Iammadjihad assuring us there were no homosexuals in Iran.
What else? Cuba? Ah. Even in Russian in his gathering, non-doctrinal dictatorship, Putin very much wants to exclude any sexual minorities. I confess I have no idea what he’s up to with racial minorities, but I’d warrant it’s not good.
As for the other “Odds”, those of us who just don’t fit in and aren’t sure why, (And I’m aware some of you are double odds, yes, both an excluded, obvious minority and one you don’t know why you’re excluded, sometimes by your own subgroup) we also don’t do so well. You see that “creative” and “doesn’t do what is expected” makes us the bane of dictators, who want both predictable and stable societies. The stable is sort of how they sell themselves to normal people. “You won’t be rich, but you’ll know exactly how poor you’ll be tomorrow.”
It seems to be part of the social destiny of the odds that in striving for inclusion and fighting against the regime we grow up in and which seems to exclude us (which if it’s a free regime is not exactly true. We are excluded by structures remaining from mass industrialization and from the habit of “normal” in our schooling and society) we end up installing a regime that denies us/kills us.
On the other hand, the era of standardization, mass industrialization and “normalization” is passing. The coming era of fractured production and industry and more importantly the coming era of communication long distance, allows each oddling to find his/her group and to belong without sacrificing all of oneself.
Which is something that will produce, hopefully, creativity without the pain of not belonging.
Even if the remnants of the mass-industrial-art complex are still doing their best to pound us square pegs into round holes.
It doesn’t matter. Theirs is a time that is passing. Ours is the time that is coming.
In the end, we win, they lose.