Editorial: Psychological Diversity: Being Different, Being Special
Diversity is, of course, a big part of our human capital, the basis for a whole civilization in which people specialize in what they are personally good at and then trade, often using fiat money. The focus here is talent diversity or psychological and cultural diversity, for example with respect to religious practice. One gets into semantics, the difference between essence (what you are) and choice. Race, itself, is generally pretty unimportant. Difference among individuals in any particular “racial” group are important, but aggregates differences among races are not. Cultural diversity is itself a major academic discipline in archaeology. Diversity, in modern thought, adds to the total wealth of a civilization, but it can also pit persons against one another when they feel “cheated” by unexpected competition.
The word “special” in this context is intended to mean some combination of privileged and giftedness. But there is another important (and, here, contradictory) context of the word coming into common use, related to developmental disability—namely, “special education” and the “No Child Left Behind” law. (The word was also used as a pejorative in my 1968 Army Basic Combat Training experience when I got recycled into “special training” at Tent City at Fort Jackson, S.C.) But this essay is intended to focus on the first context intended in the Smallville episode. Sometimes unusual gifts and mild or even severe disability appear in the same person, and that is quite relevant here and to my experience.
Sexual orientation is the aspect of diversity most important to me, and I can put a bit of a “special” spin on it. Modern civilization allows people to specialize in ways not easily available and generally not recognized by many people in earlier generations. Psychologists or psychotherapists recognize the possibility of psychological polarity (“ying and yang”) regardless of biological gender. This concept was developed in the 1970s writings of Paul Rosenfels, and extends to the perpendicular notion of balanced and unbalanced personalities. The latter refers to the extent to which a person insists on remaining the integrity of goals chosen by him or her (an unbalanced personality), instead of making people in a tenuous environment more socially comfortable (a balanced personality). I regard sexual orientation as intrinsic to self-expression and discovering one’s personal calling, but some people see homosexuality as a disability or a refusal to grow up, an insistence on remaining in competitive adolescence or in enjoying the view of an outsider or “alien.”
Modern technology, in fact, allows an unconventional and introverted individual to construct a satisfying life around aesthetic and abstract “objects” rather than people :as people.” That is because modernity, with its incentives towards productivity, cost reduction and efficiency, automates the fulfilling of adaptive needs and leaves more resources (especially in purely economic terms) for the self-expression of psychological surplus. I may feel intense idealization of a particular person, but general disinterest in social interaction for its own sake, as most people expect. This can create tension in my relationships with others, whether family or the workplace, where my aloofness may come across as contempt, or (particularly with the political Left) my indifference as veiled hostility.
Elsewhere I have published details of my personal history, including my William and Mary expulsion in 1961 for admitting “latent homosexuality” to the Dean of Men. But some highlights deserve emphasis. I was somewhat the “sissy” boy who shunned competitive team sports for bookish and artistic pursuits. I was also disinclined to become proficient in mechanical chores around the house. Why shouldn’t I stress what I am good at? Why not “different strokes for different folks”? I guess the moral issue has something to do with “paying your dues.”
I don’t know why I was “weaker” than other boys. It might have been because of a childhood attack of measles. It might be a subtle gene (there are hormones that retard muscle development and their concentrations vary naturally among men). Or it might have been a psychological process that suggests a kind of Asperger’s Syndrome (which has been compared to a mild form of autism): I could gain so much satisfaction from my own mental masturbation that I did not “need” to learn these more adaptive skills, so I walled them off, and became disinterested in the emotional energies and adaptive passions that could lead to the capacity to procreate. This condition might be construed as a “disability,” deserving of compassion but not always of equality or real respect, so such a notion, claiming a lien on my gratitude or loyalty, becomes intolerable quickly. Nevertheless, when I became interested enough, I could gain some fair proficiency at some things, such as batting a slow pitched softball (or even curving whiffleball) and at least hitting it far enough for a typical backyard. These skills, however, would tend to emphasize an individual component. At the same time, I was very gifted in musical memory and at least a fair piano player—which requires a different kind of mechanical skill.
