Saturday, December 8, 2007

Hello, I'm Special

Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity, by Hal Niedzviecki, is an interesting examination of several modern trends, but it would be better if it were a little more carefully structured. He defines his two buzz terms, "conformist individuality" and "I'm Special", loosely and belatedly, which makes it hard to get a firm grip on exactly what he means when he uses them (repeatedly) as adjectives. More sloppily, he conflates two different trends into one thesis without apparently distinguishing between them, so that the weaker argument drags down the stronger one.

His comments on conformist individuality are the stronger parts of the book. His primary observation is that the urge to establish yourself as an individual is so strong now that it has become a kind of conformity of its own. Although I wouldn't say that I feel a compelling need to present myself as an "individual", I recognize myself in his description of the many people (from the baby-boomers on down) who bypass the formal institutions - religion, work, marriage, having children - in order to organize their lives exactly the way they want them. In my case, it is homechooling; I bypass not only the school system but also the formalized homeschool curricula available, and create individualized curricula for my kids designed for their specific strengths, weaknesses, and interests. So while I don't think of it as being an individual, I am clearly acting in ways that place a higher value on individual needs and preferences than on traditional structures and forms. This argument makes sense and makes sense of current trends.

It is when he brings in the "I'm Special" theory and tries to apply it to every aspect of modern life that Niedzviecki loses me. I accept that people want to feel special; that pop culture causes some people to be dissatified with their drab, humdrum lives, that it encourages them to do stupid things in order to be famous, and that it is ubiquitous in modern culture. His descriptions of why people feel the need to be noticed in the media help me make sense of behavior that I don't otherwise understand, such as volunteering to go on Survivor, and other things that are simply odd, like the number of people who post videos on YouTube. However, Niedzviecki confuses the basic human need to be an acknowledged part of a community, a need that goes back to a time when being an outcast was practically a death sentence, with the need for celebrity (or notoriety, which it increasingly resembles). Of course it is important for people to have a niche in a community, to know that other people know who they are and (with luck) value their contribution; this is part of being human, not a modern development. But this is not the same thing as doing things like setting up back-yard wrestling federations, engaging in extreme sports, or killing school kids in order to make it on TV or the internet. (He neglects to mention one obvious example: more people are giving their children unusual names or unusual spellings of common names.)

Niedzviecki sidesteps the flaw in his argument by setting up a world in which everything is a symptom of the I'm Special disease; no one is immune, in his view. Doing stupid things to get on TV is obviously a symptom, but so is joining a strict religious order - the latter is simply a reaction to pop culture's insistence on being special. He ignores the obvious counterexamples: what of the Amish, who mostly avoid pop culture altogether? And more relevantly, what about people who simply don't care? There are still people who are happy with their lives, who take sufficient satisfaction in family and friends and doing a job well, who don't feel the need to make a fool of themselves in public just to get their name in the paper. Niedzviecki may not know them, since they are mostly married and not part of hip culture, but they exist in substantial enough numbers to disprove his universal application of his theory.

Niedzviecki has some good observations, stories, and points, and explains some odd trends in modern life. Now if he would just apply a little more precision to his arguments, he would have a stronger book - although maybe less sensational.

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