Thinking about various things--politics, attitudes towards writers, the training girls used to get (and still often express, as if it passed down through mothers even after the culture changed) melded with several blog posts I read before heading for ArmadilloCon and a couple of conversations both overheard and engaged in, while I was there.
Most of us have heard, from someone, at some point (and it's all over the political landscape) the claim or accusation that REAL (Americans/conservatives/liberals) think/do this and only this, and someone isn't a REAL (American/conservative/liberal) if they don't think/do this and only this. Most of us have heard that REAL women like/don't like/can/cannot think or do this, and REAL men like/don't like/can/cannot think or do that. REAL Christians/Jews/Muslims/Buddhists/Hindus/any-other-religion are like this, and anyone who breaks ranks in any way isn't a REAL whatever.
I'm not giving links to the specific blog posts, because I don't want to divert into a discussion of those blog posts specifically--but rather want to set out an idea that's been tickling my brain for the past months...about the link between the belief in the possibility--and the necessity--of perfection as a condition of being a REAL something, and some mechanisms that turn healthy groups into rigid, exclusionary, and imprisoning unhealthy ones. Someone may already have posted about the same thing, but the internet is huge and I haven't run into it.
I've been in (briefly) or on the fringes of (more often) groups that transitioned, even as I watched, from a bunch of people with a goal of improving things in some way--but still maintained some diversity of opinion in the group--to a bunch of people who had crystallized into a particular set of opinions and behaviors and had no tolerance at all for any different opinion. The first one I remember seeing do this was a schism in a church--a church I visited, when staying with the family who were members there--when I was a child. No, I'm not going to "out" a church that may not even be there at all anymore, except to say that the issue that caused the schism was, apparently, a matter of how girls should dress, when fashions changed. (Side issue: "How females should dress" is a major issue for many rigid closed groups, many of which--but not all--are religious groups. There will be a blog post about that another time.) If I remember correctly, it had to do with the width of the shoulder straps of sundresses (a popular style in an area that was 100F and hotter in un-airconditioned schools for months out of the year.) Neither side would give an inch (pun intended, in this case) and one group left in a huff. Also in my childhood (which overlapped the not-so-golden Fifties and included the McCarthy anti-Communist tirades) were the groups focused on who was, and was not, a REAL American. At our end of the country, a long way from everywhere else, we had a wide range of political opinions for kids to hear from adults. My mother had friends who were more, and less, conservative and liberal and middle-of-the-road...but at each end of the obvious axes were some who claimed the right to decide who was a REAL Democrat/Republican/Texan/American, as well as REAL woman and REAL man.
When I was in college, a number of social/political issues were hot--and hotly discussed--and of course groups formed around common ideas. At first, again, groups could form that had a passionate interest in one particular goal (it might be civil rights, or women's lib, or pacifism, or disability rights) and to be in favor of (for instance) the ERA didn't mean that everyone had to be a pacifist or a vegetarian or even "perfect" in all their ideas about people with disabilities. But always hovering in the background was the possibility that this might change...and purity tests...loyalty tests...tests to be sure that everyone in a particular groups agreed about everything...might show up. And sometimes they did. And if you were one of those who did not immediately (or after a couple of consciousness-raising sessions) agree with everything on that group's agenda, then---you were a traitor to the cause, a horrible evil person and not a REAL whatever it was and they'd whomp you with their ideological bats if you dared say you were a [whatever.] (One of the few amusing things about all this was being chewed out for wearing new blue jeans (which were, at the time cheaper) because I was supposed to wear the more expensive artificially "aged" jeans that pretended to indicate sympathy with the poor. Whereas...I bought jeans new and wore them until the "aging" process happened naturally, just like all the real poor people did.)
