"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Fallacy Of Uniqueness And The Cult Of Specialness

Roberta Hopkins had been told since infancy that she was special; but as her parents realized that she was nothing of the kind – not particularly bright or talented, never very athletic, socially unskilled and worst of all unattractive.

Her parents, like any other, had hoped for a special child, one endowed with more gifts than they had, and perhaps gifted with a unique ability that would distinguish her from her peers; and it was with disappointment that they came to realize that Roberta was  anything but. 

Roberta was born in an age of inclusivity and specialness, an educational and social philosophy which insisted that every child must have something unique about them, and that this uniqueness was a gift to be nurtured.  Every child in Roberta’s kindergarten class wore a necklace, each a different color, made with different beads, shells, or nuts, but all of the same length.  Attached to each was their photograph and beneath it the words, “I am special”. This program worked well in kindergarten and a few months into first grade, but by Christmas students had quickly realized that coloring inside the lines was not the equivalent to drawing birds and tigers, never making a mistake in long division, and winning all the races on field day.  By second grade, cliques began to form according to students’ own system of classification.  Pretty girls whispered and conspired with pretty girls.  By fourth grade, not only were cliques formed – the pretty, the male, the socialite, the genius, and the superstar – but anti-cliques.  The ugly, uncoordinated, socially inept, and the dumb were relegated, kept far from the perimeter of the in-crowd, isolated in home room, the cafeteria, and the playground.  No amount of teacher discipline, no mandated policy of zero tolerance for bullying or antisocial behavior, no amount of encouragement, support, and love could change the social environment.  No matter what anyone did, the natural tendency of children to self-sort, to group according to ability and preference, and to alienate those who fell short of the mark prevailed.  School administrators never admitted defeat, but privately they had to acknowledge what they saw in the halls.

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Roberta’s parents at first thought they had an ally in the principal and teachers and Vance Elementary School.  Their philosophy of militant inclusivity was bound to keep the worst offenses at bay and to enable their unfortunately mediocre and talentless child to make it to the next level. 

“You are special”, her parents told her, “and we love you very much”.  She heard the same encouraging words from her parents’ friends and their pastor as well as from her teachers.  Although all of them knew that they were perpetrating a hoax that eventually would out, they persisted.  It seemed the right thing to do.

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By the fifth grade, Roberta was having none of it.  She was intelligent and aware enough to realize that she could never match up in any category.  No matter how diverse the inclusivity chart on the classroom wall was, she belonged nowhere.  She couldn’t sing even the simplest song, or win at beanbag toss, or get picked as a substitute extra in the school play.  She realized that she had been sold a bill of goods.

Of course no one is completely a blank slate.  Roberta never forgot to feed the dog or complained about picking up her room.  She liked practical jokes and easily imagined herself a princess or a ballerina.  Her stubbornness could easily be an expression of will and determination, and her pickiness could well be a sign of maturing discernment in food and fashion.  It all depended how you looked at it; and unfortunately the educators at Vance Elementary had to draw the line somewhere, stop at X number of diverse categories, and select those categories which would include most children.

Fortunately Roberta had pluck, another overlooked talent, and the early years of hoax had no lasting damage.  On the contrary, she turned this period of nonsense, into resolve – not necessarily to find something she was good at, but to play well the bad cards she had been dealt.

In fact Roberta had one singular talent – she recognized deception for what it was.  She watched her classmates who had bought the bill of goods sold by their parents and their teachers, become discouraged when they were turned down at the most mediocre schools, failed every screen test, were cut from athletic squads in the first week, ended up with the least desirable boys, married badly, shuffled along a predictable career, and came home to boast about nothing.

Of course there were those boys and girls who did excel at math, science, art, dance, sports, and sociability – the bell curve was always to be trusted – but they too learned that the deception ran deep.  When all was said and done, they still ate at the same trough, lost their memory and their wits like everyone else, ran afoul of the law or the church, and found that friendship – based as it was on the same deceptive philosophy of deception and inclusivity they had learned at Vance – was disappointing as everything else.

