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Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Dolezal Case and Outsiders

One can never tell exactly what motivated Rachel Dolezal to pretend to be a black woman. Besides all the complexes and embarrassment that she has provoked in many Americans, black and white and, oddly, transgendered people and their advocates (fascinating how they got mixed up in all this), there is a kernel of recognition of a common --- perhaps even universal --- phenomenon. Here is a person who at some point feels that she does not belong in her environment and wants to find the sense of belonging elsewhere. She wanted to find the sense of belonging among black people, for whatever reason, and was willing to pile on lie after lie to get it. Is that so strange?

Coincidentally, I saw a documentary about Broadway musicals a few weeks ago. The short version is that nearly all notable Broadway musicals were written by Jews (except Cole Porter). They wanted to talk about their feelings of being outsiders in the American society, but in the musicals they chose to express it through other outsiders rather than Jewishness. Hence we got "West Side Story" with Puerto Ricans, "South Pacific" with Polynesians, "Showboat" with blacks, even "The King and I" with reversed roles between whites and Asians. And the kicker is that everyone loves them. Not only the immigrants who all see themselves in the disguised Jews, but even the dominant white audience find themselves in the stories of outsiders. This sense of being excluded from other people and therefore alone in the cold outside has to be a feeling that is universally appealing.

The stories of social outcasts and outsiders are the mainstream of literature and other forms of narratives. That is the irony. If the majority feels alone, are they alone in their likeness, or are they alike in their loneliness?

I wonder if there are people who never feel a sense of isolation and loneliness from time to time. Extroverts? Bullies? Psychopaths? It seems obvious that they are either nonexistent or definitely in the minority. For most of us, what would it take to rid oneself of the sense of being alone in the universe once and for all? Maybe nothing. Maybe that is just one of the permanent human conditions that we want to escape but have to live with, like the inevitability of birth and death.

Another phenomenon that had baffled me until I understood the universality of loneliness is fandom. Average people identifying with famous people in various fields and projecting themselves onto these strangers. People feel such a deep connection and kinship with flickering images or words of the page or glimpses from faded pictures. In the fans' mind, the self and the idol merge into a strange entity that is neither the same nor separate. The idol's success feels sweeter than the fan's own success, and the idol's failure more bitter. The animosity between two opposing camps of fans can be intensely vicious, despite the lack of real conflicts or harm to the celebrities in question. Anyone with exposure to figure skating would be familiar with the venomous and vehement battles between fans of Yuna Kim and Mao Asada, or Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski, or Plushenko and Lysacek. I am not immune to this type of sentiment, even though I never understood why.

Now I think I do. Public celebrities serve as a conduit for our need to escape the feeling of being alone outside the crowd. Their function is two fold. In their public glamor and glory, we boost our own sense of worth through projection. In sharing our adoration with other fans we get a sense of togetherness and belonging to a larger group. What wouldn't we do to come inside, away from the cold, even if for a moment of hallucination and self deception, like the little Matchgirl in the Hans Christian Andersen story. Note that Andersen was a very typical outsider and, with his stories about being the outsider, moved millions of readers.

Of course, the more realistic and less hallucinatory realm where one escape the loneliness is family. But family carries their own risk of disillusion. Knowing someone so closely and intimately can dispel the sense of belonging and heighten the feeling of difference. Fantasy togetherness with strangers, on the other hand, can be as perfect as your imagination can achieve.

Thus the space created by the Internet is most curious. The people you are sharing message with on the other side of email or Web site or group chat are real. You feel like you know them, but not too much to dispel the sense of belonging. If you know how to play this game, you can be as close as you want without being too close to be reminded that, in the end, we still each live out here.

Oh, and another irony. Every time I read about how lonely it is "at the top" for famous people (or superheroes in comics) --- being so famous that they cannot mix with ordinary people and have to keep to their sad loneliness as celebrities, I laugh. Isn't the point of being famous to be universally admired and never be left out (again)? Yet, somehow, by being "special" one might exclude oneself from the common experience of feeling alone and insignificant.

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