Trying on difference

These are strange days. If you follow the news it would appear that we live in a world dominated by people who live in a Manichaean universe. The categories are very simple – good vs evil, for us or against us, believer vs infidel, black or white and definitely no greys.
But, under the surface, there is something else going on too.
Flicking through a series of links (Matt Jones to Z+ Partners) I came to an essay by Grant McCracken that lifted my spirits as he pointed to that something else going on too.
Early in the essay he says:
“We have long been accustomed to stuffing the social world into a handful of categories. We used to say such things as, “basically, there are two kinds of people in the world,” or to bundle the world into a typology: social classes, psychological types, birth signs, genders, generations, or lifestyles. But increasingly, the world won’t go along with our attempts to reduce it. Where once there was simplicity and limitation, everywhere there is now social difference, and that difference proliferates into ever more diversity, variety, heterogeneity.”

Later in the essay he goes on to say:
“… If we are filling up with differences, we will find ourselves surrounded by otherness and increasingly called upon to challenge it. New and emerging identities will put our own in question. Our identity will depend upon the defacement of their identity. Plenitude’s world has the potential to make us smaller, meaner, more loathing, and more loathsome. And we are the God-fearing folk. It will be worse for others, the bigots and the hatemongers. These people will find themselves so provoked by the rising tide of plenitude that any act of opposition will seem tolerable (and psychologically necessary).
But there is another use for difference. In this case, we use difference as a definitional opportunity. We say of otherness, “Wonder what that’s like?” We venture out and try otherness on. This has always been the spirit of Mardi Gras and other liminal moments. But I think there is good evidence that our entire culture is shifting in a transformational direction. More and more, we are prepared to try on difference, to test it out.
This is a radically new approach to difference, one that completely shifts the field of assumptions. In the old sharpening model, we use difference to push off against. We are not what the other is. In this new transformational model, we use difference as a definitional opportunity. We use it as a shape to try on and act out. Our most fundamental reflexes are rewired. When we see a new species of social life … we no longer say, “Weirdo! Get ’em!” We say, “Um, that’s pretty strange. What’s it like to be like that?”

Looking at the world like that lifts some of my gloom. Of course, the multiplication of difference will for some induce a hardening of the categories. It is a confusing world. But what is encouraging is that so many people embrace the uncertainty as a potential space for liberation and are “prepared to try on difference, to test it out.”