Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Beauty of Difference

Intricate rock structures, elaborate yard adornments, layers of detail

I came away from reading a recent David Byrne post, The Echo Chamber, with the overwhelming sense that it's vitally important that we engage in conversation with people whose opinion is different from our own. His main point is that humans have a deep-seated tendency to gravitate towards, and bond with, other humans of like opinion, and that this bond becomes such a strong force that potentially troublesome things like facts which would disprove the shared opinion are pushed aside by the force of the echoing of mutual opinions.

The mechanism of this is frighteningly easy to verify. Find a complete stranger, engage them in conversation, and echo back everything that they say. Use a minimum degree of technique here so you're not echoing back what they say exactly verbatim, which sounds psychotic, but rather just confirm and restate everything they say, in the varying forms of basic discourse: confirmation, reaffirmation, question, response, clarifying but supportive inquiry. In no time, the echo chamber will kick in, and the stranger will most likely, 1) Feel like you are listening to them, and understand them, and 2) Think that you like them, and are trustworthy. I tried it with my daughter, then she tried it back with me, and we both agreed that it's crazy and effective, even when you know it's happening.

Zooming in a bit, but encompassing the whole thing from the street is nearly impossible

Bryne has a concern that social media exacerbates the situation. We tend to like and friend those with opinions harmonious to our own, unfriend, mute, and block those who disagree, and bathe in the echoic comfort of a reinforcing flood of word and image that reinforces the shibboleths of our own in-group while excluding difference at a minimum, possibly excluding even facts and data which would, if admitted, cause dissonance that might undermine the basic bonding assumptions. 

He's probably right about social media, but then, the echo chamber reinforcement of safe sameness is nothing new. You can sit with kids around a campfire far from cell coverage and see exactly the same mechanisms at work. You can read our oldest literature and see how power has always used this method to mold and direct public discourse. From Babylon to Fox News, it's the same. It's a blame game to point the finger at social media, somehow, for this. It's what people do, and it's not going to be optimal in any context.

Bike lane view of this wonderful difference

Byrne also writes, "I’m going to suggest that cycling or walking around in different neighborhoods gives one a slightly more face-to-face view of the diversity of humanity." I came across some of this diversity in a neighborhood in Phoenix on my Friday commute home. Sometimes I divert from my usual route to go explore neighborhoods off to one side or the other, to see what's happening. This first thing I thought of when I saw this elaborate aggregation of rock and knickknacks was, "I wonder what the conversations among the neighbors sound like," but I didn't really wonder, because I already know.

Detail-rich, one small corner of the whole

In particular, the ones who devoutly wish that the Home Owner Association in the sky would just show up and make it all go away will not find comfort or peace in difference here. However, it's apparent that we learn and advance primarily through non-echoic discovery, and we record and retain those advancements with language, which itself often has to be expanded to accomodate the new knowledge. The confirmation of gravity waves this week will no doubt shake up some previous comfort zones while also pushing the language to grow to new places to accept these new facts. Witness the flood of articles attempting to express what momentous thing occurred in our collective understanding this week.

To occur, innovation requires the conversation to expand beyond the echoic comfort zone. The challenge, even for the open and willing, is that conversation is a two way street. Even when you're open to difference, you're not going to like everything. Some things will please you, others displease, and that also is natural. So while welcoming difference we also have to avoid abject political correctness by recognizing that opinion and disagreement are also natural. Discrimination is not bad in itself: after all, we discriminate against discrimination all the time now, we pre-judge prejudice all day long. As both science and poetry try to teach us, much of what our echo-loving brains crave--beauty, security, comfort, love, hope, peace, solid understanding of phenomena, to name a few--are ephemeral, so the inevitable disappointment of our clinging attachment to them should be expected and prepared for, and not serve as fuel for our frustration, or impetus for lapsing back to an echo mode which seeks to evade disagreement and difference via an illusory and limiting permanence.

The beauty of difference lies not in its comforting sameness, but rather in the unsettling urge to have a conversation about it. The conversation becomes an end in itself, nurtured by politeness and the urge to understand that which, by definition, we do not already understand or know. I'm not saying we should always have a positive aesthetic judgment about objects such as those pictured in this post. It may be better to retain a healthy skepticism honed by wide experience and tempered by knowing what you like. Knowledge is strength, and if you know art, you will have specific opinions and responses informed by that knowledge, and calibrated by assessment of skill, technique, reference to other works, and so on. Art and architecture have ongoing conversations of their own, after all. But, I'm guessing most of the negative conversations about the yard above aren't based on comparisons with Park Güell and Gaudi. 

I agree with Byrne: cycling nearly every day does give me a slightly more face-to-face view of the diversity of humanity. I spin off to a new-to-me neighborhood, and get to see a different, diverse face. I think back to those photos of the early versions of Levittown, one of the first large-scale housing developments, and they make my skin crawl. Miles and miles of echoey sameness, scary conformity, unabated industrial scale blandness. Looking at the photos is bad enough. Riding or driving through it would be terrifying. Actually living there some kind of horror show that would seem like an implausible movie today. On the other hand, if I wasn't afraid that the neighbors would run me down with their SUVs while texting emojis to their BFFs, I would like to set up a lawn chair in the street in front of the yard with its rock and concrete structures in these photos on a fine spring day like today, and just contemplate all the detail. Perhaps, to welcome a few other people to come join me, to have a conversation about it. It might be a contentious conversation at times, but that's OK. Beauty has my back. We may want to be the same deep down, but in itself that also indicates that we must be different at heart. 

"Conform or be cast out," the old Rush lyric goes. That's OK by me, for the world is vast, and diverse, and full of differences still waiting to be experienced and discussed in conversations with unlike-minded people. The yard of hand-wrought difference connects me to all that other difference, in its own way. Hello difference, I love you. You are beautiful.


  1. If those HOA types get angry, tell them to simply watch five episodes of "American Pickers" and call you in the morning!

    1. That recent commercial where people's head explode seems a likely result. I endorse this message.


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