The Difference of Difference

A bit more of a personal post today. I don’t like to make these posts super personal, because I don’t want to go on about my life and degrade the whole place into a whinge website. But there’s a couple ideas that have been floating around in my head for a while, and it’s good to put them down on paper. Or – yeah, paper, sure. 

So I was talking with a minister at church a while back about not feeling like I fitted in. I’m a bit more liberal, I’m an arts major – there’s only probably four or five other Christian arts majors that I know from my seven years in and around university – and I’m well-read in areas like feminism and gender theory, which many Christians are often quite hostile to. Actually, those last two exist in a weird bubble where Christians get super hostile about them but also don’t really know anything about the actual fields. They serve as distant bugbears, things that exist and are scary but are not directly learnt about.

Anyway: so I tend to have a bit of trouble in churches, because the Christian population in my town tend to be a bit more conservative, and the things I like tend to scare them. I was expressing this feeling to a minister – explaining that I felt quite different, quite isolated, and like I didn’t fit in. He said something about how everyone feels different, which is true in a relatively superficial sense, but also underestimates the problem.

So that’s the set-up for today’s topic. I’ll clarify at the outset that we did discuss the things I’m relating from here on in, and this isn’t like a weird post-conversation anonymous bitching about points I wish I could’ve made. It might seem like unnecessary hedging to say all that, but I don’t want my intention to be misunderstood. It’s a personal moment with some interesting theoretical points, and I only want to relate the personal elements insofar as they let us talk about the theory.

The idea that everyone’s different obviously has some validity. On a very simple level, no two people have the same history and life experiences. Everyone’s coming from a different place, and every Christian will have their own different relationship with God. People are also going to understand things differently, perceive things differently – so it’s obviously true, but it’s true in quite a facile way. It’s a little bit glib and superficial. There’s more going on.

For instance, it’s important to preserve the difference of difference, or the multiplicity or plurality of difference. Not all differences are of the same kind, or of the same degree. If you’ve got a group of six white guys with brown hair, and you add a white guy with blond hair and a black guy, the two new people are both different, but they’re different in different ways. One difference is much deeper and much more significant than the other. In that situation especially, it would be super dumb to assert that everybody’s different. In some sense it’s not an untrue statement, but it fails to recognise that there are different types of difference, and that some differences are more significant than others. Yes, technically everybody in the group is different, but obviously in this grouping some people are more different than others.

A great example is the Marvel movies. Currently there are 19 films in the Marvel cinematic universe, including Infinity War. Eighteen of those films have a main character who is a straight white male. The other film, Black Panther, is led by a black male. Now we can say that every main character is different, which is technically true, but it’s a very flat, reductive claim. If you say that only one of them is black, suddenly there’s a sense of perspective. We know that Marvel makes lots of films led by white males, and that the one black-led movie is in a stark minority. We’re not treating the difference between hair colour or superpower as being the same type of difference as racial difference. What’s more, those who insist on retaining this ‘we’re all equally different’ attitude might be contributing (knowingly or otherwise) to ongoing oppression. It’s all very well to say that we’re all equally different, but that doesn’t really explain why the USA has never had a female president, for example, or why New Zealand (my country) has never had a Maori prime minister. To answer those questions satisfactorily, we have to acknowledge that some differences have more impact on your life in society.

So I wasn’t very comforted by this ‘everybody’s different’ attitude. Obviously everybody feels some degree of social exclusion from time to time, but I didn’t think it was super valid to say that everyone feels the same degree of social exclusion, or that my differences were similar to the types of difference within the rest of the group. For you as a reader, it’s probably hard to say one way or the other whether my attitude was correct – and that’s fine. I don’t think we really need to worry about whether I was right or not. There are some more abstracted points that we can take away from the conversation. It’s obviously true that everybody feels a little bit different and sometimes even a little bit excluded, even when there’s nothing really there. It’s also true that some people are more different, and that they don’t really fit into a given community because of it. Feelings of social exclusion can’t always be explained away by the ‘everyone’s different’ line – and in fact, the idea that everyone’s different is really an attempt to generalise difference, to make it generic and singular and shared by everyone. In a sense, it’s an attempt to undermine the difference of difference.

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