One of the joys of winter is clearly seeing the forms of bare trees. Differing species show dramatically diverse forms, reminding the viewer to actually pay attention to difference rather than imagining sameness. This is a lesson I must relearn repeatedly, the voices of my art school instructors insistently pointing towards diversity as they note the tendency of mind to imagine uniformity of structure.
I began thinking about this when I noticed that much of what I see in the media holds so little diversity that when Otherness is portrayed, it stands out! While, fortunately, there is much more diversity portrayed than in the past, casting still fails to reflect the actual demographics of the country. Media representations of life tend to be organized around specific social groups in which difference is minimal, creating enclaves defined by race, disability, gender, or sexual orientation.
We humans tend to favor likeness over difference even when we might prefer otherwise. There seems to be a basic human need to see ourselves reflected in the stories and cultures we inhabit, to see persons similar to ourselves in social situations and dramas. We look for our reflections in many contexts: TV, film, stage, sporting events, religion, and politics, to name but a few.
We share a desire to see others who are more like us than different, and to recoil from perceived Otherness. At the same time, those of us who have lived in urban settings may also be discomforted when confronted by uniformity; we may desire the presence of the Other!
Yet Otherness is relative. When we share the landscape with a rich diversity of nonhuman animals we may learn to experience a wide variety of organism as “persons”akin to ourselves. The same holds true for people living in richly diverse urban environments where they are exposed to a wealth of human difference: Otherness becomes more complex, comfortable, and, yes, even desirable.
Here in the U.S. there is a vast divide between urban and more rural settings. Very consistently urban communities are more diverse, accepting, and curious than their rural counterparts, although there are also urban encampments of sameness, and there is a long history of young people fleeing the countryside in order to pursue lifestyles more in keeping with their needs.
I know too well the provincialism that MAY inform options and behaviors in rural areas. I have also experienced the profoundly limiting ethos of many of the cities in the middle of our vast country. In response, I found myself moving to larger urban environments on the coasts.
Eventually I found my way to Vermont, long known for its artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and composers who are also farmers, teachers, and/or politicians. Here we have among the highest per capita percentages of folks in the arts, people in the creative technologies, and brew masters in the country. We are also less than two hours from Montreal, four from Boston, and five from New York City! Even better, creatives from the cities love to come up and perform, lecture, read, and play here!
Let’s not pretend that all of Vermont is a bastion of engaged creativity. There are large swaths of the state where social conservatism, racism, poverty, and despair hold sway, and I have had many students who came to our small city to escape them. We also face a deeply ensconced opiate problem that threatens to overwhelm our limited collective resources.
Often my task has been to encourage students to build creative lives that support their hopes and aspirations while forging new connections with the deeper values, perseverance, and lifeways of the communities they have fled. There is much that is good and worthy in those communities, although mainstream media tend to ignore both the good and the creativity of the people who inhabit them. Many of these are communities in which survival is a most demanding matter requiring immense ingenuity.
It seems to me that the media seldom show accurate representations of life in rural communities. As a result, folks who have long lived in the countryside rightful protest the way they are portrayed, expressing frustration and sorrow at the lack of accurate and affectionate mirroring of themselves and their experiences. Perhaps they are now the most Other of Others.