The Holy Grail of Normalcy
I wake up, take a look on my Iphone5, draw back the curtains and make myself a bowl of oatmeal with nuts, honey and banana. I have half an hour to get to university, my lecture starts at 11 am sharp. While in our student-home-camping-shower-without-proper-pressure, I try to decide what to wear today. Five minutes to eleven, I grab my bike, which rattles with every hump, wearing wide black satin pants, a grey shirt from Zeeman, white sneakers and a leather biker jacket. ‘Reckless’, by San Cisco, a band you probably won’t know, is playing from my headphones. Texting my friends and maneuvering through city traffic, I spot five girls dressed the exact same way, who’ve probably started their day with a healthy and nutritious bowl of oatmeal too. I try to convince myself of my originality; I am probably ‘cooler’ then they are, in terms of my intelligence, broad interest in arts and travel experience.
Why am I so eager to distinct myself from these other girls? Why do I gain fulfilment convincing myself of them being less ‘cool’ then me? In fact, I know tons of people who have an Iphone5, listen to unknown bands with pseudo-intellectual names, or wear t-shirts from Zeeman to take a stand against the fashion scène. I want to be unique, because becoming an authentic human being seems to automatically allow me to lead a successful life. Quite hypocritical; emphasizing my unique features, personal opinions and original ideas, which together compose my identity, while I share my ambition to succeed with almost every other individual in this world.
The comparisons I make revolve around relatively unimportant issues and result in a certain envy at the most. However, it seems as if people also try to differ on the bases of unchangeable aspects of individuality, such as race, ethnicity and religion. These differences become insurmountable when they entail a certain privilege. Authenticity in this case does not just lead to envy, but it encourages people to act out, even violently so. Differences, rather than similarities, seem to compose our identity, something I’ve learned to describe as the narcissism of minor differences.[i] If I look around in newspapers, in city streets or on the internet, all negativity I see is caused by differences. I see people rioting in Baltimore, because some seem to be treated differently based on one minor aspect of their identity, something they have not even chosen to be. I see football supporters of Ajax and Feyenoord attacking each other, while they share their love and commitment for soccer. I see women being paid less than their male colleagues, while they both teach high school students and have the ambition to become university professors. Most importantly, I see myself constantly comparing my talents, achievements and experiences to those of others. Daily. The narcissism of minor differences is not just an abstract term for a vague phenomenon. It is not just located on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean or revolve around people who speak a different language, it happens here and now.
Globalization has brought us multiculturalism, fair-trade chocolate and internet relationships. Simultaneously, there have never been this many civil wars, the North Pole is melting and there never seems to be time for boredom. Our generation has grown up with limitless opportunities, the idea that we can succeed in everything we want to and that we are special. Meanwhile, we are constantly confronted with our irrelevance and normalcy. In our search for uniqueness and authenticity we try to distinguish ourselves from others, forgetting that someone else needs to acknowledge that uniqueness for it to be relevant. Instead of envying those girls for wearing nicer pants then I do, I can rather value their great taste in pants and let their sense for fashion inspire me. If we focus on what football supporters, men, women, inhabitants of Baltimore, or even the whole world, have in common, we might actually start appreciating our normalcy. If authenticity only leads to envy or even hatred and violence, than why be authentic? I’d rather be normal in attempting to be special.
[i] M. Ignatieff, ‘The Narcissism of Minor Difference’, in: The Warrior’s Honour. Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (London 1998) 34-71.