Is Sameness More Feared Than Difference?

There are a lot of cultural memes about accepting people who are different and embracing diversity of all kinds.  But I wonder if it’s actually harder to tolerate sameness than difference.

Consider people or ideas that cause the most upheaval.  They are often those that reveal the depth of sameness and lack of distinction in culture, rather than radical difference.  Tell someone an English degree is more worthless than a Math degree.  You’ll rile some people up, but it will mostly be a playful rivalry.  The distinction between these two degrees allows people to set themselves apart and sometimes argue, but both feel fairly secure in their unique place.  But say that all degrees, no matter what area of study, are essentially the same and that the believed differentiation is a farce, and you’ll have a lot of angry people on your hands.

Likewise there are always people who favor one religion and smear another.  They point to sharp contrasts between the beliefs and values of different religious texts and traditions.  Society can tolerate them and they’re not really threatening at the core.  The greatest heretics are those who claim that all religions are equally true or equally false.  The removal of differences and cherished uniqueness, and the revelation of sameness and lack of distinction threatens the very fabric of society.

People can tolerate difference.  They have categories for it.  They can tolerate hierarchy and the occasional odd one out.  They are scared to death of sameness.  They are terrified of discovering that they’re really a lot more like their neighbor next door or in a distant land than they are different.  The paradox is that most people strive for sameness.  They want their kid to be average, they want to be average.  That’s why almost everyone thinks they are middle class.  They don’t want to stick out on either tail of the bell curve.  They strive for it, but they don’t dare admit it.  The great mutual secret of society is sameness.  We believe that great distinctions exist, and huge divides between people and ways of life.  We don’t speak of the sameness.  The great times of crisis are when differences fade.  Rich and poor alike are decimated by economic collapse.  Flood and earthquakes are indiscriminate.  The break-down of perceived and real differences is perhaps more frightening and threatening to our culture than anything.

I’m still not entirely sure about this thesis, but there seems to be something here.  I’ll try to write more on it as I think more on it.  Feel free to send me examples, counter-examples, or thoughts.

The Obedience-Entitlement Matrix and Generational Differences

I love a good two by two matrix.  Trying on new lenses through which to interpret the world is a big part of intellectual exploration.  Plus, it’s fun.  I have been fascinated for some time with differences between generations, especially since I’ve interacted a lot with Millenials (or Generation Y) in the last several years, and now I’m interacting with the next generation (I’m calling them Generation Z, because I’m not sure any other title exists currently).  There are some pretty significant differences between these two generations, not to mention the huge difference between both and Generation X, Baby Boomers, and even earlier generations.

In order to explore these generational differences, and to sate my desire for matrices, I put together the Obedience-Entitlement matrix.  Obedience – the degree to which a person follows orders and maintains existing norms – is measured from high to low on the vertical axis.  Entitlement – the degree to which a person believes they are owed something from others – is measured from high to low on the horizontal axis.

You can see the four quadrants that result.  The first label in each quadrant describes the dominant trait displayed by individuals or groups in that quadrant.  The second label in each quadrant serves as a kind of archetype, describing informally the role people in that quadrant play in a society.  Don’t mistake the second label as a career description.  It may be that, but obviously many societies don’t have slaves in the formal sense, and many people who make good soldiers are not necessarily soldiers, etc.  You get the idea.

Don’t be too distracted by the word “Slave” in the upper left quadrant.  Again, it’s an archetype.  I tried to think of a less loaded but still accurate word to describe people who are highly obedient and don’t challenge authority, and are highly dependent and expect to be taken care of.  Slave is the best word I could find.  Obviously not the kind of slaves that revolt or escape, but kind that accept their lot and seek nothing more than the most comfortable slave life possible.

Obedience-Entitlement Matrix


So here’s where I started having fun with it.  Thinking in terms of generational differences, I tried to map out the dominant characteristic that describes each of the last four generations.  The Greatest Generation and Boomers were pretty easy.  It gets harder after that.

The ‘Greatest Generation’

The WWII generation fits pretty nicely in the upper right quadrant.  They tend to be deferential to authority and feel a need for maintaining a constant order in the world.  They don’t mind knowing and staying in their “place”, and they don’t expect anything for free.  This generation is accustomed to earning everything through hard work and individual effort, and they keep their gripes to themselves rather than upsetting the apple cart with direct action.

Baby Boomers

Boomers are in the bottom left quadrant.  They grew up questioning everything and tearing down what didn’t suit them.  A big part of their revolt came when they felt they didn’t get what they deserved.  They want things, and you’re damn-well gonna give it to them.  This is a group that’s willing to question all authority structures, and yet doesn’t mind fawning over those promising free goodies.  This is a source of radical idealism, but practical problems.

Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z

Here’s where it gets hard.  I’ll theorize on why it gets harder in a minute, but first let’s see what we can do.

Generation X might be the least clear.  I consider myself a Gen Xer, even though my date of birth may or may not put me in the tail end of that group, depending who you ask.  I have older siblings and grew up primarily with people and accouterments considered Gen X.  So what does grunge music and a bunch of movies about discontent corporate workers and long-haired slackers mean for the matrix?  I’m still not settled on this one, but I think Gen X is mostly in the upper right quadrant in deed, if not in words.  You don’t see the abiding respect for authority that the Greatest Generation displays, yet for all the complaining and philosophizing about the system, Gen Xers pretty much do the ‘normal’ thing.  They complain about it and feel like it’s pointless, but they do it.  Xers don’t seem to have a strong sense of entitlement either.  In fact, they seem to expect mostly bad things to happen, and have made a kind of stoic peace with it.