But there is a moral downside to all of this. If I don’t master the adaptive skills, too, then others will carry the weight for me. That can get serious in some political environments, like where there is conscription and someone like me is deferred where more “ordinary” but less intellectually acute boys get sent overseas and sacrificed as pawns or cannon fodder. You can see how this can spin into resentment or at least indignation from others. Instead of an asset to the community with special artistic gifts, I became perceived as a “burden” and somewhat of a social insult. During my post expulsion therapy, my non-conformity was often explained as a desire to lash back and step on toes (of jocks, particulary—if Smallville has its scarecrow, William and Mary freshman class then had its “tribunals”!). I also heard the urban legend that homosexuals taken on “super strength” (like they were infected with the meteor rocks of Smallville) and attack other men (like straight roommates or bunkmates) in their sleep—and of course this silly metaphor refers to the idea that gay male values compete with the collective meaning of courtship, marriage and family.
Of course, libertarians believe there is a simple moral answer to all this: freedom. Remove the ability of individuals to coerce each other, and especially for government to coerce people and set them against each other. Nurture special talents and allow individuals to contribute them.
One reason, I think, that someone like me can come across as
contemptuous, however, is that the adaptive problems of “average Joes” in the
real world are much more serious than libertarian-oriented commentators want to
admit. These concerns hit average
families with children or with dependent elders particularly hard. Having kids,
after all, is a roll of the dice: most families won’t get to raise
The incentive to marry and have children comes from a process of socialization, whereby the young adult (often through the marriage process) comes to integrate notions of family, lineage, and kinship into his own goals and put them ahead in line. The silly jealousies in daytime television soap operas (Days of our Lives) partly reflect the notion that providing the next generation is an intrinsic, obligatory life goal and therefore one needs the best possible opposite-sex mate to bear or raise one’s progeny. (I would seem like a cold limp fish to characters like that.) Carried too far, this notion of family values has real downsides. “Loyalty to blood” becomes associated with tribalism, and a tendency to see anyone “different” as a potential enemy (even one of the “meteor freaks” of Smallville, or perhaps just people whose unusual talents are perceived as getting them off the hook of normal competitive responsibility), a pattern of thinking that seems illogical to the modern libertarian.
Yet, I understand how my actions can look. Rather than continue my own bloodline by “normal” marriage and parentage, I chose “upward affiliation” with someone else’s. (That is the Smallville character Pete’s “vicarious” living.) I refused to compete in the normal way of advancing in business by promoting someone else’s aims, but instead chose to promote my own goals, leveraging technology by finding ways to promote myself with little need for conventional capital—a process which may strike others as an unfair way to “compete.” If I am not proud enough of myself to advance my family and myself according to the success measures of the conventional world, why should anyone listen to me? It didn’t matter so much three decades ago when the “different” walled off their private lives in economically unstable urban ghettos, but in the world of the Internet, anyone can become a celebrity and have a disproportionate, asymmetric effect as a “special” outlier on “normal” culture. So, again, anyone can make enemies, suddenly.
So, I certainly can grasp a certain parallel. Someone from a conservative family culture could look at me as an idiot savant, blissfully unaware of the inappropriateness of the paradigm for my own life in the eyes of some others, or of the possibility that I could be a “problem” for others. Likewise, I might sense that a (truly) retarded person lives in his or her own world and is unaware of the inadequacy of his own existence when viewed by others, but perhaps resents a lack of freedom imposed by the rules of others. It’s all “special” relativity.
I do think it would have been much better if I had pursued my piano ability rather than “punting” into chemistry and the mathematics under the pressure of the draft, the Cold War, and personal upheaval during my high school and college years. Then I might have become an “artist” in a legitimate competitive channel and had enough self-image to go down the social path, say, or the prodigy character Ephram (Gregory Smith) in TheWB drama Everwood. (Of course, Ephram gets an older girl in trouble! I never could have done that!) As it was, I remained a peon in the information technology business for thirty two years, but became marginalized because I never advanced or wanted to (“up or out”!) So here I am, in a new chapter of my life, stirring things up with words, but never having been a Napoleon first. And, yes, sometimes I have not gone to bat for other people who may believe that they needed me. It has not been possible to do that and speak the truth. Sometimes, others act as if my unsupervised freedom to express my own values, set my own priorities and defer any loyalties to the specific family and community that created me, undermines the meaning (rather than the substance) of all the collective and familial institutions that structure their lives.
