Different, and the Same

I’ve always had an aversion to the crowd mentality. That aversion has been so strong at times that I wasn’t able to defend it with logic or reason.

Simple case in point: in my early 20s, while serving a stint in the Navy, Corona was my beer of choice. While everyone else was drinking Bud Light, mine was the sole yellow beer at any gathering. One day, a single friend of mine made the switch, and he, too, became a Corona man. It triggered an avalanche, and before I knew it, everyone was drinking Corona.

So I switched again, this time to the darkest beer I could find. If I could develop a taste for dark beers while everyone else was getting used to the light, sun-drenched taste of Corona, I could again play the part of the radical.

It was silly, of course. Who cares what beer I drink, and above all, why should the behavior of the crowd affect my behavior in any way?

This tendency, this need to defy the crowd eventually seeped into my approach to thought. I began reading differently, doing differently, and eventually, thinking differently.

Emboldened by my new outlook, I began proselytizing. There were other, better ways to live, I told friends. People who have gone before us, brilliant people, have faced the same problems as we, and have crafted new approaches, full of promise and meaning- precisely the thing that everyone I knew was lacking.

No one wanted to hear it.

At the time, I assumed that I was simply not a good messenger, that too much had been lost in translation. I needed to know more, to learn more. Everyone wanted meaning — truth — in their lives. Everyone wanted to ascend, to escape the banality of the everyday. They simply lacked the vehicle.

I read more, became more involved, more mindful. I wanted to be that vehicle.

So many years later, still, no one wants to hear it.

The first time I read Crime and Punishment, I was ashamed at how readily I related to Raskolnikov’s notion of the superior man. True, I was appalled by his notion that the superior type of man need not live by the laws, written or otherwise, that the rest lived by, but the basic notion of humanity being divided into two types of person intrigued and even satisfied me.

That was it; that was the reason that no one wanted to listen to me. There were two types: those who value truth, and those who don’t. For whatever reason, I was one of the former.

It’s not that simple, of course: when we’re confronted with a problem, nothing is more attractive than an oversimplified answer that solves everything in one fell swoop. Still, the basic truth at the core of that answer stayed with me.

In Lines of Flight: Deleuze and Nomadic Creativity, Tim Rayner speaks of the counterculture revolutions in both the New Left movements in 60s and 70s France, and the hippie culture of 1960s America. He makes a subtle but significant observation about the movements:

Deleuze’s idea of lines of flight can help us clear up a common misconception about the sixties counterculture. The counterculture was not fundamentally oriented against mainstream society. It was oriented away from it.

For years, I condemned my own line of thinking on the reductionist view of Raskolnikov: if there were two types of people, then I was a member of the better crowd. I was different. I was superior.

That, of course, is a very narcissistic view, and since I am not a narcissist, the thought left me uncomfortable. I abandoned it... but always felt the nagging guilt that one must feel when dropping off a dog a the pound. I was the owner of this thought, and it depended upon me for its survival. I was abandoning it.

Rayner, though, is right about counterculture: it is not a condemnation of culture itself. It’s merely a desire to not be a part of that culture.

By not wanting to be part of the crowd that doesn’t value truth or meaning, I don’t necessarily have to condemn them. I am not better than them; I am simply different. This is an incredibly liberating feeling: by framing the thought process differently, I removed guilt. By removing guilt, I am free to act on my thoughts.

There are many people who are not only comfortable with the problems of the world, but in fact thrive on them. In History and Guilt, Susan Neiman speaks to the crucial function that the history of World War II plays in current American culture:

The prominence of the Holocaust in American culture serves a crucial function: we know what evil is, and we know the Germans did it.

This concise thought sums up so much of my problem with modern society. For some, there must be an evil, or, at the very least, something to complain about. Their very own identities are wrapped up in railing against these ills of society. You know these people: they never stop complaining. They manufacture problems to speak out against. They make a living out of casting blame on the other guy. For them, someone must be the bad guy so that they can convince themselves that they are one of the good guys.

This inevitably leads to a black-and-white view of the world. There is no nuance, because to introduce nuance would be to upset the balance of that fragile worldview, and thus their own identity. Ask one of these people to view a situation from the point of view of the “bad guy” and the task will seem not only unconscionable, but ridiculous. That’s because their brain is telling them that to go down that road might upset that person’s view, not only of that supposed bad guy, but even of themselves. The truth is important only when it doesn’t force us to cast our gaze inward.

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing/ debating/ arguing with people like this. I’ve done so out of the obligation I felt to disprove my all-but-discarded theory that I’m better than them. I didn’t want to be better, because I didn’t want to be a narcissist.

The fact is, though, I am different. In many ways, they’re better than I am. In the end, it doesn’t matter. My desire to differentiate myself does not mean I have to condemn these people; simply that I acknowledge them. I am not against them. I simply want to be free from them. I want my line of flight.

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