Dissidence starts insidiously.
I was probably eight years old. My parents had sent me to camp, where my entire day was mapped out for me. Tetherball. Swimming. Arts & Crafts. In the constant company of about 40 screaming kids, I couldn’t hear myself think. By the third day, I slipped away, into the woods, where it was quiet. I looked at the trees. The pine needles swallowed the sound of my footfall. I listened to the birds. I looked at lady’s slippers and jack-in-the-pulpits. I had a great time.
On my return I discovered that my disappearance had thrown the camp into pandemonium. When I got home, I was in big trouble. I had broken a cardinal rule that I didn’t even know existed: you don’t go off and do things by yourself. In time, I was slipping off and doing things by myself every day. In a family where my every move was watched, I became an expert at knowing my moment, when my jailer was distracted, and then off I would go. When people asked what I was like, my mother would snarl, “Shelah is very independent.“
When you’re young, dissidence is simple and intuitive. You just don’t enjoy what the other people are doing. You try to join in and the fact that you don’t have the fun you’re expected to be having makes you miserable. You become aware: you’re not like the others. This awareness forces a choice — stay with the group and try to be like the others, or keep to yourself and be yourself.
At first, you might experiment and see what works for you. If you try to stay with the group — in other words, if you choose to hide in plain sight — you’ll be lonelier than you would be if you were alone because you will be reminded at every turn that you do not belong. What’s more, sooner or later you will be found out, at which time the group will turn on you. However, if you can master the trick of forgetting the differences, if you can master the trick of forgetting how you feel, if you can enjoy what others enjoy and think what others think, then the group will accept you. The group will back you. Membership has its advantages. You’ll know that everything you think and do will be safe. You won’t know who you are, but that might not bother you.
If you make no effort to be like the others, they may leave you alone. You will be lonely but not as lonely as if you had people around you. But nothing about you will ever be safe. Because you are alone, if you are ever pitted against someone in the group, the group will close ranks and instead of an even fight against a single person, you will find yourself fighting the unified group. Because your rejection of the group constitutes an existential threat to the group’s sureness of itself, you must be eliminated.
As you get older, you discover that you don’t enjoy the same things as others because you don’t share their value system. You don’t accept their premises. You can’t help yourself — you think differently. It’s not a choice. It’s who you are.
Orthodoxy is safe. You know your opinions will not be challenged. You know you’re right. Other people feel safe with you, because you hold the accepted notions dear. You will not challenge them. You belong. You’re one of us.
Whereas independent thought is inherently threatening. It is dissidence. By questioning accepted premises, independent thought jeopardizes everything that follows. Independent thought jeopardizes a worldview and therefore it jeopardizes the whole world. It jeopardizes our whole world. The more reasonable and seductive this dissident thought appears, the more threatening it is.
Every college application I filled out wanted to know examples of my leadership qualities. Yet when I finished college and got into the working world, I learned that what employers want is a good follower. Someone who will take orders and drink the Kool-Aid. Someone who will do the work they don’t have the time or the skills or the inclination to do, but someone who is essentially an extension of whomever is hiring them. Someone who will Think Same.
Back in 1997, Apple introduced the slogan, “Think Different”, and its associated commercial, which showed 17 of the people whose work defined 20th century western culture. The implication was that those who think differently make the world a better place. The crazy ones, the square pegs in the round holes, the ones who would not be pounded down, they are the ones who invent things, who fight for the downtrodden, who encourage the ones who don’t fit in.
When you watch the commercial, thinking differently sounds romantic. It sounds like the stakes aren’t that high, that it’s just about being a little quirky. And then you notice how many of these people were murdered. You might wonder, if you’re going to think different, just how different is too different?
The real question is, do your ideas fundamentally threaten the power structure? If not, if your ideas are only superficially different, you might even be extolled. For instance, Apple’s MacIntosh or iPhone were far more elegant devices than anything offered by competitors, but they did not threaten capitalism, or the practice of using cheap foreign labor, or the premise that for every ill there is a technological solution. Apple makes a better device which superficially is different, but fundamentally is not.
Why was Gandhi murdered? Why was Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy or John Lennon? These figures all threatened white hegemony by fighting for people of color.
Why is it even a question whether black lives matter?
Why has there been a 40-year cycle since the 18th century where a few women would rise up and accrue followers, and then for the next 30 years the “war against women” cracks down with draconian force. Why are women writers, artists, comediennes, and political figures routinely threatened with murder?
Why, when we are seeing vast hoards of new poor, when most of our jobs have been automated away and the remainder have been outsourced to impoverished countries or to domestic prison labor, when industrial farming has created rural wastelands where there is no work and people waste themselves on drugs, why when our people are in crisis, is any call to amend the crisis decried as “socialist”?
Why is it alright to ignore a 150-year old treaty and send privatized security forces to steal land from Native Americans in order to build a pipeline whose oil cannot compete for price against wind or solar, but which is bound to despoil the environment?
We like the idea of “thinking different”. We like the romance of it. But we are not a romantic people. Americans care about money, period. If thinking a little differently will make someone a lot of money, that’s great. As long as you do not think differently enough to challenge the status quo.
We in the US think we are all about rugged individuals. We think we are all about the self-made man who “thought different”. These narratives are fundamental to our identity. But they’re lies.
In America, we expect you to Think Same.