The goal of these groups began as something good--or so I think, but then I was in favor of the original mission, as I understood it. But...something happened. It wasn't a new thing that happened--humans have been forming the same types of groups, on both sides of many an issue, as far back as we can trace, and demanding of members a perfect, unquestioning acceptance of a long list of things that don't appear to be related to their initial goal. Humans make rules and try to enforce them, and in some cases become obvious control freaks about it. Of course this popped up in writing...groups defending their genre or subgenre--its difference from all others, the exact definition of it that group prefers ("That's not REAL science fiction...That's not REAL poetry...That's not REAL art.") I remember reading once a flat statement by a writer that someone wasn't a REAL writer until they'd written X number of published works--for another it was having earned a certain amount per year. Right after I joined a writer's organization, there was a big hoorah about which people in it were REAL writers and which were just dilettantes. Because it wasn't a new thing...and because it came in so many guises...and because it's so easy to focus on the actions that enforce the rules and use terms like "control freak" to focus on the individuals who do the enforcing, it took me a long time to connect dots that may be obvious to others....the psychological roots.
And no, I'm not going back to chimps, bonobos, etc. We can start closer to home. It feels good to be in a group of like-minded people. I had dinner with some friends Friday night during ArmadilloCon. We were talking about writer behaviors. The same writer behaviors bugged all of us. Agreement is comfortable. But...out of five people, none of us ordered the exact same meal. None of us were dressed exactly the same. I know (from past conversations) that we don't all hold the exact same opinions on quite a few things, including which books we like most to read, nor do we all have the same "lifestyle." And that was cool. We were hungry, we get along, we all ate dinner together enjoying our separate choices and our conversation. Nobody pounded the table and insisted that X writer was a REAL writer and Y writer wasn't.
It feels good to be a group of people whose like-mindedness extends beyond just one thing. There's a natural and not-bad tendency, an almost gravitational pull, to become closer to people who share multiple interests, not just one.
But it does not feel good to be prodded and pushed and scolded into agreeing with everything someone else thinks, likes, does...and it does not feel good to be booted out of a group because you don't conform by 5 or 10 or 15 percent--you're not perfect enough, you're not a REAL whatever. Some people give in and (in extremes) drink the Kool-Aid. The more people who do give in to an increasing pressure for total, perfect conformity, the more gravitational pull that conformity produces. Individuality disappears--the personal boundaries "melt" and the people (whether it's a couple, friends, a family, a church, a group)--are pulled into tighter and tighter coils, until (extending the gravitational metaphor) they're sucked into the black hole at the center of their galaxy and the original goal (of the couple, the friends, the family, the church, the group) is simply to drag in more people and make them conform, meanwhile excluding all "contamination".
In discussions of dysfunctional families, the concept of boundaries is fundamental. Identity is protected by boundaries--and boundaries can be too rigid or too flexible or appropriately healthy. The concept of boundaries helps define responsibility: an individual is responsible for his/her behavior, and someone with healthy boundaries recognizes that. Thus, if someone says "Come on, let's shoplift something--it'll be fun" an individual with healthy boundaries will be able to make a decision --not automatically go along. Without healthy boundaries, an individual cannot "think for himself/herself." And this is what the unhealthy groups/families/friends/political parties want. Perfection is perceived as a) possible and b) necessary, and then defined as "100% agreement/submission to this list.." Hence the DINO and RINO designations for Democrats or Republicans who deviate from the party line--hence the rigidity every group that has merged boundaries--become enmeshed--to the point that anyone who doesn't conform is defined as "not a REAL whatever."
I have been, over the years, labeled "not a REAL [whatever]" for one reason or another, in a variety of groups...sometimes by opposing groups at the same time, which would have been funny except that I was thinner-skinned as a younger person and what I mostly felt was trapped and a permanent target. Now it's pretty much a shrug...yup, another somebody who has a rigid idea of what I have to be for that person/group to accept me, a mold they're intent on pressing me into. Been there before, would have a roomful of those T-shirts except I tie-dyed them and donated them somewhere. It would be funny that some of these groups think they're in favor of diversity (not all, but some) and yet they're very rigid about how they define diversity (and diversity of opinion isn't welcome within the group.) It would be funny if it didn't mean that they're sucking themselves down a hole...and excluding a lot of people with whom they could work for the general betterment of the world, if only they weren't demanding perfection.
I know people who won't vote for anyone because no candidate is perfect--agrees with them on everything. I know people who break off a friendship because the other person doesn't fulfill all their requirements. I've known parents whose objection to public school was their children would come in contact with people who thought differently, who had different opinions, or different ways of doing things.
