“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.”
The Town of Truro sent two of its paid flaneurs* to our house last week to appraise it for a revised tax assessment. While one of them sauntered through the rooms snapping photos, I mentioned to the other that our house might be difficult to evaluate easily because it is unique. He explained that house assessments are determined by an algorithm. Plug in the metrics and a computer spits out the valuation you are taxed on.
“We don’t use the word ‘unique’ and you shouldn’t either,” he told me soto voce. “Banks don’t like to finance ‘unique’ dwellings because of resale.”
And there you have one of the significant shortcomings of our society. Homogeneity.
We hear so much about the importance of being true to yourself, of thinking outslde the box. But in practice, we’ve become cookie-cutter people: from chain restaurants serving up taste-alike food to chain clothing stores serving up look-alike fashions.
Did this ubiquitous and tedious conformity begin when we started telling every child in the school that he or she was special? Did it start when no kid left the playing field a loser?
This from Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari – and former boss and mentor of Steve Jobs:
“A lot of what is wrong with corporate America has to do with a culture filled with antibodies trained to expel anything different. HR departments often want cookie-cutter employees, which inevitably results in cookie-cutter solutions.”
In 1956, William H. Whyte published The Organization Man. It was regarded as a breakthrough sociological commentary and became a bestseller because it so courageously described what was happening on a mass scale to post-war American society: television, affordable cars, fast food. Families were nuclear, and “following your bliss” led to planned suburban communities like the 1950 California tract housing pictured above.
Whyte was alarmed by this phenomenon and he wanted us to be alarmed, too. The American belief in the perfectibility of society, he wrote, was shifting from one of individual initiative to one achieved at the expense of the individual:
“Once upon a time it was conventional for young men to view the group life of the big corporations as one of its principal disadvantages. Today, they see it as a positive boon.”
A few years later, Richard Yates published his first novel, Revolutionary Road, which was nominated for the 1962 National Book Award. It illustrated the underbelly of Ward and June Cleaver’s TV family: the idealized model of life-long career, two-child family and sensible house in the suburbs.
In the in 2008 movie adaptation, frustrated housewife April Wheeler tells her husband, Frank, in a pivotal scene:
“Our whole existence here is based on this great premise that we're special. That we're superior to the whole thing. But we're not. We're just like everyone else! We bought into the same, ridiculous delusion.”
Today we have “politically correct” thinking. The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to call it “fashionable consensus.” And it just might be more insidious than Whyte’s “group life” … because it has morphed into “groupthink.”
Here’s April Wheeler again:
“Tell me the truth, Frank. Remember that? We used to live by it. And you know what's so good about the truth? Everyone knows what it is however long they've lived without it. No one forgets the truth, Frank, they just get better at lying.”
(*Flaneur: A man who saunters around observing society)
In my next blog, “A Life in Black and White”