The Mass-Produced Individual

As a teenager, I remember how important it was for many of my contemporaries to send a clear message to the rest of us that they were different. They loved music that no one had heard. They shunned sports and spent their free time in different ways. Some had weird haircuts. Some had piercings and such. But, above all, the prevailing method for individual differentiation was in clothing style. There were always plenty of in-style fashions to rebel against. When the cool kids were all wearing Polo shirts, the desperately different wore something else, anything else. It was as if they felt outside of the mainstream and, rather than accept this as their lot in life, they stood up against the very idea of mainstreamism.

This little view into human group dynamics tells a larger story. Everyone (or most everyone) wants to fit in. When we don’t fit in where we want to fit in, we have a couple of options. We can either try harder to fit in, which is almost always transparent and leads to further ostracization. Or we can decide that we no longer want to fit in. When we decide the latter, we have to look for other groups to accept us. When we find one, it is nearly always the case that the fundamental feature of our new group is a distaste for mainstreamism. It’s the misery loves company thing. The disaffected come together by virtue of their shared mistreatment at the hands of the cool.

The true irony of all this is the idea that those who reject the mainstream are being individuals, while the in-crowd is a engaged in the saddest kind of group think. I’m here to tell you – individuality is far more rare than most would like to admit. Even among the disaffected, the quest to fit in runs wild. There’s the hippie subculture, with its commitment to the au natural lifestyle. Yet, standing in the parking lot of a Phish concert, it’s hard to tell the individuals from the poseurs. Same thing with the body mutilation, tattoo set. Go into a tattoo parlor on the seedy side of town in khakis and a button down and you’ll quickly see how much you represent the lemming-like mainstream society that so offends these people. Then, if you have the means and patience to go to these lengths, wear your oldest, dirtiest clothes and paint some artificial tattoos on your visible skin and go back into that same tattoo parlor. You’ll find your reception is quite different. This probably comes as no surprise, but there is a point here.

Individuality happens in the mind. It’s not about what you wear or whether you choose to pierce multiple parts of your body. It’s about what you think and how you express yourself. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to make statements with our appearance – there’s something very powerful about being able to influence the minds of others without saying a word. However, things get sticky when we believe that our outward appearance is the core of our individuality. The fact is that fitting in is so genetically in-grained into our species that nothing is ever going to extricate the quest for it from human discourse. To rebel against this and assume that, in doing so, we have achieved individuality is a serious mistake. This is putting the cart before the horse…big time. The price of this mistake is waking up later in life only to realize that we’re really no different than what we rebelled against and that the time has long since passed for us to make out mark on this world. And it doesn’t help that there are entire industries dedicated to helping us screw up.

I was walking through a J.Crew store a few days ago, and I noticed that they are selling these old-looking t-shirts with faded logos ostensibly from ski resorts and mountain lodges. Now why would anyone want to buy something like this? It’s simple. Wearing new t-shirts with J.Crew plastered across them is the equivalent of selling out in today’s youth culture. Your clothes have to look old, so as to give the impression that you don’t care what you look like. In years past, kids accomplished this by buying clothes at thrift stores or consignment shops, ironically putting a ton of effort into looking like they put in no effort whatsoever. Nowadays, however, clothing companies have figured out that they can mass market new clothes that are made to look like old clothes. And, crazy as it is, these clothes are selling like hotcakes. (Been to an Abercrombie and Fitch lately?) Now who’s the sellout?

The idea I’m trying to get across here is that this notion of selling out or being viewed as mainstream is entirely unproductive. It produces lemmings of another stripe, but lemmings just the same. Group think is real, and the key to getting around it is not in pretending to be something we’re not. I think individuality is essential to making the most out of life. We have to learn to think for ourselves. We have to learn to decide what we like and to have the courage to express it. New clothes that look like old clothes have nothing to do with it. When we figure out what makes us us, everything else, our fashion sense, our choice of friends, our jobs, everything falls into line. But this is hard. Taking the time to really get to know who we are as people is harder than simply donning the latest fashions and letting everyone else tell us who we are. Nevertheless, this is the task that lays before us. Let us not shrink from it for fear of what we might find.


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