Being Special

Physical coordination is not my forte.  Despite many years of flawlessly accomplishing the feat, I still sometimes misjudge the relative positions of my mouth and the glass.  With all the grace and dignity that comes with my advanced age, I find myself with liquid dribbling off my chin.  I can assure you this is one of the situations where a debonaire look that says, “I meant to do that,” is simply impossible to carry off.

Vivid recollections like that make it hard for me to understand why anyone would willingly add a stylish ring through their lower lip.  If I had one, I’m sure I would constantly find myself with some liquid leaking around the glass and running down my face.  Likewise, too frequent stumblings over my own tongue stand between me and any desire to add a gleaming stud to the inside of my mouth.  And as for having someone approach the more intimate parts of my anatomy with the sartorial equivalent of a paper punch…!!?

Don’t think so.

One is tempted, at this moment, to ask rhetorically why people don’t realize how stupid they are to do such things.  Why they don’t realize that the clever tattoo they acquire today will hurt like hell to remove tomorrow?  In short, to begin sounding like some old fart decrying the incomprehensibility of the young and the futile ambitions of those who wish they were young.

Okay.  So instead of asking rhetorically, how about asking seriously?  Why are people marking themselves so conspicuously?  This is worth asking, because it seems to me that beyond the obvious vagaries of fashion and fad, there is something here that echoes other trends of our time.

I suspect many of us can remember the times in our young days that we absolutely prayed to be anything but normal.  Normal meant, well, average.  You know, dull and, well, just like everybody else.  What made it ironic, at least in adult eyes, is that we usually felt this passionate desire to be different at exactly the same time that we desperately wanted to belong.

What most of us wanted, of course, was to be special.  We wanted to be different, but in a hip way.  We wanted that special kind of difference that would bring awed respect from those we wanted to accept us.  We wanted to be different, but only in a cool way.  Most of all, we wanted to be on the inside, looking out.

One would like to think that the current rash of multiple piercings complemented by pseudo-mystical tattoos is just today’s rendition of the same urge.  One would like to, but I’m not so sure.  I have begun to fear that it is the harmless edge of something that is simultaneously the same thing and something very different.  All around I see people, particularly the young, consciously isolating themselves into enclaves of righteous elitism.

For example: The popular media tells us that one of the most conspicuous worldwide trends among the young is to rediscover their roots and return to the “basic elements” of their culture.  Many find the outside world they inhabit so barren and lacking in hope and purpose that they turn backwards, seeking meaning in a spiritual turning back of the clock.  We call it “a worldwide trend towards fundamentalism.”

We only see it as dangerous when it is reflected in the eyes of some foreign fanatic.  But think about those people of our own not so distant past who dressed and acted so as to set themselves not merely apart, but at odds with the rest of society.  Remember the Black Panthers, hostile and threatening in their berets and leather jackets?  Or the Black Muslims, disciplined and dangerous in their serried ranks of business suits?  Not to pick on the African-Americans, but I think these were early examples of a trend of self-conscious isolation from society.

Point here is that these were not the losers of society, like the Ku Klux Klan, second-rate people dressing up in a vain attempt to be superior to someone lower down on the social totem pole.  In their own way, both the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims were some of the best of their cultures, consciously separating themselves from their own elders and their elders’ beliefs as well as from the general population.

Many of those Muslim fundamentalists that we hear so much about share some of the same signs.  While we Americans like to attack Islam for what we see as its repression of women, thousands and tens of thousands of young Islamic women are choosing to wear the chador or its local equivalent.  They are choosing to differentiate themselves by rejecting the “modern.”  They demonstrate their piety by moving about in cosmopolitan cities visibly wedded to an exclusive and deliberately old-fashioned model of dress and conduct.

And it is not just the African-Americans or the Arabs.  Anyone who has ever seen groups of young Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses on the streets is likely to have been struck with how their dress, haircuts, and unisex groupings seem like some time-warping visit from the fifties.  Once again, here are people choosing a mode of distinguishing themselves that actively rejects the way the standards of the larger society have evolved.

Why do I see a pattern here?  Let me tell you a story:  Once upon a time, the aerospace industry looked like it was the output of some giant fashion cookie cutter.  All the men had short hair, white shirts and ties.  Sideburns and colored shirts were added as a legacy of the sixties, but nothing really changed.  No matter how exotic the accent or how non-Caucasian the features, everyone was determined to be as indistinguishably American as possible.

But sometime in the eighties, that began to change.  I remember the first sign was seeing a young Jewish colleague suddenly sporting a yarmulke.  I remember asking him about the change.  He said it was to remind himself that he was a Jew.

Hmmm.  Okay.  A bit odd and off-putting, but a personal decision.  Or so I thought.

But it turned out he was merely the first.  It gradually became almost a fashion.  More and more of my indistinguishably American colleagues apparently were being overcome with a need to remind themselves that they were Jews.  And it spread to others.  Suddenly there were prayer beads and even turbans where there had been none.

As it has kept on spreading over the years, rippling across every part of the world, I have been struck by the sameness of them.  All sorts of groups decide to become extra.  Some Jews become extra-Jewish.  Some African-Americans extra-Black.  Some Muslims and Christians extra-pious.  And all of them choose to make it external.  To make sure it is visible.

What’s wrong with that?  Or, to put it another way, what is there about it that I am afraid of?

Just this: Wherever I look, I see some of our best people choosing to live within their own, carefully demarked worlds, at odds with the larger society.  I think I see them striving for a special purity that sets them apart and, perhaps, above the rest of us.  And I think I see that most dangerous of human combinations on their faces, self-righteousness mixed with insecurity.

I guess I am afraid some of these folks have achieved that adolescent ambition: they have joined the in-crowd.  And I see them there, like caged animals, on the inside, looking out.

At us.

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