Can We All Be Different Together?

By Martin Flynn. Martin, 28, is from Sheffield, UK. Please read his article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

“Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” – Camus.

It’s a terrific quote from Camus, isn’t it? Philosophical, sympathetic, even mournful. It’s loaded with potential debate on whether individual citizens could ever agree on a clear definition of “normal”, or if the result would be a worthy goal. Either way, it is fair to assert that accepted concepts of normality are likely to vary significantly from one context to another. In this discussion of Camus’s observation, we will look specifically at the idea of “normal” in 21st century, “first-world” society. In fact, against that backdrop, what is most clear is that people “expend tremendous energy” in an effort to be abnormal.

I was fortunate to witness a perfect example of this on a recent trip to Berlin. From inside a bar in the art-drenched district of Kreuzberg, I watched a man pull up a skeletal chair amid the drizzle. He looked German, and sported a ragged blonde topknot, an unbuttoned mac, and chunky lenses housed in thick plastic. Once seated, he attempted to light a cigarette. This proved a considerable challenge, as not only was the day damp and breezy, but the man – who appeared to be in his mid-30s – seemed determined that a small box of matches would be his ticket to nicotine.

The first flare of phosphorus was immediately extinguished by the rain. The second persevered briefly in the striker’s cupped hand, but then flickered out (perhaps a stray gust was to blame). The third match snapped in the act of lighting, at which point the would-be smoker threw out both hands in defeat. His companion – who had arrived somewhere between the second and third flames – calmly leaned over to an adjacent table, and borrowed a lighter. With cigarette swiftly ablaze and held jauntily to his left, the topknot could now wave his right hand to begin their conversation.

What I most enjoyed about this two-minute sequence was speculating on the reason behind the man’s choice of matches. Clearly, this method was a less straightforward – and apparently sometimes infuriating – approach to his habit. It occurred to me that he might have forgotten his lighter, but there’s not too great a gap between the price of a matchbox and a serviceable Bic replacement. Either way, if convenience was the prime goal, he could have pre-empted his friend and requested the assistance of a nearby smoker in the first place. While I admit I attributed some additional meaning to his stylised aesthetic, to me the most likely conclusion was that this gentleman had deliberately made an overtly anachronistic statement by opting for those matches.

There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that. But I found this thought intriguing. Here, a person had made a choice that was a – demonstrably less convenient – alternative to a “normal” practice; employing a cigarette lighter. This got me thinking about the methods people undertake – and the energy they expend – to differentiate themselves from “mainstream” practices and groups.

The impulse to do this, I would argue, is a relatively recent development. Particularly before the mid-20th century, wilful divergence from societal and moral norms could be very risky indeed. Centuries of persecution had befallen those who held minority political opinions, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, or even quirky habits. In that context, it is easy to appreciate why most people – at least in times of relative peace – took considerable pains to ensure they did not draw attention to themselves through expressions of individuality that might have been perceived negatively.

But especially since the 1950s, most democratic societies have seen a shift towards increased tolerance, and more acceptance of digression from formerly entrenched markers of “normal”: the nuclear family; stay-at-home mothers; state-wide religion etc. This increase in freedom over personal lifestyle has made it somewhat less imperative to appear similar to everybody else, and inspired some to identify themselves as distinctly as possible. One example is punk fashion in the 1970s – vertiginous haircuts and facial piercings – or more recently the ocean of tattoo ink that has washed over boundaries of age, gender and profession. In societies which benefit from increased personal and political liberty, these visual signifiers – through their frequency and visibility – now provide some guidance in terms of what “normal” might be.

The irony, of course, is that any aesthetic or outlook – particularly one originally deemed “extreme” or “cult” – can quickly be recast by the 21st-century’s sleek and stealthy marketing machines. This is a consequence of the hyperconnected digital society which ignores borders between most affluent nations. Constant coverage from the media and internet users – as well as the interwoven tendrils of global business and investment – means that if a notion shows reasonable potential for commercial revenue and access to customers, it is nearly inevitable that it will soon become more widely advocated. This is the case regardless of how specific and small-scale its original manifestation may have been, and no matter how much energy the initial adopters committed to establishing an “alternative” style or pursuit.

One widely acknowledged example of this is the recent explosion of the “hipster” idea. It was not long ago that an enthusiasm for painstakingly brewed coffee could exist separately from a fondness for craft beer, or that owning a “fixie” bicycle was not immediately associated with plaid shirts, woollen hats and beards. While these hobbies may have overlapped on the Venn Diagrams of some young men in Melbourne, Portland or London (or indeed any other “Western” city) they were not part of a cultural and commercial template festooned with presumptions and consumption habits. This latter, present situation is almost entirely the result of marketing, as enterprising businesses – armed with all the research and access they need, thanks to the internet – exploited the opportunity to churn out mountains of new grooming products and increasingly obscure ales.

This is in no way intended as criticism of anyone who might be seen to fit the hipster label. Fashion choices are not the sole definition of a person, and there is nothing bad to be said about better-quality beer or coffee (though the issue of mega-corporations hoovering up independent breweries is a separate one). No, the example of “hipsterism” is relevant because it is a very recent illustration of how people in the environments we are discussing must – at this stage – expend “tremendous energy” if they wish to stay ahead of the “normal” curve. As we have discussed, increased freedom and diversity mean that older, more limited definitions of normality are no longer as applicable. And if something that was previously alternative or niche can be rapidly accelerated into a state of relative normality, individuals who desire to define themselves as “different” must work harder than ever before.

Which begs the question: how does one mark oneself out as “abnormal” in an age where people automatically plaster major life events across social media, and previously “extreme” physicality – cosmetic surgery, tattoos, relentlessly gym-sculpted bodies – is now commonplace? The answer, almost by definition, is not yet evident. But perhaps it is comforting to know that somewhere, a person or band of people are striving manfully towards the next ridge that would elevate them above the increasingly vast expanse of 21st Century “normal”. What will be the results of their tremendous energy? I would suggest keeping an eye on the sponsored content that trickles steadily down your Instagram feed.

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