Perspectives of Difference

My ten-year-old son came to me this morning and asked, “Mom, are these sneakers normal?” I replied, “I’m not sure honey, first tell me what an abnormal sneaker is, and then perhaps we can figure out if those sneakers are normal or not.” He smiled at me. He was not sure what an abnormal sneaker might be, but he now understood how labeling one sneaker type ‘normal’ also required an idea about what an abnormal sneaker would be.

What he did know was that he noticed, that in some way, his sneakers were different from his playmates’ sneakers, and he wondered where he and his sneakers ‘fit in’. I asked him about the difference he saw, “Is it the color that is different?” He said, “Yes. And no. I mean, all kids have all different color sneakers, so yes the color is different, but that’s not what I mean.” “Hmmm. Is it the style of sneaker you are wondering about?” I probed. “Maybe,” he said.

I asked him, if when he inquired about the normalcy of a pair of sneakers, was he thinking that perhaps his sneakers were either inferior or superior to other types of sneakers. He agreed, “Yes, that’s what I mean.” I probed again to try to understand his thoughts and his reasoning, “What do you think makes a pair of sneakers superior?” He told me that a superior pair of sneakers would be new and shiny, for example. So I asked, “But not comfortable?” “Oh, yes! Comfortable, too,” he said and added “But I want sneakers that look just like the other kid’s sneakers. Can I get new sneakers?”

My son has entered a critical stage of his development, one of attempting to interpret, classify, and label what he sees in order to make sense of his world. He wants to know where he fits in, and it seems that perhaps he has decided that he wants to fit in with the ‘mainstream’ status quo. This is a critical stage of his development because it is at this phase that he is now making assumptions and judgments about himself and others, too.

Yet, isn’t that what we all do? We attempt to understand our world and what we see. We give names to things and make comparisons and we group like-things together that we think of as being similar or somehow equivalent. It is through this process that we encounter ideas of contrast and difference, too. We each have a long cultural history that shapes how we interpret our world and how we each tend to ‘see’.

For example, I know an ancient story that describes this process of humanity’s growing awareness of similarities and difference. It is one of the many creation stories that various cultures teach. This story told about contrasting notions of difference as it described forms of matter – described as the creation of the ‘heavens’ and the Earth, and the darkness and the light, and the land and the water.

The story then made comparisons of similarity as it described the different life forms – that of the plants and the animals. It made comparisons and contrasts simultaneously as it described specific difference within generalizing categories when the many animal types were named – the fishes, the birds, the mammals, and humans, too. This is a story that describes a discovery process, and the realization of notions of similarities and differences.  When I heard this story, I learned this way of comparing and contrasting similarities and difference, too.

Additionally, this story taught about an awareness of oneself first, followed by awareness of others.  It also described the need for community. This story reinforced the idea that community and interconnectedness among different people and their environment were necessary for the wellbeing of all. From this story, I learned about how it is ‘natural’ to think of oneself first, yet ‘creation care’ and the value of diverse communities are important as well.

Ideas of status and hierarchy were woven into this story, too. There was a creator and the created, a classifier and the classified, and a master and his subjects. In this story, it was affirmed that those who held higher status had greater privilege. They were ordained the authority to subdue and use their surroundings for personal enrichment.  However, they were also charged with the responsibility to care for their environment and community, as well. This story teaches a version of humanity’s place in the world and also of an individual’s place in society. Hearing this story taught me to think in this very same way. From this story, I learned to classify, sort and assign status and roles to individuals within a hierarchical social order.

Lastly, I will explain that this story came with a warning. In it, humanity had been offered life and people were allowed to partake of the ‘tree of life’, and it was good.  Yet in this story, people must not partake of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. The warning was one against making judgments.  For if I pronounce one thing as being good, that perhaps suggests that some other thing must therefore be understood as not good, and consequently it must be evil.  How can I know what is good versus evil? Using only my own perspective and purpose, can I truly make a ‘correct’ judgment? If so, by whose standard? This story has taught me that judgments, either good or bad, are perhaps best avoided.

I am aware that this story is told with many different cultural traditions and that others have understood this story in quite a different way. It is good to know that how I have been taught to use my language, including the use of storytelling, is how I have developed ‘my own’ ideas about the world. These ideas include those of living in a relational world where sameness or equality exist alongside ideas of difference or inequality and that all of creation is good. My thoughts concerning status and hierarchy are embedded into my ideas of difference, too. Yet I have learned that where there is status, there is also responsibility. I have learned about not making judgments, and that my view is but one of many different ways of understanding.

This is why I took the time to speak to my son about his choice of the word normal when attempting to describe his sneakers. The word normal comes with an unspoken assumption that there are some sneaker types that are abnormal, or perhaps inferior (and not simply different). I might ask, “Normal for whom?” and “By whose standard?” The unspoken assumption, with the word normal, is that there is a hierarchy in the world of foot apparel, and even worse, there might likewise be a hierarchy among those who use different types of foot apparel. Additionally, because the assumption is unspoken it also affirms that hierarchy itself is ‘normal’, too. But is it, truly? I believe that there is a degree of violence in thinking and communicating in this way because it judges and stigmatizes anything thought of as not part of the status quo or otherwise considered ‘normal’.

As my son grows and matures, I will guide him to be aware of how he chooses to use his words. This is because there can be a danger of hidden assumptions embedded in our word choices. It can be quite easy to fall to an egocentric, ethnocentric and even mainstream way of thinking and being, assuming that ‘my way is the correct way’. This can be quite stigmatizing to others and it certainly does not recognize that all people are different and that there is value in difference. Most importantly, I want my son to understand that we live in a relational world where normal or not, right or wrong, and good or evil are perhaps not necessarily a matter of fact, but rather they may be a matter of perspective, cultural preference, or even social tradition.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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