CN Academics Corner

Celebrating Negativity Part 2 – The Invisible Power of “Againstness”

Heart Balloon Color Corrected

For many of us, there may be a conscious memory of a point in our lives when we first became aware of a feeling of being different from others.  It may not be a pleasant or comfortable memory.

For a moment, the realization of being different may be intense enough to paralyze us. Self-talk ensues in the process of assessing the nature and value of the difference:  “Maybe I’m NOT like them after all.  I have been different from them all along!  Do they know it? Can they see it?  How do I feel about that? Is this a feeling of shame? Am I a loser because I’m different? Is it guiltiness? Is it a sense of loss over my former sameness? Is it regret over all those wasted years believing I was the same, one of them, when I wasn’t the same at all? Is this a good thing? I feel confused over this. ”

The first realization of “otherness” and its timing in our life, as well as its environment can be contextualized in the phases identified by pioneering child psychologist Erik Erikson. He characterized the phases as psychosocial crisis. Especially in tender years, “otherness” can bring a flood of feelings, overwhelming at first.  For others, parent(s), friends, coaches, they mighty more gently and skillfully introduce the idea of our difference. But even very young ones may ask the same question as older ones, “Exactly how different am I?  Let me count the ways!”

And, that’s what the Diversity profession has us doing…counting up the ways with a vengeance, pointing up differences in increasing numbers each year, ranging from “Generations” to genetics, from nationality to neurology.

No, the sense of “difference” that we felt wasn’t about our desire to “do” something different, like engineering vs. nursing or becoming a pilot vs. a trucker.  When we change careers, jobs, cities, clothes, do we become different persons? Is that what makes us different? Of course not.

Nor was that overwhelming and sometimes painful sense of “difference” simply about discovery of our own sundry or perhaps unique talents or skills, like excelling at math, or having an exceptional singing voice.  We may recognize our different talents, but we don’t lose or change our self-identity when we discover a talent, or enhance one.

That negative feeling of difference is a sudden sinking realization that we are perceived as fundamentally different in some way that has no relationship to our skills, talents or career aspirations. It has everything to do with how people perceive us as an oddity, an “other” compared to themselves, an “otherness” that perhaps brings no value to the mix, and may even detract from it. Sometimes these are linked to what one HR Attorney referred to as “immutable differences,” those over which we have no choice or control.

One of the most powerful examples is in children whose skin color is not the same as others. Their first conscious realization of a dilemma of difference, as demonstrated in a CNN clip dealing with children and skin color, is seen to produce a momentary but visible mental and even physical paralysis.  Erikson posited that a poorly or improperly managed experience, such as discovery of a fundamental difference, otherness, can stunt a developmental phase, a challenge from which some may never fully recover.

But childhood isn’t the only time we experience it. We can experience it at work, on job interviews, when visiting new geographic locations, any number of situations.  If we recall and recognize some personal moment of discovery, a difference dilemma in our own lives, a feeling of negativity associated with some difference, we might relate to what a challenging moment that can be for many others. Why is that so?

The most challenging particular brand of difference is one that can become an internalized bias exacerbated by others and environments. It is not merely a recognition of a state of being that we cannot influence. It is not merely a personal choice to become something else along the way.  It is instead an adopted and ingrained qualitative judgement of otherness as a negative, [1] rooted in the language of a culture.

Could the failure of the Diversity industry be in large measure due to the power of its very own language. Could it be the effect of the meaning of terminologies for a given difference, or of any deviation from a standard that may be culturally embedded within each of us, taken for granted by most, ignored by many, but purposefully and powerfully deployed — even without their realizing it?

Can we find another style of language, one that doesn’t shy away from explicit recognition of both otherness and conflict, but without pulling us into every struggle and eventual conflict associated with a culture of negative “otherness?” We’ll take that up in Part 3.

Follow along with  Celebrating Negativity – Part 3


© Copyright 2013 – Robert D. Jones  – All Rights Reserved

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[1] Reference:  Multiculturalism and Visible Migrants and Refugees: Exploring the Yawning Gap Between Rhetoric and Policy in Australia’, Dr Millsom S Henry-Waring, The University of Melbourne
Melbourne 3010
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