How We Became Everybody-Else

beauty ratings
Ratings of attractiveness of various morphs of portraits of 30 women. Note how closely the average of all 30 portraits resembles the highest-rated morph. From Pierre Tourigny’s flickr site — also check out the two other image sets he refers to in the article below the photo set. More discussion of this at Mindhacks.

After spending a bit of time in the virtual world of Second Life, I’ve become aware of the extent to which how you appear affects your behaviour and your sense of identity. This is partly a function of how others’ response to you affects your self-confidence, and also how your perception of your own physical attractiveness and health affects how you see and project yourself.

If attractive people are seen (rightly or wrongly) as being ‘better’ people in other respects (more intelligent, more important, more successful) and if perception is (to some extent) reality, does our appearance end up playing an important role in the determination of our identity, who we are?

Some surveys indicate (see graphic above) that perceived physical beauty is, more than anything else, principally a function of ‘normalness’, the absence of any abnormality or unusual facial or body features. This suggests that people who look normal (in the sense of being exceptionally unexceptional) will be models of how we want to look. And if appearance affects sense of self and, then perhaps by extension we will subconsciously aspire to be exceptionally unexceptional (i.e. conformists to normality) in our behaviour, character and beliefs. Or in other words, we may be aspiring to be ‘everybody else’ (only more so), with fewer deviations of behaviour, character or beliefs than anybody else. This is a depressing thought, but it strikes me intuitively as consistent with how most people actually behave.

We now live in a world where the weak, ill and ugly can (and do) have as many children as the strong, healthy and beautiful. I have argued before that prehistoric humans were probably, due to natural selection, much more ‘beautiful’ (they were certainly more healthy, anthropologists now agree) than modern humans. If this is true then beauty (exceptional unexceptionalness) is even rarer in modern civilized society, and since scarcity increases desirability, the beautiful may be even more powerful and highly valued.

Perhaps this is why those of us not naturally exceptionally unexceptional strive so desperately (with makeup, clothes, dyes, and even surgery) to appear so, and may also conform fiercely to ‘norms’, to compete for mates when we are at such a disadvantage. We clearly do ostracize those whose appearances, beliefs, character or behavior is very exceptional — we view them as entertainment, as ridiculous. Cartoons and comedy series are mostly built on exaggeration of eccentricities and abnormalities.

In Second Life (except for the few who go out of their way to make themselves look comical) everyone appears beautiful, exceptionally unexceptional, attractive, shaped and looking and dressed with almost astonishing sameness. It is a paradise for voyeurs, exhibitionists and narcissists. But we don’t change our internal self-image so quickly. Deep-seated insecurities, jealousies, aggressive behaviour, timidity and hostility quickly betray the surface beauty.

Perhaps the truly physically beautiful, bathing in real-world adoration, need never set foot in Second Life, and this entire artificial world is a charade, with everyone trying to be ‘normal’, everybody-else, and failing spectacularly. If so, it’s a sad spectacle.

In real life, we may also be trying to be perfectly everybody-else, in search of love, acceptance, appreciation, reputation, wealth and power. This would play perfectly into the hands of those who currently have wealth and power (however acquired), who would like nothing better than mass conformity and obedience to norms. It would also account for the terrible imaginative poverty of modern society — there is no reward for imagination and innovation when everyone aspires to be and act like everybody-else. Even most so-called counter-culture movements (as The Rebel Sell demonstrates) arise largely out of dissatisfaction with some endemic situation or unwanted surprise, or out of the desire to be cool, a model that everybody-else would want to emulate, rather than any intrinsic propensity for non-conformity.

I think this excessive and obsessive conformity is unnatural, and is borne out of modern society’s insecurities of scarcity and low self-esteem, which in turn have been wrought by overpopulation and overconsumption. In a natural world of abundance and awareness and balance with all-life-on-Earth, I believe, we would, like most wild creatures, be astonishingly beautiful, self-confident, peaceful, imaginative, playful, and unafraid to think and act differently.

And as a consequence we would be, like most indigenous human cultures, remarkably diverse, experimenting and playing imaginatively with different ways of thinking, adorning ourselves and living, and different ideas. We would evolve very different languages and forms of art and recreation, just for fun and self-expression, producing art and artifacts beyond the imagining of our culturally and intellectually homogeneous society.

In such a world what ee cummings called “the hardest thing, to be nobody-but-yourself when everyone around you is trying their best every day to make you everybody-else” would be easy. We could, naturally, be nobody-but-ourselves.

I think (as my novel The Only Life We Know will try to show) that this is what the world after the collapse of our modern civilization will be like. I want to create some models, not to help them become that, but to let them remain that, naturally,uncivilized and, most unlike us, free to be themselves.

Category: Our Culture
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1 Response to How We Became Everybody-Else

  1. Yenayer says:

    I don’t remember who said : “c’est triste d’être heureux dans un monde où le bonheur est une obligation”. Dave i know your french is good. In english this would say : “It’s sad to be happy in a world where hapinesse is an obligation” ( my “very bad” translation)

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