The herd will not have it. The herd hates outliers. It’s nothing personal; it’s just for protection. If you stray from the herd, you get eaten. It’s as simple as that. It’s natural selection. So stick together.
But nobody’s trying to eat us, so why can’t we get over our herd mentality? Why can’t we relax and let people be? Why do we even care?
You would think there would be strength—and comfort—in numbers. You would think that if 95% of the women you know are wearing Fashion X this year, they wouldn’t need to tease or sneer at the 5% who wear something different. You would think that if 95% of the men you know prefer drinking beer and watching football to drinking wine and watching opera, they wouldn’t feel the need to call the 5% fags. Who cares what the other 5% do, or like, or wear, or think?
But we do care. We’re a herd. And we care a lot. We can’t be “us” unless we’re all us. One weirdo makes us question our us-ness, our whole group. And we don’t like that. So we’d better bring the outliers back into line. It doesn’t have to be through violence or coercion—it can just be gentle mockery. We’re teasing. Don’t take everything so seriously. Don’t take it all to heart. Just take it.
If you’re lucky, as an adult, you find a place or make a place where this kind of nonsense doesn’t occur, where people are genuinely tolerant of difference—or, better, indifferent about it. Indifferent about difference. I don’t want you to tolerate what I am; I want you to not give a shit, one way or the other. I want you to accept the fact that who I am is none of your goddamned business, and live accordingly.
Ah, how much of American political discourse would vanish overnight if we could just apply this one, simple rule: About that which is none of your business, shut up.
Of course, in far too many places, people think that everything is their business. In far too many places, the message is clear: it’s not that we want you to be exactly like us; we need you to be exactly like us. We can have no bell curve here; the outliers must be brought into the fold. We must be one flat line, stretching across the horizon forever. It is an absolutist, totalitarian impulse buried deep in our heart of darkness, and the insecurity and fear it reveals is troubling.
And surprising. I mean, who knew a head cheerleader’s sense of self could be so precarious?
One of the hardest and most heartbreaking lessons to learn, as a child, is the Lesson of the One Way. Whether you’re a boy or a girl, you learn that, if you want to be accepted, if you want to live comfortably among your peers, there is One Way to be. For everything that happens during the day, there is One Way to do it correctly. You can obey the One Way and be accepted, or you can fight the One Way and be called names. Whatever choice you make, it’s a hard lesson to learn. Because we keep telling our children that they are special, and unique, and wonderful just the way they are, and then they hit school and find out that it’s all a lie.
Some kids learn the lesson in elementary school; others manage to escape it until middle school. But good luck getting through adolescence without being subjected to the Khmer-Rouge-like intensity of that scrutiny and judgment. “Live and let live” is not any Junior High School’s motto.
But we survive it, somehow. Most of us do. Of course, there are always a few kids who can’t take it, and kill themselves. But it's just a few. Probably. Whatever.
My son is in sixth grade this year. He is officially a “tween,” a category that didn’t exist when I was a kid. All of a sudden, the rules about who you can be friends with have changed. It used to be okay to be friendly with girls. Now it means you have a crush. Now it means you’re in loooooove. And you must be teased mercilessly for that. You must be punished…whether or not it’s true. And somehow, everyone else got the memo before him. He got left behind. And now they’re making fun of him.
It always feels that way, doesn’t it? It always feels like everyone else has gotten the memo, and you’re the only one who didn’t know. Why is that? Where does the memo come from? Who is the first one in the classroom to figure it out? There must be someone who either decides or discovers that girls now have cooties, or khaki pants are stupid, or Pokemon is for babies. Then, suddenly, everyone knows and everyone is in agreement. The herd has moved, and you have to catch up.
My son is confused. He doesn’t have a crush on this girl. He’s not in loooooove. But she has been a friend, and he has had precious few of those this year. He doesn’t understand why the One Way is telling him he has to stop, now. My son is hyper-rational; he has never known how to handle the insane, the inexplicable, and the irrational (in other words: children). When kids around him do things that, to him, make no sense, he is left bewildered and unsure what to do.
So now he has a friend that the One Way tells him he’s not allowed to have. They can’t hang out anymore. They shouldn’t talk to each other. They’re not supposed to. So the girl tells him, “We need to pretend we were going out, but now we’re broken up. Then they’ll leave us alone.” In other words, she tells him they have to lie to be left alone. The have to hide some small part of who they are.
But it’s no big deal, right? It’s a small thing. Sixth grade drama, for Christ’s sake. I should just tell my son: “Say what you’ve got to say, do what you’ve got to do, and move on. It’s not that important.” I should give him the counsel that will give him comfort.
Except that this is how it all starts. You stop wearing those pants. You stop watching that show. You stop playing that game. It’s no big deal—it’s just the stuff you liked. If the other kids say it’s stupid, give it up. Be who they want you to be—it’s easier that way. And then, once you’ve learned the Lesson of the One Way, you can move on to the next level: stop hanging out with the black kid/the gay kid/the Jewish kid. Chug this. Smoke that. Hate them. Carry the flag.
And I’m sure there are people—many, many people—who will roll their eyes at all of this and think I’m making mountains out of things that don’t even qualify as molehills. It's just sixth fucking grade. And they are entitled to their opinions. We are all entitled to our opinions.
This is mine: I will not sell out my son and tell him to join the herd. I will not tell him to go along just because it’s easier. Because there is a better way. Not an easier way--not the One Way--but it’s his own way. I can see him doing it already--carving out a sense of self, identifying the things that vibrate at the same frequency as his soul. I can see him collecting the kinds of people and things and ideas that make him feel good—that make him feel at home in the world. I can see him slowly building the home he’ll move into when he leaves his childhood—a unique and special home of self, where he can live happily and at peace. And I would not do anything to endanger that precious and fragile construction.
What he’ll have to do over the next few years to protect what he’s building, God only knows. It’s going to be a long, hard slog. Harder than what he's facing right now, for certain. But I’m in his corner, today and tomorrow, for whatever it’s worth.