Being Different

“Being Different” by Niccolo Caranti

“Being Different” by Niccolo Caranti

“It is better to be hated for what you are

than to be loved for something you are not.” ~ Andre Gide

True as Gide’s statement is, being hated for any reason can be pretty ugly sometimes. Especially if it seems to be a collective thing.

One person hating you is, perhaps, to be expected, but a group of people (whether it be classmates or affiliations or countries or entire races) can be beyond overwhelming. If you feel isolated, on your own, with no support, it might even lead to your undoing. Which, of course, suits no one but the people hating you.

I know this. Too well.

Here are eight of my favorite books with a major theme of being different:

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Black Boy by Richard Wright
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt
Fat Kid Rules the World by KL Going
The Crystal Shard by RA Salvatore
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Nearly all of my own work (fiction and poetry) centers around the theme of being different. Otherness!

I suppose that is because it’s at the essence of who I am. And I’ll admit part of that is the result of being treated as if I was different. You can fight such treatment. You can acquiesce.

You can change who you are (by trying to become more like everyone else, yes, but also by resisting through the act of embracing the opposite, not because that is who you truly are, but ironically to be contrary to those trying to change you). You might, however, also realize that your difference is an essential part of who you are. Not all. Yet important!

“Prejudice is the child of ignorance.” That quote, attributed to William Hazlitt, has gotten a lot of play over the past week thanks to Donald Sterling. Although I’ve always agreed with the sentiment/idea behind that statement, doesn’t that quote simplify things a bit too much?

For one thing, it offers a built-in excuse. Oh, he’s that way because he just doesn’t know any better.

Most of the time, a lack of understanding is involved. I don’t argue that point at all. People often see someone who is different somehow (physical appearance, how they present themselves, actions, etc) and the only thing they focus on is that difference.

The person being encountered is reduced to an embodiment of that particular trait (tallness or shortness, long-haired-hippiness or baldness, blackness or brownness or whiteness or some-other-shadeness, fatness or thinness, smartness or dumbness).

He or she becomes THAT DIFFERENCE.

How can we fault anyone for thinking that way, right? We’re all just one thing and one thing alone, after all. Okay, I suppose I’m a bit sarcastic, especially when dealing with something as absurdly irrational as prejudice.

But here’s a truth. Sometimes people are prejudice as a result of IN-DIFFERENCE.

It’s not merely the result of a lack of understanding. They don’t care to know. They couldn’t care less about understanding. There are also some people who are so SELF-ABSORBED, so involved in the self, that they discount anyone who doesn’t contribute to or benefit that self.

I wonder if maybe these last two types of prejudice aren’t WORSE than the sort that results from ignorance.

I present that thought, not as an opening to some profound argument, but as a question to YOU? Does identifying someone who is prejudice as being ignorant (their thoughts and words and actions are the result of ignorance), despite the validity of such an assessment, also remove some of the responsibility from those people?

Ways I have been different . . . A misfit . . .

Well, I was the “weird new kid” who couldn’t play football or baseball without getting sick on the sidelines. The kid allergic to grass. And trees. It’s difficult to play football and not spend a lot of time with your face in the grass. Running in the outfield made me sick. I was the boy in the plastic bubble (without the actual bubble or the dimpled chin, though I did have my oxygen tents).

I was the skinny kid. The conscientious, polite, sensitive kid – traits endearing to adults. In other words exasperating to youth of the Y-chromosome.

Of course, I recently had an adult give me a hard time about still being that guy.

My putting other people ahead of myself was perceived as a need to be everyone’s hero. To be the person who saves people. This coming from someone who needed saving.

I write with the hope of making someone’s ( as in anyone’s) life better in some small way. That IS my intention. To change the world in a positive way through my words. That’s not heroic. I’ve always thought that’s what we’re all here to do – make the most of our lives and contribute to the greater good if possible. Being considerate of others, putting their needs first, that’s just the way I was brought up. To genuinely care about others. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect (or at least that I’d expect) to be railed against. But sometimes being different is threatening to others because they become self-conscious of traits and habits and behaviors of which they might not be proud, but which they might not feel able to change.

And that is another reason, unrelated to ignorance really, that people act with prejudice.

“Don’t dare to be different, dare to be yourself
if that doesn’t make you different then something is wrong.” – Laura Baker

Be yourself. And accept that everyone else is herself and himself. It doesn’t seem that difficult a concept. But it sure seems a difficult practice for some.

Mark Twain, known for his wit, said it well: “I have no race prejudice. I think I have no color prejudices or caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being — that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.”

Sometimes prejudice is inherited.

Through no fault of their own, people are born into it (a product of time and place, of heredity or geography, of era or generation).

Some people come by it honestly and, in this regard, the concept of knowledge, of sloughing off an ignorance rings true. They learn a certain view and are often ignorant of other perspectives. Some prejudice is taught – by families, communities, societies, religions. Some are learned on the playground, others in the classroom. Many are absorbed, adopted, acquired through observation alone.

In these instances, understanding is certainly essential. And “ignorance” to other views plays a part.

“Be Different” by Metulsky

“Be Different” by Metulsky

“Nature never repeats herself . . .”
Maybe there’s a reason for that.

One of my favorite essays, “Shame” by Dick Gregory, begins: “I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that. I was about seven years old when I got my first big lesson.”

