Wednesday, 20 April 2011

"I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

During my first year at UEA I took a module called Introduction to American Studies, which covered a large range of topics such as race, gender, religion, youth, etc., applying this to many aspects of American culture ranging from Native Americans to congress to television shows. In short, it got us to consider America's ideologies and the ways in which they influence the country as a whole. America and ideology go hand in hand, evidenced by how easy it is to name its oft-quoted values. What values can I name quickly that I think of as “American”? Freedom. Prosperity. Opportunity. Many other pleasing words. How about “British”? Er, well... I'm struggling – are you?* It's obviously not that Britain is devoid of values, nor that we aren't proud of our culture and heritage. But patriotism isn't quite so encouraged; in fact, announcing that one is proud to be British must almost always be followed with, “But I don't read The Daily Mail or anything!” Britain is tiny, yet our identity isn't as cohesive as America's, at first glance, appears to be.

(* Natasha Ross, UEA Community & Student Rights Officer-elect, via Facebook chat: “Hmm... British values... I have no idea.” I'm not alone!)

Let me first say this: America has always fascinated me, and I have an inexplicable love for a country that I never had an obvious connection to. Despite this, there are aspects of the culture I dislike. I have no idea who to blame for making me this way, but I hate Categories. Many of you have heard the real time, audio version of the rant that is about to appear so feel free to skip if you can't bear another go-round. We love to define other people's identities. We love to say, “That person is a theist/agnostic/atheist. That person is heterosexual/homosexual/bisexual/transsexual. That person is liberal/conservative.” I understand why this is obvious and in some circumstances, useful. But I get bothered by the extent to which people rely on these incredibly broad terms to skip out on appreciating individuality. I don't think it's out of line to suggest that some people look at the Categories before the person, and make judgements based on tick-boxes. Categories are more and more becoming a part of British culture (thanks, Prime Minister), but America is King of the “us/them” rhetoric.

Let's take a look at this:

Of course this is from a movie. Of course it is exaggerated. But I am constantly surprised at the degree to which this can translate to real life, and the way in which some people really and truly believe Categories are a beneficial way to look at others, whether in a comical way like Means Girls or in a way that has more serious repercussions. (Take a look at how Native Americans are still marginalised, particularly twentieth-century efforts towards assimilation. It’s heartbreaking.) At home I'm not sure all of my friends could tell you that I'm an agnostic, or what party I voted for in the last election. Here, I found that my religious/spiritual beliefs come up pretty quickly, and it's the first time I've ever been called “a liberal”. I'm obviously aware that my views can mostly be counted as liberal, but does this make me “a liberal”, an extension to my personality that I did not ask for or seek out? Obviously I can't avoid the association. But it feels like, for all my resistance of being categorised, of being part of a group, I can’t avoid being stereotyped either.

Growing up in England in a mostly white, middle-class town, I can’t say that I have ever been the subject of prejudice. I have never really had to deal with being stereotyped or judged for simply being who I am. (The only exception would be in telling someone I’m a feminist. Feminism is not misandry, it means believing in equal rights, friends.) I think I’ve already hinted at this in my previous posts, but America has been something else. On the whole, Chapel Hill is a great place to visit, and to live, but I was unlucky in the way I was treated at times. Sometimes people were rude to me in class, such as insisting that they couldn’t understand my accent at all. This stung at the time, but I know I’m not alone in that, and other international students have dealt with the same. What’s worse is the fact that some people just cannot get over the fact that I’m foreign. To them, I will never just be a person, or a woman, or a UNC student like them, because I’m foreign and therefore different. I’m sitting on the other side of the “us/them” table.

I know that this is not just America: being an exchange student must be hard wherever you go, and I think people tend to be more dismissive of those that will only be there a short amount of time, and dismissive of those they deem more effort to understand. It takes a certain kind of person to be curious about people from other cultures, and a certain kind of person to see that they’re more similar to you than they are different. Here’s the best part about my hardships in America: my dissertation topic struck me like lightning. I am going to be exploring the idea of empathy. Of course, my actual dissertation will be tailoring this to William Faulkner and Southern culture specifically (anyone get the reference in the title? Just me?), but it’s got me thinking about it more generally, too.

So here are, thus far, some of my thoughts on how empathy functions and what that means for cultural encounters. We grow up with the “us/them” rhetoric, with varying degrees of subtlety. It may be simply that our media is obsessed with the problems of immigration, that our schools naturally form cliques according to religion/race/class, or that we’re never really exposed to people outside of our own sect. Many people grow up believing – or being told by guardians – that others in the world are fundamentally different, incompatible for friendship, and even harmful to be around. Take, for example, if you are someone who is raised as part of religious sect where any non-believers are considered the dangerous “other”. If or when you encounter someone of that sort, your sense of empathy for that person may well be small or non-existent. You can rationalise it that they are not deserving of your kindness or notice because they are different from you, living an immoral lifestyle, fundamentally wrong.

I’m pushing it to an extreme example, but hopefully this process is helpful in considering prejudice, whether for race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc. I’m not sure to what extent empathy is natural, and to what extent it is learned. I have always been an empathetic person – I would say uncontrollably so. I’ve grown up writing, which is an activity that demands of you to get inside other people’s heads. (Fun fact: far from being socially strange bookworms, those who read fiction are more likely to have close relationships. Reading develops your ability to empathise with others!) Even when I am angry at someone, I automatically start considering their viewpoint too, wondering how they see a situation differently to me. In some ways, being empathetic is a good thing; I’m probably more reasonable for it. In other ways, it sucks. I take on other people’s emotions as if they’re contagious, and I feel compelled to help people even when they’re not nice to me. Some people view this as a weakness. I agree that I would definitely make a rubbish soldier, but this wimpishness is beneficial for my writing, right?

I seem to have rambled more even than usual, so let’s movie trailer conclude: Categories, assimilation, us/them rhetoric… This forms a cohesive, mainstream identity for a country, which is both wonderful and harmful. You could argue that it brings people together, but it also makes those who do not measure up to the ideal feel inadequate. And as for empathy… It also promotes the idea that there is a “right” way to be, when we’re actually all so individual that it’s impossible. It gives us the excuse to judge those who are different, to deem them unworthy of our empathy (if we are empathetic people in the first place – as far as I know so far, some people barely have the ability at all). As you can probably tell… I’m struggling to write a decent conclusion, partly because all my final papers are on my mind! I may have to return to these ideas later, when my research is further along. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a much better writer than myself:

“It's so important for us all to be ourselves, warts and all, even though you might be considered a bit odd. We're programmed to conform from a very early age, which restricts us and causes more tensions than it relieves. We're encouraged to suppress the subconscious and beware of imagination because it's destructive to the behaviour codes we've developed. So most people lead fairly boring, monotonous lives and a jester in society becomes quite a privileged figure. But there's a jester in all of us and it should be encouraged.” 

(Probably my favourite non-conformist alive today. Michael Palin interview, Radio Times, 15-21 April 1995, pp 17-20.)

"You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!" "... I'm not."