Tuesday, June 13, 2006

In the immortal words of Pete Townshend, ‘Who are you?”

Before continuing yesterday's post about identity, I want to point out something tangentially related to virtual identities that amuses me. I've written before about Second Life, and how I don't get the attraction (outside of financial gain). Guess what - I'm not the only one who doesn't get it. Chris Pirillo has a funny blog post about his first Second Life experience - I laughed out loud reading it. Chris is no dummy when it comes to computers, so the fact that he ended up with a box on his head is extra amusing to me.

Ok, so back to identity. I've been talking with a few friends about this topic for months now, and while the discussion has been fascinating (to me at least), I am not claiming to offer any revolutionary new answers or insights on the topic.

So why do people end up with multiple identities (and I'm not talking about clinical schizophrenia)? Several months ago I had a conversation with a friend about not underestimating people’s personas based on what you see in public. I asserted that some people are exactly who they appear. They are comfortable in their skin, in their identity. Conservative or freak, they are exactly who they seem to be. But not everyone can do that. For starters, society would have a hard time functioning if everyone ignored decorum and rules and said and did whatever they felt like. So while it feels unnatural to be this conflicted and have a personality different from the veneer you show the world, it is often necessary.

Let’s face it, if Hermey had wanted to be a plastic surgeon instead of a dentist, he and Rudolph could have avoided their whole journey with Yukon Cornelius and the Island of Misfit Toys. Rudolph was different due to evolution or (as his father and other reindeer thought) a birth defect. The other reindeer shunned him even though his being different was completely out of his control. Hermey was a more egregious offender to society’s working order: he CHOSE to pursue a deviant career path from his peers. He wasn’t born a dentist, he had the nerve to choose that path instead of testing rubber duckies or whatever else the elf-master made him do in the little-people sweatshop. Either way, Rudolph and Hermey couldn’t fit in with North Pole society (though I’m thinking if Mr. & Mrs. Claus had been a little more liberal in sharing their peppermint schnapps they could have dulled their independent identities enough to make a go of it) so they struck out on their own. While the North Pole society depicted is a bit simplistic in its monoculture, the basic premise isn’t all that different from reality.

At a very basic level we push deviants to the fringes, underground, and that allows the rest of us to feel normal and safe. People are generally uncomfortable with things they don’t understand. So for a lot of people it is easier to mold themselves to fit in even if it isn’t who they are. It is a peculiarity of human society around the world that is started in our childhood as kids take sides and ostracize the ‘different’ kids, so we learn early in life to fit in. Later in adolescence even the 'non-conformists' (emo, goth, mod, punk, whatever) really do conform to one another – they listen to the right music, wear the right clothing to fit in with their tribe. Because isolation isn’t safe. If you are isolated from your tribe and get injured or have a bad season hunting you could die. It isn’t so drastic today because you can just go to the grocery store, but the basic premise of survival of the fittest comes back into play.

So what happens next is an interesting twist - identity drives materialism. People want things because they want to fit in. People in Miami don’t want the best pickup truck on the block like people in Topeka do, because it doesn’t help them fit into their tribe. Rudolph wanted a ‘normal nose’, because he wanted to fit in. You could argue that is a sign he is a weak person, er, deer, because he didn’t have the chutzpa to be himself – even if that meant being different. It isn’t easy to be on the outside looking in (as anyone who was unpopular in high school can tell you) but when even your parents don't understand or accept you for who you are, well, that increases the pressure to fit in tremendously.

next: I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got. (Really?)


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