It’s a piece I go back to again and again, and each time it leaves me shaking my head, a dark gray lump somewhere inside me, that shouldn’t be. If you haven’t read it, I strongly encourage you to do so. “Brownies” by Z.Z. Packer is a wonderful short story I also recommend.

Watch young children left to their own devices. They don’t see color of skin first, they see another child and, given the chance, they almost always seem compelled or drawn to that other small person.

But our minds categorize things. Ironically, that is how we often come to understand new things. Yet when we only focus on specific aspects of a thing and believe that is enough to understand, it is also one of the reasons we have prejudices.

Think of the parable of the blind mind and the elephant. It’s not just an example of metaphor or of physical perception. It also conveys quite wonderfully the capacity for even the most learned of us to form conclusions about a thing, to judge it, based on a limited, and faulty perception.

“The tendency to classify our experience into categories is a fundamental and universal aspect of human cognition. We create concepts in order to make sense of the endless complexity we encounter in our environment. This is a necessary part of human thought, allowing us to process information efficiently and quickly. If we did not create categories, our entire life would be a buzzing mass of confusion. In social categorization, we place people into categories. People also reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups.”

The above quote is taken from “The Psychology of Prejudice and Racism” by Lisa J. Cohen, Ph.D.

Cohen identifies a very important point – we are constantly comparing things, identifying them by the way they fit into or don’t fit into categories we have already identified through previous experience. When we encounter something new, unknown, we associate it with the closest things we do know. In order to do that, we identify specific traits to distinguish it, to classify it as best we can. This is how our brains work.

Cohen goes on to state: “Given our diverse and multi-ethnic world, it is of great importance to understand ways to reduce social prejudice . . . intergroup contact under positive conditions can reduce social prejudice. The necessary conditions include cooperation towards shared goals, equal status between groups, and the support of local authorities and cultural norms. Considerable research since then has supported these ideas. In a 2003 review, Stephen Wright and Donald Taylor also noted the effectiveness of identification with a super-ordinate group. In other words, different groups can come together as part of one overarching group, for example as part of one community or of a common humanity.”

This, of course, requires the members of those groups to recognize the overarching group and to accept it. Often times, one or both of those prerequisites are not fulfilled.

In the case of Donald Sterling, for example, members of the group he expressed prejudice towards (in general) are part of the very organization he had been running for over three decades. Instead of seeing the organization as a whole, instead of seeing each of the parts working together, instead of accepting that the current synergy created by players, coaches, staff, and ownership worked together to create something more than any of those parts, he elected to view his role as the most important, his part as supreme.

Not from ignorance. Not from perception. but from perspective.

It’s no wonder, I suppose, two of my favorite novels of all time, focus on prejudice.

“…You go on get outta my room. I ain’t wanted in the bunk house, and you ain’t wanted in my room.”
“Why ain’t you wanted?” Lennie asked.
“’Cause I’m black…”

(from Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck)

Crooks, the stable buck who speaks first, is black and crippled and faces prejudice, as does Candy who is old, and Lennie who is mentally challenged.

The interesting thing is that Lennie, the most simple-minded of all the characters and also the most innocent, can’t fathom racial prejudice. He doesn’t think of Crooks as being different from himself.

To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel built around prejudice and preconceptions, offers many examples to characters who are discriminated against. Lee’s characters also offer insight into understanding (not the difference, but the similarities, as it’s not until you experience the life of another that you can truly relate it to your own life). This is suggested when Atticus tells Scout “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

How many ways do the following affect your life or the lives of people you know (your childhood, hobbies, even the history of or country)?

Gunpowder
Compass
Kite
Paper
Silk
Umbrella

All invented in China.

Know anyone who has ever needed adrenaline?
Thank you, Jokichi Takamine – Japan

Ever listen to music on a CD, watch a movie at home on a DVD or Blue-ray player, capture memories with a digital camera? Thank you, Japan.

Ever use a Cell Phone? Thank you Brazil
“The first cell phone prototype was patented by Roberto Landell de Moura . . . a Brazilian priest!”

Ever write with a Pen? South America!
Ever ride on a train? The Electric Brake courtesy of Mexico
Play with a yo-yo?
Ever take actual photographs – Thank you, Hércules Florence.

Here are just a few inventions by African Americans:

George Washington Carver (1860–1943) developed peanut butter and 400 plant products! Carver was born a slave. He didn’t go to college until he was 30.

Otis Boykin (1920–1982) invented the electronic control devices for guided missiles, IBM computers, and the pacemaker.

Dr. Patricia. E. Bath (1949–) invented a method of eye surgery that has helped many blind people to see.

Mary Anderson (1905). Anderson patented a rubber blade that would clear windshields in rainy or snowy weather.

We don’t usually think about where stuff comes from or who created it. We use what we want and what benefits us most.

How can we do that, though, and then look at the people who create the very things we rely on as anything but important and worthy of our consideration?

The answer is easy. Ignorance, sure. But maybe Blaise Pascal summed it up: “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof, but on the basis of what they find attractive.”

I find diversity attractive. I find the uniqueness of others attractive, and often exactly what benefits me most.

Of course, I love juxtaposition. I love being different!


“Being Different” photo by Niccolo Caranti photo at and “Be Different” by Metulsky
are used as per Creative Commons License on Flickr.

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