When I was a kid my parents told me that I was unique, different and better. They lied. Of course they did.
I was just another scrawny boy growing up in Islington, London, and certainly no better than anyone else. But as parents are wont to do, they painted this illusion to try to give me some sense of self-worth in an environment where alienation was inevitable, and disillusionment was highly possible.
Islington in the early 70s was predominantly white, certainly my part of it was, and this was when the National Front was at its height. Racist abuse was an everyday fact of my growing years.
And I WAS different. It wasn’t just that I was skinny, gawky and ugly or that I found it very hard to make friends and didn’t play sports. The difference was starker than that because, perhaps more significantly to those around me, I didn’t eat Spam at school dinner time and I was brown.
So you can understand and appreciate an attempt to create some sanctity of self in one’s offspring in such a predicament. And perhaps to an extent it worked. Because whilst even my less than mature conscious was self-deprecating enough to conclude that any notion of being ‘better’ was absurd, it did cement a concept of uniqueness.
The brainwashing instilled a defiance, a conviction that filtered out of my psyche the need to belong, the desire to fit in, the desperation to be measured by others’ values, especially as these were not necessarily compatible with my own.
It compelled me to subscribe to the one over-riding edict that dictates my choices and decisions to this day: ‘be yourself, no matter what they say’.
Yes that’s a line from my favourite Sting song, yes I do really dig the loud drum interludes in it, and yes there is something of an irony in drawing from a song featuring the line ‘I’m a legal alien’ and the title ‘Englishman in New York’ in light of the picture I’ve painted above. But that is the beauty of good music, it can speak to different people in different ways.
What I find both amusing and perplexing is that the character trait that I distilled out all those years ago, the need to be part of a greater cabal, is still very much present in the wider world today, and perhaps stronger now than ever before.
Why I find this odd is because with such a hyper-accelerating longevity-embracing global population, thrown closer together than at any point in history – whether due to more accessible travel or the ever prolific interweb – there doesn’t appear to be a trend to seek the strength of individuality, something so overwhelmingly being drowned out in today’s incessant need for demographics-defining excel-sheet conformity.
You’d have thought people would want to stand out from the multi-masses, and seek their own identities from within in order to place themselves in this astounding new age of discovery and wonder. Instead they are brainlessly submitting to the 21st century zombie walk of life, and copy-pasting acceptable social norms of categorized personalities.
It’s this submission to self-abandonment and inability to think for oneself probably more than anything else that, I believe, fortifies tribal mentality, encourages umbrage at non-conformists, fosters conflict, and culminates in violence, hostility, wars, tragedy.
An acceptance that people can be unique and different but of equal worth, and are as vital a component of progressive society as anyone, would go far to stemming the tide of sanctimonious entitlement and the natural oppression of those that are ‘alien’.
Think, for example, what would happen if we did actually encounter aliens? We’d attempt to kill them. We wouldn’t be able to comprehend or understand them. We couldn’t cope with them, because we can barely cope with the aliens in our midst – or indeed within us.
I know this because I still feel like an alien sometimes. People look at me, and draw conclusions, then they ask questions – where are you from? where were you born? where was your father from? what did you study? – to further confirm their own preconceptions. Yet after all that interrogation, they still always have me wrong.
When I open my mouth I confuse them, when I show maturity I intrigue them, when I get silly I appall them, when I write stuff like this… well I suspect they want to have me committed. ‘It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile,’ goes another line from that song. I’d rather be a man than a sheep.
You see I like it like this. I like being the alien. I’m not for being classified and compartmentalised, I’m not for being easily read, simply analysed, instantly pigeonholed. I’m complex, I’m different, I’m unpredictable and I’m, well, me.
The world is a diverse and strange and amazing place. People should be too. This would create an acceptance and appreciation for differences. And it would make the world a more understanding and peaceful place. If not, we can all get in our spaceships and leave.
Oh no, we can’t, can we?