Hello I'm Special

Book Review: Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity by Hal Niedzviecki

As someone who has always defined herself as a non-conformist, I’ve noticed something recently. It used to be, being a non-conformist put you outside the norm, outside the cool, outside the places where things really happen. Now, though, it seems like everyone I meet is an iconoclast. Non-conformity is everywhere. What does it mean when everyone is a non-conformist? That’s what I was hoping Hal Niedzviecki would explain in Hello, I’m Special.
For Niedzviecki, the epiphany came when he got a mass-produced birthday card declaring “Happy Birthday to a non-conformist.” If you’re on Hallmark’s radar, Niedzviecki wondered, could you still be an outsider? That’s when Niedzviecki realized that being a non-conformist had become the norm. Everyone wanted a piece of the outsider action; everyone was special.
Just ask reality show contestants. These people, searching for their 15 minutes of fame, are the poster children for conforming non-conformity. During his research, Niedzviecki visits the Canadian Idol tryouts, where thousands of young people lined up overnight, every aspiring Idol convinced that this was the beginning of their fame. This was the stuff that pop dreams are made of.
At the Canadian Idol tryouts, I find thousands of bright, funny, interesting, horribly deluded people, new conformists every single one of them. They all share the same dream and pursue it in exactly the same way. Coincidence? Human nature? I don’t think so.
Therein lies the essence of the book: We are all looking for our own equivalent of an Idol moment, when the apparatus of pop culture will validate us by turning its attention our way. Being different is the way for us to get that attention. Being different gives our lives meaning, makes us more than worker drones in some hive world. Or, to put it into a journalistic maxim: Dog bites man isn’t a story. Man bites dog, on the other hand…
The reference is both flip and apt, encapsulating as it does what special means (extraordinary — outside the norm) and who the ultimate arbiter of specialness is. As a modern society, we are defined by the media; the media is what we use to know who we are. This, perhaps, was always the purview of art, to reflect back what it means to be human; but now, instead of looking for an everyman, we are looking for what makes us special, our thing, so to speak.
This desire to be special has implications, of course.
The compulsion to be noticed often translates into confusion and even a certain degree of sadness. Do we really want to quit our jobs, abandon our responsibilities, seize the day, break the record? Silly, of course we do. Who doesn’t? But, all too often, seizing the day is not so easy. It’s not clear what ambition we harbour, what world-changing activity we might embark on. Too often, we end up feeling depressed and devalued as we carry on through lives that have become all the more ordinary because glamorous pop stars are urging us to just do it.
Niedzviecki, who writes with a mainstream non-conformist’s informality, seems torn about the despondency that the I’m Special phenomenon can elicit. He is empathetic to people who are broken down by their failure to successfully fit in by standing out. He recognizes that it is almost impossible for a person to escape the zeitgeist of their times:
Force-fed the fattening syrup of self-esteem, we are nevertheless starving, hungry to graze amid the pastures of fame. To give up would be to admit that pop dream that is so much a part of our lives is a lie. For an ever-growing number of people, life has come to mean achieving the pop dream. In the schools, they call it self-esteem; in leftist cliques, they call it hedonism; and in New Age circles, they call it personal spirituality. What it amounts to is the new conformity—the search for a way in.
Still, Niedzviecki seems to see himself, for the most part, as outside this phenomenon. Sometimes, it seems as if he sees himself as a real non-conformist, bitter about the interlopers with questionable credibility. He has a tendency to treat his subjects with the kind of hipster detachment that flirts with derision. This is, perhaps, most evident when he cites the fat acceptance movement as an example of the absurd degree of acceptance for deviations from the norm:
In the age of individuality, you can be beautiful any way you are, never mind that [Dimensions Plus modeling’s DeLores] Pressley’s message of “self empowerment” is also one of mass delusion: In an age of unnaturally bloated bellies, in a country leading the way with 65 percent of its residents overweight, Pressley just might be doing a bit too good a job convincing us that it’s okay to be chunky.
Activism itself is a symptom of the I’m Special society, or at least a microcosm of it. Niedzviecki notes that activists aren’t that different from Idol contestants or Trekkies in their motivations.
I’ve observed first-hand the way activist communities provide a niche and a recognition that is not unlike that of pop-culture communities. I’ve seen youths arrested for taking over an abandoned building—action they ostensibly took to protest a lack of affordable housing#8212;hugging and high-fiving each other as they emerged from jail. They were clearly exuberant. Why? They achieved nothing except a paragraph in the paper and legal hassles. But in their minds they had also accrued real evidence of their personal commitment to rebellion, to the cause. While waiting for their accused offspring to be released, I watched annoyed liberal parents wring their hands in frustration. How to yell at your kid for wanting to do something to help others? And yet the parents all seemed to sense that altruism was not the sole motive behind their children’s actions. The line between the pop-culture-infused desire for individualistic adventure and commitment to the cause becomes blurred.
This observation articulates some of my own ambivalence towards activist causes. Anyone who has ever been involved in an activist group can tell you about power struggles that seem at odds with the altruistic mission statements of many of these groups. And it is not unusual for the groups themselves to become commodified. It’s a marketing trifecta when a product can sell us individuality, self-esteem, and do-gooder points. How could anyone resist something that promises all that? Again, Niedzviecki cites the fat acceptance movement to make his point:
What begins with an empowering not-for-profit indie magazine or support group ends, invariably, with a glossy magazine, a website, a consultant, and a whole new language of “curvy” and “plus-size”—all meant to make the overweight feel happy and represented. And, of course, they are encouraged to keep buying.
So who is to blame for the Special society? As mentioned earlier, Niedzviecki recognizes that it would be hard for anyone to resist buying into the mythology. After all, the media is constantly telling us just how special we are…or at least, how special we could be. Yes, the media and its need for consumers is the culprit here.
