The following appeared in The Pitt News, the Summer of 1999.
Photograph taken in glass door of Carnegie Museum, around then.
Both seemed very profound at the time.
Some time ago, conformity was a good thing. We all marched in even rows. No problems were unsolvable because if you behaved like everybody else, it would dawn on you that there was no problem. No man was an island.
Then conformity became bad. The trend was to be an individual at all costs. “Your identity is your own,” people said. Nobody can own you. Be different.
Then being different became passé, because everybody was being different. So society started arguing that being different was a sort of conformity. This view was so commonplace that the conformist idea of being “different like everybody else” became a popular catchphrase.
Indeed, being truly different in the modern world is tough. The “leaders of outsiderness” work for advertising firms and get paid exorbitantly to generate a means of being sufficiently different. Somehow, their products must have inherent qualities that enhance the you-ness of you. Otherwise, you won’t buy it because it’s a symbol of either conformity or a personality disorder.
Take, for example, an advertisement in American Heritage magazine. It reads: “At Del Webb’s Sun Cities, the active communities for people 55 or better, you’ll find endless possibilities to fulfill the promise of who you really are.” What promise is it talking about? And why haven’t we been able to fulfill it for the past five and a half decades?
More quizzical is my cereal box, of all things. On the back, there is a photo of a girl with a spoon stuck to her nose and an accompanying blurb: “POST KIDS invites you… to kick back and be yourself! From feeding your face with your favorite cereal to creating your own cereal box, POST KIDS is a place where you can be you.”
What on earth does eating cereal have to do with being me except that I satisfy my daily iron requirement? The choices—from eating cereal to making a cereal box—doesn’t sound like a wide range of activities. Does this mean I can’t be me unless I’m at the breakfast table?
Then there’s the commercial that just says “I AM” in big sans-serif lettering. Zoned-out teenagers proceed to tell us what (not who) they are, while postmodern landscapes flash in the background. The commercial concentrates so heavily on its spiritual slogan that it barely mentions the product they’re trying to sell.
When I finally started ignoring advertising campaigns, I got caught in the second trap: self-help books. Browse in any bookstore for longer than two minutes, and the self-help section will come to you. In it, you’ll find out how to have a good relationship, a loving family or a homosexual encounter. You can even learn how to overcome a neurosis. The size of self-help sends an indelible message: “Your life sucks. You don’t know who you are. Have some chicken soup for your soul, and we’ll sort everything out.”
And then, if you still don’t have a personality, switch on a talk show. Oprah will tell you all about surviving, recovery, spiritual equity and so on.
If you aren’t yourself by this point, it’s time to call in the big guns. Personality tests, which are usually based on the writings of ancient astrologers and Zoroastrian mystics, can put you in nice, clear categories that will give you a cut-and-dry description of who you are. More scientific than the zodiac (or a cereal box, for that matter), the personality test gives you a number, indicating character type. I am a three, devilishly handsome and sharp as a pin.
With all these tools of identity, it’s no wonder that people have grown to be more like themselves lately. They may be unsatisfied, spiteful, newly alcoholic or even suicidal, but at least they know who they are. The word for this is “healthy.” Society assumes that if you’re healthy, you’re probably happy, too. And if you know who you are, your karma is high, and you’ve just made a good investment, you’re probably healthy.
And meanwhile, as people like me struggle to figure out who we are, someone else is doing something interesting.