“My darling girl, when are you going to realize that being normal is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage.” – Alice Hoffman in “Practical Magic”
When I was little, I despised the arrival of homogenized milk because I believed it was synonymous with milk that had lost its character, in part because milk from different breeds of cattle was mixed into a blander product (such as the Guernsey/Jersey/Holstein Triple Blend championed by Foremost). And, practically speaking, there was no cream on top for coffee or cereal.
Some folks use the word “homogenized” to speak of a world in which all cultures, races, traditions, and religions are accepted. I have always hoped to see such a world. But there is a danger in putting the wrong spin to it, that is, shaking it up like homogenized milk so that all of its wondrous components lose their identity.
Every culture, religion, race, and tradition has unique gifts to add to a nation’s culture, to the world’s culture, to our discussions of issues and values and goals. When we gloss over these gifts for the sake of convenience–or perhaps for the sake of an easy conformity–we are burying the gold each of us has to offer.
We used to laugh about all the individualists in high school, college, and first jobs who went out of their way to look the same as everyone else. While we saw them as lemmings, that view was an insult to lemmings. Star Trek would later capture mindless conformity with its Borg civilization. As Wikipedia describes it, “The Borg are a vast collection of ‘drones,’ or cybernetic organisms, linked in a hive mind called ‘the Collective’ or ‘the Hive.'” When an individual was assimilated into the Borg, s/he lost his or her individuality. One had to admit, the Borg was a very efficient (and as the good guys on the Starship Enterprise discovered) very deadly.
Long before Star Trek’s Borg cautionary tale about homogenization turning sour, authors and other thinkers who had not yet been assimilated into the addictive sameness we often find (and willingly create) in modern society warned us about the evils of (figuratively speaking) of same-same homogenized milk. My favorite has always been Emerson’s comment in Self-Reliance:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
I was a terror when any of my teachers in high school and college advocated doing things a certain way because that was “what as done” or because they (those misguided teachers) saw education as hammering out children on a Henry Ford assembly line. They hated my Emerson comment, telling me that (like recruits in a boot camp), you need to be broken down and made all the same so that you will emerge from school with a firm foundation. I was told to leave the classroom more than once for responding that “by the time I have that firm foundation I’ll be a mindless automaton.”
I saw that foundation not as a Brave New World wonder, but as soul-stifling indoctrination. Some say our schools have gotten worse in that respect since I was a student. I applaud those who say that we should celebrate our differences even though I think most little minds are ruled by the hobgoblin that wants to sandpaper away those differences because automatons are easier to predict and control, living and working as they do–as Pete Seeger sang in his famous 1963 song “Little Boxes”–“And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”
Walmart is a manifestation of over-homogenization because it kills off local businesses run by local people, each of whom as a different looking storefront, a different philosophy, and an individualistic approach to his or her products and customers. Social medial debates are often a manifestation of over-homogenization because they play out with all the people on the left sounding just the same and all the people on the right sounding just the same as though each group acts via ticky tacky pronouncements from its own Borg mother ship. Since I grew up at a time when people still remembered where our Christmas traditions came from, I mourn the fact that across the county so many of them have been lost or, worse yet, shaken up into a plastic bottle of homogenized celebration in which we’re told that the components have new meanings–as in the fiction that the Twelve Days of Christmas end on December 25th instead of beginning on December 25th.
I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions because they tend to sound like practices we should have all began a long time ago rather than waiting until January 1 to proclaim “I’m no longer going to kill people I don’t like” or “I’m no longer going to drink a quart of whiskey a day” or “I’m going to stop hating people who aren’t just like me.” Good Lord, are we so homogenized that we need a specific day each year to see the light or turn the other cheek or find our true path? Even though most of these resolutions sound good, they will fail because–as Tanya Tucker sang in 1992, “Well it’s a little too late to do the right thing now.”
The fact that it’s too late is the fault of that “good foundation” we were all given in school and the little-minds-ticky-tacky approach the movers and shakers who tell us what to do have done with that foundation after graduation. As you’ve probably noticed, we’re told that being all the same is being normal.
My feeling is that if we need a real New Year’s resolution to try on for size, it’s “I will no longer be normal.” Yes, I know, if you’ve a Star Trek fan, you know that it’s nearly impossible to escape from the Borg collective, and if you live in a typical suburb, you know there are homeowners associations that insist that all the homes maintain the same ticky tacky look the builder bestowed upon them, and if you live in many communities, you know that if you question the quality of produce that comes from the local supermarket, the city council has passed laws to keep you from growing vegetables in your front yard because then all the yards will stop looking all the same.
Some scientists tell us that no matter what we do about humankind’s contribution to the natural cycles of global warming and cooling, that it’s too late to do the right thing now. Likewise, it may be too late to escape the ticky tacky society that results from homogenization run amok.
But let’s give it a shot. Let’s say spilt milk is something to celebrate rather than something to cry over.