BEING DIFFERENT

6 September 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

At the height of the period of liberalisation and social change that distinguished the decade of the 1960s, an American magazine carried a memorable double panelled cartoon under the heading, ‘Morality – Then And Now’.

‘Then’ showed a field of white sheep ranged, with as much antagonism as sheep can muster, around a single black member of their species. In the ‘Now’ panel, all the sheep were black save for a lone white one standing looking vulnerable and self-conscious under the collective gaze of the rest of the herd.

A conservative comment was undoubtedly being made about the changed climate of the times, but the image of uncomfortable isolation used to make the point has relevance beyond the context.

The cultural trends of the 1960s onwards have laid much celebratory emphasis on individuality.
We are encouraged to express ourselves in both the public and private realms in a way that reflects our personalities and tastes, unfettered by self-consciousness – and Western society has certainly evolved into a very eclectic one.

And yet, towards people who are defined as being ‘different’ because they stand apart in some discernible characteristic or choice from those prevailing, the experience of uncomfortable isolation expressed in the 1960s cartoon can be a very real and painful one.

A social inclusion campaign is currently underway in the county that provokes much thought as to how tolerant we are of difference.

The broad gamut of the difference it deals with is informative.

We pride ourselves as a society, for example, on being religiously and racially tolerant, and most people would openly subscribe to the view that the colour of a person’s skin or the place in which they worship makes no difference to how they should be treated, and put this philosophy into practice in the way they live their lives.

This is not to say that we live in a society free of racial prejudice or religious bigotry, but those who hold these views do so in the main inwardly or within a small unit of like-minded individuals, and any overt expression of them in word or deed rightly meets with the condemnation they deserve.

As the campaign suggests however, we would be foolish to become complacent about our religious or ethnic tolerance.

The embers, hopefully dying ones, of a conflict between religions and cultures on this island still hatefully blaze to life from time to time – and the influx to this country in recent times of many people of different nationalities and cultural practices has offered tests to the inclusivity of Irish society that we sometimes fail to pass.

Perhaps the litmus test for tolerance is the openness with which difference is expressed – and in terms of sexual orientation the environment we inhabit is still markedly heterosexual in its expression.

Information circulated as part of the current Social Inclusion Week activities suggests that around 10% of this county’s population are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – yet how many of these people feel comfortable enough to be open about their sexuality?

Some may make the free choice to express this dimension of themselves exclusively in the private realm – there are many others, however, most particularly perhaps those starting to come to terms with their sexuality, who decide to cloak this aspect of themselves for fear of prejudice or ridicule from their peers.

A question we have posed editorially before is worth repeating in the week that’s in it – is Co Monaghan yet a place where LGBT persons can feel comfortable and accepted?

Other aspects of the social inclusion campaign suggest that much more can be done to assist other members of society feeling isolated.

Although much assistance is available, those who have literacy problems – one in four Irish adults according to OECD figures – can be very reluctant to admit to them or seek the supports available, undoubtedly due to the scorn that can all too easily be shown to deficiencies in this regard, and the increasingly information-orientated cast of the world in which we live.

And our IT age tends to take little sympathetic account of the huge numbers of people who are not computer literate, and who do not have access to internet facilities – the growth of the social network has spawned another sphere of life where, ironically, many people can feel uncomfortably isolated.

If there is a vice at the heart of social exclusion which the current campaign seeks to extinguish, it is that of selfishness, or at least the careless assumption that we all make from time to time that what fits naturally and comfortably in our own lives should apply equally to everyone else’s.

The fault is understandable if not always forgivable – we walk daily through a world where we are bombarded with marketing urging us to live a certain way and buy the material things to facilitate this, or pay the penalty of being unfashionable if we don’t.

And even in the supposedly neutral space where the news media operates, we are subsumed with words and images that often ethnocentrically encourage us to apply our own values and attitudes to events taking place in very different cultures in other parts of the world, and to judge them accordingly.

Social Inclusion Week is a very good opportunity for each of us to take stock of our own attitudes towards difference – and to reflect on the fact that, at some point in our lives, each of us will have been that lone sheep left feeling uncomfortably isolated in a hostile environment.

It is not a nice feeling – we should not carelessly or unthinkingly inflict it upon others.

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