Pop culture, and especially its gift of “free TV,” gives us access to a world we will otherwise never know. From the Amazon rain forest to the operating room to Michael Jackson’s mansion to the mysterious life of a Mafia drug lord, we can enter into places far more exciting and seemingly real than our own everyday existence. At the same time, this process instills in us the desire to find similar intensity and excitement in our own lives. We don’t just want to watch the movie, listen to the song and play the video game, we try to replicate the scenario in our daily lives. Consumer-culture critic Juliet Schor has discovered in her research that the more time a person spends watching TV, the more money that person spends.
Meanwhile, our television gurus (and the pop culture tabloids), have a mantra that tells us that we too could grow up to be a Mafia drug lord, or a skin-disordered exile pop star, or any of a million other special things.
In preaching the self-esteem you-can-do-anything pop myth, most therapists—be they popular speakers and TV personalities (think Dr. Phil and Oprah) or accredited professionals—aim to create good little individualists who at once believe they can do anything, but don’t actually upset the ratio of one superstar to every million people by successfully managing to do anything.
Who wouldn’t need anti-depressants after a life-long force-feeding of messages of promise and almost no way to get any substance?
So, the culture of Specialness can be blamed for our rampant consumerism and our dissatisfaction with our lives. Other than anomie, what are the consequences? Well, for one, violence. Niedzviecki repeatedly references the Columbine shootings as a case where people, denied acknowledgment for their specialness, sought out a way to be sure they would be recognized. Niedzviecki posits that if Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had had other channels through which to communicate, the tragedy would have been averted. And, Niedzviecki warns, it will get worse, not better.
With even our sanctioned mass culture becoming ever more violent and extreme, what is left to do that will shock and horrify and thereby proclaim I’m-Specialness? If you go to work like a good boy, you are labeled boring. But how far does the good boy need to go to shake off the aura off Corporate Ken and achieve the status of bad?
(We Need to Talk About Kevin, a fictional tale of school violence, also touches on the idea that eventually, even school shootings can become ho-hum.)
If we are so exposed to I’m Special stories that we have no other way to find meaning and to frame our lives, it is inevitable that we will look for the things that characterize a good story to also characterize our personal narratives. Just like everyone else, we are compelled to find the element in our lives that will make us stand out. For an increasing number of people, that storytelling is not just an internalized act, but also a deliberate, public one. That’s where the blog comes in. (What discussion of current sociological trends would be complete without blogs?)
Niedzviecki notes that online journals reflect:
Our desire to be noted (or at least footnoted) in the electronic mass community. In a culture where it is common to obsess over other people’s problems as a kind of entertainment—from the trials of the stars as chronicled in People and Star Weekly to the agonies of boy-toy doctors on the boob tube—it really isn’t much of a stretch for someone to decide, “Well, my problems can be entertaining, too.” And though there’s a problem of access to the airwaves of radio and television, no one has yet figured out how to keep us from chipping away at the entertainment monoculture via the net.
To Niedzviecki, blogs are a subversive way for individuals to seize a tiny patch of media estate to declare their own specialness. Bloggers, do you feel ready for your non-conformist birthday cards? In addition to blogging, Niedzviecki cites other instances where individuals try to recreate popular culture for themselves; backyard wrestling and Elvis impersonators are two meme that appear throughout the book. Blogging is a little different, though, because it doesn’t just appropriate a piece of pop culture for home use but rather allows the blogger to appropriate a bit of media and brand themselves however they see fit.
The question is where does all this specialness lead? Niedzviecki wonders if conformity might not be the new non-conformity. He offers up his brother’s dedication to Orthodox Judaism and John Walker Lindh embrace of the Taliban’s restrictive policies as two examples of people non-conforming by absolving themselves of much of the freedom considered the foremost perk of modern Western life.
As conforming specialness spreads, our problems as a society change. No longer are we trying to escape the confinement of restrictive parents, religions, and communities. Instead, growing numbers of us are trying to find situations in which we can replicate a sense of belonging in non-restrictive ways. We want to be noticed for being who we are and we want to be told, gently, who we should be.
People who move from big cities to small towns, even off the grid, are doing the same thing, says Niedzviecki.
The pressure of needing to constantly justify and give notice of your existence is ameliorated by living in a (comparatively) closed society… The clock is turned back. The nobody can be somebody just by existing. The roles—town drunk, town loon, town rabble-rouser, town gossip, town genius—provide identities that would otherwise have to be carefully maintained and retooled and projected. Perhaps this is why small towns always seem so sleepy and nonchalant. They are protected from the perpetual necessity of narrative reinvention.
In the end, Niedzviecki doesn’t have an explanation for how we came to be such a Special-centric society. He blames the media and notes that the non-conforming ideal tends to breed good “citizen consumers…passive, focused on the self, willing to work hard to buy the stuff that will make him stand out” rather than forcing us to acknowledge that it is statistically impossible for every one of us to be special, when special is by definition not the normal state of affairs. Nor does Niedzviecki offer an answer as to how we can get off this green screen scenery treadmill life and back to real dirt, in real woods, complete with the unpredictability of the outdoors. After all, there is no escaping culture.
Few can force themselves to suffer. We can’t choose to leave home still a boy, wander the backwoods, work as a logger in the days when logging meant heading off to the forest and cutting down trees by hand—a dangerous business, you could easily lose a life or a leg. Maybe that’s why most of the professional creators working in Western countries today seem to lack gravitas, seem to be complaining just for something to do, just because it’s the next move in playing the game.
In other words, I’m Special has us destined to mediocrity. It’s not the kind of message that will inspire you to go out and conquer the world, but maybe, just maybe, if we stopped thinking quite so much about how we as individuals are special and more about what we have in common with others, maybe the conformity could be revolutionary.