Maybe the best way to understand difference is to first understand what it is not. Sure, there’s a chance that sounds a little too zen for some, but really what I mean is understanding sameness.
You don’t have to do navel-gazing to understand when you do or don’t like someone. But, it’s also true that you can’t always tell exactly why you feel that way.
Sometimes you feel the same as people because of obvious links. Say, you both like the same music and get talking at a gig. You might be family. You might discover you both work at the same place and hate the same boss. The possibilities are endless.
Weirdly though, you might find that you feel entirely dissimilar to someone in one context, but feel connected to them in another. Aussies and Kiwis attending any particular sports match you could name will feel antipathy at the ground, but if they walk out of the stadium and into surrounds of London, they’re great mates.
Sameness can it seems be relative.
It’s always made me wonder then why people work so hard to foster sameness. Much of the time sameness is the product of completely ordinary events or things that you don’t really notice until someone points them out to you. And all too often these exact events and things will separate you from people you would otherwise like.
Regardless of the normality of difference, it’s very usual for leaders such as political figures to work very hard to foster similarity among their supporters. Not absolute sameness mind you, but sameness enough to ensure that supporters remain ‘tethered’ to one another.
The trouble is, among small groups difference isn’t too much of a drama, usually. When disputes arise they normally have to be worked through, feathers smoothed, the necessary words spoken and so on. But, as your group gets bigger and bigger it becomes very difficult to maintain the tethers that keep a group bound to one another.
In the past, sameness was usually maintained through allegiance. Even though you might hate the clan or tribe living in the next valley, your allegiance to a higher power or lord was what prevented you from paying them an angry visit. Uneasy alliances and fear of the loss of human life were stereotypically what held larger ‘groups’ together.
As technology changed, what with flashy, newfangled widgets like the Industrial Revolution coming along, new ways of keeping people from hating each other had to be invented, because the groups being managed were just getting too large to handle with allegiance alone.
The idea that some guys had was to start talking about ‘nations’ as natural groupings of people. And it worked a treat.
What ‘nations’ allowed was for increasingly large numbers of individuals to be tethered together, and for older identities like tribes or clans to be superseded. The trick in this case was for people to be encouraged to identify with things they didn’t immediately see.
Sameness in this case became all about people feeling attached to things they may not have any direct experience of, like their monarchy, sports events, or wars they may have heard of but not fought in. The result was that people began more and more to consider themselves similar, even though their daily lives may be completely different.
The consequence of this relatively new idea is that leaders these days spend large amounts of the public time fostering the impression of sameness among the populations of the state they govern. So even though the society they govern may well be mottled and multifaceted, the individuals themselves believe they’re the same as someone on the far side of the country.
And this is why you might find that you’re different to people, but similar all at the same time. It’s a weird kind of nexus, in which different and similarity are intertwined and overlaid in highly complex and oft-times mysterious ways. Worse, unravelling the nexus is something of a black art, one that a writer can only really understand in small glimpses.