You know some people like that too, no doubt. Many people (and I was one of them) have the belief that if only you can find the person--or the group--that is Just Like Me (whoever they are) then bliss will fill their lives. Someone who likes the same music, the same activities, the same foods, who gets sleepy at the same time of day, wakes up in the same mood, etc, etc. The BFF who is your other self, the spouse who is your other self, the children who are just like you only younger and will grow up to be just like you, the colleagues who function as bobble-head dolls, nodding at you as you nod at them. Yup, we all agree on everything down to the least little detail: we are absolutely right, everyone else is absolutely wrong.
That's the dream...and it's a nightmare. Because narrowing, compressing yourself and the other person so that you are just one smaller person, isn't the bliss. In a relationship--whether it's 200 or 2,000,000--that insists on absolute submission/obedience/conformity--all are diminished. Natural diversity is diminished. Adding one whole person to another person...and allowing room for growth in each, and rejoicing in the places that are different...that's the bliss. Room to breathe. Fresh air to breathe. Space for the unexpected, for new ideas to grow and time to consider all this...because though there's the notion that perfection is both possible and necessary, attainable if only people will follow these rules, stay within the lines....perfection isn't possible. We are all fallible. Every couple, every trio, every group, is not perfect. The rules and lines can't create perfection, even if followed stringently, because they were made and drawn by imperfect individuals. Some have been proven functional by more than one culture, in more than one situation, but not all of them. Demanding perfection of others--and of oneself--leads to bad behavior, bad decisions, and bad outcomes for more than the person who's doing the demanding. The writer who can't let go of a manuscript until it's perfect...the artist who obsessively retouches a painting until it's "overworked" and the original concept blurred...the woman who has repeated surgeries trying to match a cultural goal of physical perfection (enlarge this, shrink that, change the shape of a nose or jawline or...) ...all these are the result of believing that perfection is both possible and necessary.
But shouldn't we try to improve? Yes, to the point where something is good enough for its purpose, and with the understanding that lasting change is often slower than we'd like. I had to learn to let go of a book when it was "done", not when it was "perfect" because perfection wasn't possible (in the first place, and given the imperfections of the writer) and was impractical (in the second place, and given the contract deadlines and my personal need to write another story after that one.) I've never yet made a batch of bread in which all the loaves were identical and perfect in size and shape--but I've made many batches of bread in which all were delicious. I have yet to make a mistake-free sock...but my feet are very happy with the socks I've made, and the later socks are definitely better than the first.
In terms of relationships, learning how to not be cramped by it, and not cramp the other person while uncramping yourself, takes time. Relationships improve when the people in the relationships improve...when they're developing normally, healthily, through life. Trying to squeeze them into a mold (either or both or all) and make them alike is not the way to go at improvement. In terms of social goals--political goals--"trying to improve" takes time (far more than many of us like) and cannot be done if someone in an organization is insisting on rigorous perfection of ideas from everyone in it. Many of us were brought up in a perfectionist environment: it's got to be right, exactly right, this way and only this way. So coming to the realization that "perfection" is actually a myth--that it's getting in the way of achieving the goals we want to achieve for ourselves and for the world--is hard to accept. Even more, when groups that are clearly over the edge of boundary violations, wrapped up in their tight hard little perfectly (apparently) conforming nodules, do--in their uniformity--possess the power to get things done. But not, on the whole, good things.
So...leaving out the capital letters...who's real? Everyone. You, me, the guy sleeping on the sidewalk, the women getting an expensive spa treatment, all those people I talked to or listened to or saw at the convention, and the ones driving their cars or trucks (even the idiot in the big rented van who shoved across three lanes in a short space making the rest of us nearly freak because he didn't seem to realize how long that truck was) on the road I drove coming home. Imperfect, each in our own ways. Annoying as all get-out to one another at times. Rewarding to one another at times. But real.
We don't have to be perfect. We don't have to try to be perfect (though trying to improve on something is fine.) Nor does anyone else. It's not about liking everyone equally...I can't even like all vegetables equally. It's not about unquestioning acceptance of everything (I don't, for instance, accept that child molesters are harmless.) It's about the validity of imperfection, the validity of (some) compromises in our lives, the worth of framily and friends and acquaintances who aren't Just Like Me.