One can make the moral case that everybody should not only “pay their dues” with some kind of mandatory service, but that one should learn to give value to the lives of others with some kind of committed responsibility before choosing one’s goals. Heterosexual marriage could be recast along these lines to provide an almost mandatory socialization for everyone, if you believe writers like Jennifer Roback Morse and Maggie Gallagher, since procreation provides the most convincing or natural motive to care for others. That would have a big effect on someone “different” like me, as I could never be “special.” Gay marriage could be engineered along those lines, too. Social justice can indeed taken out of big government and be brought down to the level of civil obligation, particularly if the aim is to reduce distorted forms of “Social Darwinism” or to stop persons like me from “misuing” their “special” talents without “changing” first. But when is it healthy to be your own person before becoming committed to others? There is a remarkable dichotomy in looking at personal morality through the lens of merit: some people (like me) see success in terms of personal content-oriented accomplishments, whereas at the other end conventional people see “success” as providing the “best” family.
Whatever the moral abstractions, I can comment on the practical effects of being of the “not marrying kind,” even after decades of liberation. Earlier generations made light of the stereotypes, that most homosexuals were artists, theater people and the like. They are not totally invalid. A young man somewhat like me today would best stay away from military service (and then again there could be a draft again), which might cut off access to college tuition and certain kinds of jobs afterwards. Hopefully he can live his own life his own way, but that may get harder if economic hard times pressure for more sacrifices and deference to families with children. Jobs that require closely working with children, although more important now in the economic mix, might still seem inappropriate for those disinclined to start their own families. Lifting the military ban and offering gay marriage would mean real progress in both equal rights and equal responsibilities. It will never be able to separate what people are from what they want and what they choose.
In recent substitute teaching assignments, I have had the opportunity to observe special education, mentioned above. In many cases severely handicapped students are taught with repeated reinforcement to bring their social behavior and performance in compliance with social norms, even though these students may not understand why this matters and may feel content as they area. Likewise, some people believe that someone like me should be coerced into majoritarian family commitments before I am allowed to express myself at all, even though I am often satisfied with the emotional content of my life, however unusual, as it is. Of course, I can hold down a job and pay my bills, but it is hard to pay my dues. Much of my adult life has been focused on my own comfort; but at times I was not allowed to follow the course that really could have, still on my own terms, given me more connection to others. Ironically, taking care of or teaching (and manipulating) non-intact persons has become a more significant skill in the job market that it had been before, relatively to repeatable technical skills that might be offshored, but one might claim that someone such as me who has not raised a family when reaching a certain age should not have such a job.
My emotional makeup places a great emphasis on aesthetics and fantasy, and tends to avoid emotional attachment to others (especially the biological nuclear family) except on my own special terms. I can “split into two persons” and look from the outside with one of them. (It’s wonderful to be free of soap opera jealousy that comes from “passions”!) As a result, sometimes my actions or statements may seem self-promoting or attention-drawing, hinting at contempt, “life threatening” (or as Donald Trump said in an Apprentice boardroom, “stupid and impulsive”) or as rebuttably presumptive of some future threat. Or my actions may sometimes be seen as setting bad examples for others in different, more conventional circumstances. Since my public “upward affiliation” is not countered by a visible emotional commitment to any less intact persons, my activity might be viewed as contemptuous or as intended to undermine (or “step on the toes of”) the ordinary family commitments of others. [Along these lines, our aesthetic “unrealism” pressures teenage girls into silicone implants and men into hair transplants, lest the feel worthless; I never went in for spending money on cosmetic changes or even expensive clothes, but then again maybe my self-image contributed to an early-adult disinclination to marry and have children and continue a biological lineage; splitting into two with upward affiliation mad a lot more psychological sense.] I realize that as I submit content to be produced or published, others may be less inclined to believe me if I do not share their emotions. I do need to do more to “pay my dues” in terms of hard skills, and it is possible, though by no means certain, that in the future I could face a period of “enlistment” where I must drop everything else in order to bond with people who seem dependent. For example, if I became a full time teacher I would have to learn to bond with disadvantaged students, and this would be very difficult (and unethical) to do while in a “self-promotion” mode. On the other hand, I truly believe that I have something to offer with my own written content as it is. So I just don’t know what will happen.
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A favorite essay of mine was "Ephram's Fatal Flaw"; right now not available on line as far as I can tell (keep checking thewb.com)
Review of “What the Bleep Do We Know?”