“I know when I’m busting them. What I didn’t realize is what a pain I’ve been when I thought I was just being me. At age six, I decide I don’t need to talk to other kids ever again, my parents are the ones that get called into school. At 12, I decide to try out some Shakespearian insults on my teachers, my parents are the ones that called ito school. At fifteen, I decide to start writing revenge fantasies just to get a reaction…” -Daria Morgandorffer

Perhaps the best episode of the old MTV cartoon Daria was the last one. It was an unusually somber episode. In the episode, a refrigerator box triggers a memory of Daria’s of her parents having some nasty fight and her father yelling as he ran out the door. The cause of the tension that caused the fight was Daria herself. She had made the decision to go her own way and she paid a steep cost for it. What she never realized was that her parents were paying a price for it, too.

The same goes for Dharma’s parents on the TV show Dharma & Greg. Being anti-establishment and all that, they chose never to formalize their relationship with marriage. For them that was fine for the most part, though it was a form of isolation and instability for Dharma. The instability turned out to be illusory as they were happily together for 28 years at the outset of the show, but it was there all the same.

“There were times growing up when I wish you guys were married. Like that time in ballet class when all the kids called me The Graceful Little Bastard…” “All my life, you guys told me that your way was better because every day you chose to be together. Did you ever stop to think that there was somebody in that house that woke up in the morning wondering if this was the day her parents were going to choose not to be together?” -Dharma Montgomery

One area where my wife and I differ philosophically is when it comes to tradition and cultural norms. Her perspective is that culture norms must be justified rationally, practically, and morally in order to be adhered to. I take a slightly different view, which is that a cultural norm and tradition must be demonstrably irrational, impractical, or immoral in order to be tossed aside.

To me, tradition and cultural norms have intrinsic practicality and are naturally rational because the path most taken is the path of least resistance. That’s not to say that I always advocate this path, but if I am mulling over an alternative, I need a good reason to take it. Being different for the sake of being different is a social dead end and is not good for the actor, for the culture surrounding him, and as I’m getting to in this post not good for the people around the actor. As Daria and Dharma’s parents learned, there are people around you who pay the price for you to “do your own thing.”

One last example I will throw out there is from The Practice, where one of the biggie lawyers at a major firm is talking to a lowly associate that she just caught dancing on a bar-room table.

When you meet new people I imagine the question ‘What do you do?’ pops immediately into the conversation. You answer ‘I’m an attorney at Crane, Poole, & Schmidt’. When others describe you: smart girl, nice, works at Crane, Poole, & Schmidt. As much as you might like to lay claim to your personal time and your private life, who you are and where you work are inextricably bound, Sally. And when you’re standing in a public bar, on the bar, half-naked, thrusting your great divide as if it were a tourist attraction, there are people saying ‘she’s a lawyer at Crane, Poole, & Schmidt’.” -Hannah Rose

It’s certainly no secret that what we do has an effect on those around us. What I think that we sometimes forget, though, is that even when we’re not doing something that directly harms someone else, we may be harming them in another way. Putting them in a particular pickle. Even if what you’re doing isn’t wrong at all, as long as it garners negative attention to you, it does the same to people around you.

If a couple chooses to get married by a JP in some location other than a church, that could cause discomfort for the bride’s or groom’s mother who has to explain to her religious friends “Why not?” (if they’re religious). A wife that chooses not to take her husband’s name may have good reasons for it and may not mind explaining to everybody that she chose to keep her birth name, but she has enlisted the help of her husband, her future children, and others in associating them with a principled stance that isn’t theirs. Parents that don’t go to church are isolating their kids from one of the great social magnets of American society and making them forever different. A kid that grows up and becomes a shock jock is putting his parents in the position of having to pretend to approve of what he does or tell their friends that they’re not proud of their kid. A Mormon that leaves the church also leaves behind parents that are stuck with some judgmental fellow parishioners who think that they’ve failed as parents.

None of this is to say that anybody should toe the line for the sake of everyone around them. We all have to make our own decisions and be our own persons. The main thing that I’m trying to get at here, though, is that who we become affects those around us even if we are not doing anything wrong in our own eyes and we’re willing to pay the costs of going against the grain.

Category: Coffeehouse

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6 Responses to Individuality’s Collateral Damage

  1. Linus says:

    Excellent, thoughtful post. You’re absolutely right that people who choose to be different often don’t consider the impact to those around them. However, it’s worth pointing out that sometimes it’s those people around them that benefit from being pulled (sometimes yanked) out of their comfort zone. Homosexuality comes to mind, but obviously there are many less-extreme examples.

  2. Peter says:

    Good points, though I’d add that there is a distinction between being different out of sincere belief/desire, and being different just for the sake of being different.

  3. ? says:

    Here’s an analogy that supports your point: imagine someone comes up to your car, opens the hood, points to a part, and says: “I demand you justify that part of your car engine rationally, practically, and morally!” Knowing nothing about car engines, you can’t do this. “Then you must TAKE IT OUT!” demands your inquisitor.

    Of course, normal people know that it’s precisely because you don’t know what the part does that you shouldn’t mess with it.

  4. trumwill says:

    Sometimes it does work that way. When my brother married someone non-white, it forced my mother to face down her trepidation and grow to really dislike her daughter in law for wholly legitimate reasons having nothing to do with race. In the case of homosexuality, it would be my hope that it could make parents see it in a different light, though unfortunately it does sometimes have the opposite effect.

  5. trumwill says:

    Some might say that being different for the sake of being different does serve the higher end of breaking monotony, but as someone that values the existence of cultural norms as a social starting point I reject that argument. In any case, even if it’s something that you do believe in fervently, how it affects those around you should definitely enter the calculation.

  6. trumwill says:

    I think that tradition and norms ought to be taken into the calculation, though I don’t think it should be determinative. Sometimes an appendix really is just an appendix. Even so, I can sign on to the idea of treading with some caution.

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