Minding Difference

A gray, rather dreary day. Maybe an inch of snow overnight. A cold start to the day is forecast to give way to relative warmth as the day unfolds.

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.



3 thoughts on “Minding Difference

  1. Michael:

    This idea of “otherness” is a surprising thing to comprehend in what we tell ourselves about our country. After all the American motto is “E Pluribus Unum” (I see it’s even written on a Budweiser can I found tossed by the road). But the very human problem is the strategy of divide and conquer, and that of course goes to our evolutionary instinct and more, to our enduring stain – a mythic denial of Indian Removal and slave-holding in America’s founding.

    With supposed red states, blue states and purple states, it seems you Vermonters have a practiced sense of a more fluid urban/rural difference. (At least your voting population could relate to Sen. Bernie Sanders independent strain of thinking).
    But this journey – to find a livable community – I suppose also self-selects and creates other…other…other…ad infinitum.

    To this I’d add a suburban Other and displaced Others or economically-marginalized Other – neither here nor there. The continued atomization of a shared sense of unity and place in one unique nationhood. I don’t know any better answer than “We the People”. And I’m pretty sure native and black, and imigrant soldiers, still fight for an American Idea of a just equality – mostly beyond reach.

    At least we’re supposed to know this and, eventually, we’ll continue finding our way back.

    Thanks always Michael for your thought provocations,

    P.S. My Dad actually helped build this anti-poverty Cabrini-Green housing in the very segrated city of Chicago. Even that is all brought down now. https://nyti.ms/2EodzWm

    1. Good for your dad!
      Yes, we are atomized. A large part of that is just plain divisive politics, probably worsened by the internet. I think the task may be to get to know as many kinds of other as possible. Maybe that might help us find our way out of this morass. Yes, let’s do find our way home.
      I saw “Peter Rabbit” over the weekend. It is a marvelous film about difference and finding home.

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