On to Millennials.  Here’s where I’ll tick some people off.  If I can narrow down the diverse set of Gen Y characteristics to only the most common, I’d have to place them in the upper left quadrant.  Millennials are demanding and ‘high maintenance’ if you ask employers or parents.  But not in a revolutionary way that truly scares those in authority.  Millennials aren’t threatening to the status quo as much as they are frustrating.  It’s hard to know what they need.  They want a lot of things, and they want someone else to figure it out and give it to them.  They aren’t afraid to openly criticize or make demands of authority, but mostly as a way to vent emotions.  They want to be taken care of above all, and have an abiding sense that the world is unfair if they don’t get what they want.  If you provide, they’ll obey.

Generation Z is really interesting to me.  Only in the last few years have I spent a good deal of time around this generation.  I place them primarily in the bottom right quadrant.  They’ve seen older siblings pay a lot of money for college only to end up in debt living in the basement.  They’ve never known the phenomenon of ever increasing home values and 401(k)’s.  They don’t expect their lives to be better than their parents by some automatic function of time passing.  They’re not entitled.  But they also feel comfortable openly criticizing existing institutions.  Unlike most Millennials, however, they’re not afraid to do something about it and pay the price.  Unlike boomers, they don’t see revolt or reform as the best way to confront the status quo.  They simply walk away, opt out, and exit what they don’t like.  They’ve grown up in a world full of options, and they don’t feel the urge to go along with, or revolt against the game.  They just quit and find or create a new one.

The End of Generations?

X, Y, and Z are pretty hard to easily categorize.  Not just on this matrix, but in general.  They don’t seem to share really dominant characteristics the way previous generations do.  Perhaps that’s because not enough time has yet passed for us to have the ability to look back at their full record.  But I also suspect that the value of defining generations is declining across the board.

We have more choice and customization than ever.  It was once the case that everyone in a certain age range was sure to have a lot of shared experiences.  You saw the same shows, heard the same songs, wore the same clothes.  There weren’t many options.  Today it’s not uncommon for one 18 year old to be a huge fan of a band or TV show that another 18 year old in the same town has never even heard of.  The number of shared experiences and cultural icons has diminished.  This is a very exciting development!  Oppression and stagnation thrive off of sameness.  Collectivism is a dangerous mindset, but it’s becoming endangered.

Your Turn

Play around with the matrix yourself.  Place generations, individuals, companies, sports teams, or anything else on it.  Tell me why I’m wrong.  See if you can adapt it to be of more use to you.

Ideas Must Be Earned

The worst ideas are those unearned.  If you believe something just because it’s common, comfortable, or inherited like a genetic trait, It’s a bad belief.  Not bad because it’s wrong – it very well may be right – but bad because there was no journey, no effort or will to discover it, and this is likely to cause you trouble.

Why are given beliefs bad for you?  Because they’re not examined, rooted, or truly respected by the believer.  When challenge comes, you’ll feel embarrassed and defensive.  You may build up a wall of falsehood or dismissiveness towards others to protect your unearned belief – a wall that will blind you from valuable truths.  Or you may see the weakness in your idea, become bitter at those who passed it on to you, and join a crusade against it, missing any elements of truth it had.

Many people who rail against this or that idea or belief system do so because it’s what they used to believe, and now they view themselves as having grown out of it.  It is possible for a person to change from one genuinely earned belief to another, but when you see them mocking their old beliefs constantly, or changing very quickly, it’s usually because they never really earned their former ideas.  When someone attacking an idea appeals to their own authority as a former believer, it’s almost always a sign that their former belief wasn’t earned.

This is more true the more radical the idea.  Radical ideas, especially, must be earned.  It’s tough to hold radical views.  All the cool and respectable people might mock you, or pressure you, or dismiss you.  If your radical beliefs came to you unearned or too fast, you’ll make them look crazy with weak defenses, or you’ll quickly abandon them and join in the chorus of mockers.  You do yourself and the world no favors this way.  The idea may or may not be true, but it deserves a genuine and serious examination before you become a firm believer or detractor.

If you haven’t really earned a belief, take a few steps back and don’t try to be a crusader for or against it.  To paraphrase Murray Rothbard, It’s no crime to have unearned ideas; but it’s totally irresponsible to be a loud advocate for those ideas.

Radically Practical

There’s an assumption that practical and radical are on opposite ends of the spectrum.  Sometimes, the reverse is true.  The most practical things can be the most radical.

Radical means outside the status quo; something not often done or considered; something beyond the social mores and institutions of the day.  Practical means something that’s efficient at achieving your tangible, real-world goals.

Think about how many social norms and activities are horribly inefficient: K-12 education, college, formal attire, working in a giant office building instead of from a remote office, buying instead of renting, working for someone else instead of contracting out or starting your own firm, waiting to retire before you live where you want to, and on and on ad nauseum.  None of these are bad in themselves, but considering the stated goals of those who engage in them, they’re almost always an unnecessarily costly and painful approach.

If you zoom out, get in touch with your real desires and goals, and consider the best way to achieve them, so many of the standard approaches turn out to be wholly impractical.  Don’t worry about what’s considered radical by society; ask yourself what works best at getting what you want, and do it.  It’s prudent and practical, even if others consider it radical.

If doing what works best for you is radical, wear it as a badge of honor.