Difference is always bubbling. It carves us up and brings us together, forever lurking under the skin of an issue, a shadow on the periphery that bursts into light when you try to grab it.
It is the lens through which we ascribe meaning to the world. How we tell between plants and animals, water and dirt, people and other people. As the creator of categories, it brings the world into focus, allowing us to distinguish between one thing and another.
In the west, we are living through an age of hyper difference. The unit is not the class or the social group but the individual. We flaunt our difference through the products we buy and the clothes we wear. We fill our homes with furniture that doesn’t just serve utility but reflects our identities, an extension of ourselves. Conformity is drab. The renegade is king.
Even modern counter-culture is individual. We have no mods, skin heads, or teddy boys parading their streets, caught up in uniform and collective identity. The hipster was derailed and parodied before he ever came to be. All of us fleeing the group, refusing to be categorized. Chasing difference.
And these differences can make us happy. The freedom to break social norms and carve your own path is essential for self-expression. For being able to honestly manifest our personalities as we’d like. Conversely, it also provides us with belonging. With groups that are niche enough for the individual to cling to and participate in, to make her mark.
Yet difference is also at the heart of untold misery. War, cruelty, oppression, and exploitation. Dispassionate politics and an uncaring elite. It is why we allow factories in Pakistan to collapse, why thousands of Americans have inadequate healthcare, why African nations are still stricken by archaic diseases, why Truman was able to drop the bomb. Why millions of Jews were slaughtered across Europe.
Often it is race, class, or religion. In the past, it was the civilized barring the gates to the barbarian hordes. Often these differences are constructed. Always they are overemphasized, used to dehumanize the enemy or the sufferer. To make them seem only animal. Like they deserve it.
The justification of slavery was explicit. Black people were claimed to be stupid, with smaller skulls and smaller brains. Legally and morally subhuman. Colonization, too. India, according to the British, was too barbaric to govern itself. We are superior to them, they said, we are different.
Hiroshima blew because the Japanese were painted as an alien race of karate and kamikaze. As a culture so far away from the American way of life that in many minds they were barely human. Yellowing ape-like cartoons, dancing around with knives and wide eyes, buck toothed and waiting for you to slip. This caricature, difference exaggerated to an incredible pitch, allowed millions to burn. It provided a wonderful excuse, a dampening of guilt. It allowed military “necessity” to ride over any notion of humanity. Because of course, they were never human in the first place.
And this the crux. Truman didn’t want to bomb the Japanese because they were different. It was simply an excuse. He wanted to drop the bomb because the Japanese would surrender. Difference is used in this way, both real and constructed, as tool to bury and clothe self interest. To subtly justify atrocity in the minds of populations and politicians alike.
In Britain, the middle classes don’t want to pay for welfare. They want to keep what they earn and are desperate to excuse themselves. Step down from the table and wash their hands of the poor. But to say this openly would look selfish. People would have to face up to their lack of compassion. They would probably be compelled, god forbid, to be more compassionate.
So instead they buy into the myth of an underclass. All fags, booze, and hordes of children. Rampant and unclean. Lazy, feckless and unwilling to work. Pigs feeding at the trough of the state. A slew of television programs, Benefits Street et al, hammer this home. The right wing press spew articles on gangs, crime, and benefit fraud without relent.
But this isn’t simple elite manipulation. The middle class aren’t tricked. They desperately want to believe. It is so convenient. It justifies their cruelty, buries their selfishness. It gives them an excuse to argue for lower taxes and lower benefits when the reality is that most people claiming benefits are in work. When tax evasion costs eight times as much as benefit fraud.
Evolution doesn’t help us. We are programmed to be scared of the unfamiliar. Difference is always going to a be card which can be pulled, an excuse, a reason, a trick to get away with murder.
But it’s the familiar we love. If somebody is similar to us, we will go out of our way to be kind. Our families and our friends, rightly close to our hearts. People close to our age or social situation. A relationship where empathy is easier, where the other person must be human as they look and sound just like we do.
Sweden encapsulates this twisting and turning of difference and similarity. The majority of its population are white and were born there. A homogeneity that brings high taxes and solid welfare. They look after each other because they are similar. At the same time there are problems with racism, neo-Nazism and white supremacist movements to an extent that would be unthinkable in Britain. Their lack of multiculturalism magnifying fear of the other. Their reaction to difference.
The solution is not for people who look and sound the same to gather together. What we need is a change in consciousness. A collective realization that we all have the same needs and many of the same wants. That we share so much more than divides us. That we are all human. More different to every other single thing in this universe than we are to each other.
Fear unites and perhaps that is the only way this message will settle. When climate change takes its toll, when the threat of nuclear war returns, or perhaps when an alien race decides to invade. We’re all in the same boat. Let’s just hope we realize before the moment it starts to sink.