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A colleague, a young lawyer recently graduated from Michigan and come to settle in Washington, had heard of a new, unassuming, and unpublicized restaurant in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood of the city.  It apparently defied expectations – it is not easy to manage a startup in a marginal slum, find employees willing to work there, to source quality food at low prices, and to keep up the routine of purchase, preparation, presentation, and security without faltering – and the lawyer and his wife felt good about their choice.  They would be among the select few outsiders who joined locals at the restaurant.  The chef/owner felt an obligation to the community to keep prices modest and food within the range of residents’ palate and hoped to create a unique eating experience.

As they walked into the restaurant, the lawyer and his wife were surprised and in fact nonplussed by what they saw.  Everyone at table was just like them – lawyers, most certainly; lobbyists, bankers and brokers, and architects.  They dressed the same – casual, no-tuck plaid shirts, jeans, and designer T-shirts.  The chatter was familiar, the tone and ambience no different from anywhere in Northwest.  The wine glasses, the silver, the fresh flowers, and the young servers were exactly the same.

It was an epiphany.  The lawyer knew finally that he was not unique; and that he had been as thoroughly and and as similarly conditioned as anyone else.  If such a mundane, superficial choice could have turned out to be so pedestrian and predictable, what did it say about everything else?  He had made it out of the Vance School – or its replicant in Seattle or Austin – but it never left him.

We all have been sold a bill of goods whether through programs of inclusivity and multiple intelligences or by our very middle class parents who were closer to the American Dream than we ever were and bought that particular ethos.  We would like to think we are different, but know that we are not.

A neighbor of Roberta’s, a boy of religious parents, had been taught that he was unique because God gave him a soul unlike any other; and that his only responsibility in life was to rejoin that soul with its maker.  He went for years assuming that if his soul had been God-given, it was indeed special; but no explanation had ever been given by his parents or his pastor.  As he grew older he felt that although he had a divine soul, it mattered little.  It did not describe him in any particularly unique way that could be discerned and admired by others.  He was as confused about God, sex, women, and life in general as those who rejected the idea of divinity; and soon he realized that he too had been tricked. 

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The son of a New Brighton alderman had grown up with no religion or any sense of innate uniqueness.  Instead his father raised him in an ultra-progressive environment within which the individual was nothing and the community was everything.  Belonging mattered, contributing mattered even more.  The world relied on concerned, committed believers like himself.  He, his parents told him, had been gifted with a particularly finely-tuned sense of righteousness and right action, and he would be a leader in a world movement for change.

One day – not unlike the young lawyer – the alderman’s son looked at his fellow marchers on the Mall protesting against injustice, inequality, and discrimination.  How could it be? he asked himself.  They were all exactly the same – same background, same demeanor, same well-heeled engagement, even the same dress.  He and they were all clones.  Not only was individuality a fiction, but a vain one.  Each marcher distinguished himself only from non-marchers, the uninformed or politically ignorant – never from his fellow demonstrators.  The need for collectivity trumped individuality without anyone being aware of it.

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Even genetics confers no real individuality or uniqueness.  Although each or our DNA strands are unlike none other and contain bits and pieces of long-forgotten ancestors and forbears combined randomly to create us, such genetic uniqueness is quickly overcome by nurture.  Sooner or later we become just as conforming, complaisant, accepting, and satisfied as the next person on the bench regardless of Great Uncle Harry’s murders or Great Great Grandmother Esther’s lewdness and prostitution.

Hamlet had the right idea, reflecting on the uniformity and ultimate eventuality of death as he held up the skull of Yorick.  He of all people, prince of Denmark, heir to the throne, descended from a long line of noblemen and aristocrats, should have felt unique and indispensable; but he was uncertain, troubled, and indecisive.  He, like everyone else before and after him, had been sold a bill of goods.

Image result for images olivier hamlet skull of yorick

Shakespeare understood that the wheel of history revolves in perpetuum always with the same predictable events.  It is so because we are all the same, propelled by the same human nature in all of us – self-interested, self-protective, aggressive, territorial, and ambitious.  It didn’t matter to him that history repeated itself, because the way it did was always fascinating.  His kings all behaved in the same way but with a twist – one more determined than another or more poetic or more evil but all acting out the same drama.

Uniqueness doesn’t matter.  Realizing that it doesn’t matter is what counts.

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