About monkeys and (so-called) originality

THURSDAY, 7 OCTOBER 2004

You are born with more or less no identity, except for maybe a name. Within a few months, or maybe a year or three, you start to emulate the behaviour and language of other people in your immediate environment. As you get older, this emulation becomes intertwined with other measures – relevant to particular time and place – to ensure your personal safety.

When a person moves away far enough from what others imitate and regard as good enough for themselves, it happens that the label of “original” is hung around their necks. This label is of course never completely accurate, because even the so-called “original” gets their ideas from somewhere, dressed in a language that they did not invent.

The point here is degree. Some people emulate so slavishly that one can hardly detect a difference between the one who is being emulated and the monkey itself. And then of course, it is possible that even the model is a clone of someone else, who also initially slavishly emulated someone else, who, somewhere in the distant past, did something different to a significant degree from what others at that time and in that place had emulated as Models of Functional Adulthood.

Am I saying people are mechanised flesh-creatures programmed by the sometimes subtle and sometimes explicit instructions from others in the area? Hmm … not exactly. Just because I am wearing jeans doesn’t mean I call myself “Elvis”. Just because the neighbour teases her hair is not to say she knows who Dolly Parton is. My point is rather that someone – who for want of a better word we can call an “original” – decided one wonderful day to, for instance, get into the traditional workers attire of denim pants to go shopping or to go on any outing other than to the nearest factory, and the world was never the same again.

The New Human – toddler, teen or young adult – looks at others in the area for clues on how to act, what to wear, what to say when, and what sounds should be produced to achieve certain results. This is a natural process. Even that first rebel who decided to make an appearance in a pair of denims in an area other than where his hands would get dirty acted after other steps had first been taken – denim clothing had already been designed and manufactured long before that day. His adaptation of this phenomenon, on the other hand, was relatively original (that is to say, if such a mythological First Denim Rebel ever really existed).

A few other examples can be mentioned with which most readers will be familiar: the vocabulary and expressions that people use to bring themselves into other people’s favour; the ways in which arms are swung about on a dance floor; the type of automobile people purchase; the labour that people choose to offer to generate an income; the jewellery that people buy to hang from their limbs; the beliefs that people hold about religion, politics, and what a person should do with his or her life.

It is important to not do what the proverbial everyone is doing? To not look and sound like the majority of your peers? To not do with your life what most of the people you know are doing with their lives? My answers to these questions are intimately intertwined with my own view of things, with my background, my own insecurities and fears, and my view of a significant percentage of my peers.

I believe there are three possibilities: 1) to follow slavishly what is prescribed by your environment for the sake of acceptance by a specific community; by forming Who You Are around the anvil of what is presented to you as the norm of time, place and community; 2) to look at what is presented to you as the norm of time, place and community, to accept some of these things and to reject others in a CRITICAL AND CREATIVE PROCESS, and to then appear to the community as a distinctive version of what is generally acceptable, and to function as such; and 3) to look for examples and clues beyond your immediate time, environment and community, and to define a model of appearance and functioning that differs to such an extent from what was originally presented to you, that you and your life will be seen as a primary example that others will consider in their search for clues and answers to questions that, shall we admit, keep everyone awake at one time or another.

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