Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Default Is In Ourselves

"It's perfectly fine that those people exist. But I don't like it when they shove it in my face." 

"Yes, they're entitled to rights just like anyone else, but why do they have to ram their lifestyle down our throats?"

I have heard these sorts of sentiments a gazillion times expressed regarding persons who are not white, not straight, not Christian. The puzzling part is that, when pressed for examples of this alleged shoving and ramming, the speakers point to works or events that have themes such as "racism is still a problem" or "LGBTQ persons exist." Look, there's a Black mermaid! Oh no--there's a completely conventional rom-com that involves two same-gender leads! 

What's particularly ironic is that much of this outrage is backwards. The conservatives who argued for gay marriage got it-- much of this represents folks adopting mainstream values. It's not the conventional being disrupted, but marginalized people being co-opted.

But still--all this talk about being assaulted by some agenda. Complaints that certain things or people are being "normalized." The reactions seem so out of proportion to what they're reacting against.

Here's how I make sense of it. Defaults.

You sign up for new online software, and you're asked to set up an avatar. The program gives you a default avatar; if you want anything different, you have to make changes yourself. 

We have mental default settings for persons. Folks who write or create have for much of history had defaults for characters.

It's easy enough to see. Think smurfs--the default is a "regular" smurf, young, male, average intelligence, clean shaven, generally bland and undistinguished demeanor. Then the creator starts messing with the defaults--this one is smart, this one is old, this one wears glasses, this one is cranky. And this one is a girl. 

Or that classic puzzle-- a child and his father come in to an ER, and the doctor says, "I can't operate on this child. He's my son." Once upon a time that was a stumper, because everyone's default for "doctor" was male. 

Or there's an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show in which Rob Petrie becomes obsessed with the idea that his child might have been switched with a different child in the maternity ward. Finally he tracks down the other couple with a similarly named child and invites them over. The door opens, and the other family turns out to be Black. The audience roars, because it is so completely unexpected that characters on a tv would be Black when the default is so clearly white.

I could go on and on, from Marvel fanboys angered by female heroes to things as fundamental as the old rule that the single personal pronoun defaults to "he." The point is this.

The default requires no changes. If a writer uses the defaults in a story, then no actual choice is made. As any high school theater director dealing with a surplus of female actors and a surfeit of males, classic musical theater is filled with characters who are male, but don't have to be; the writer just went with the default.

But if the character varies from the default--white, straight, Christian, male--then that represents a conscious choice. At least that's how it feels to some conservative audiences. "You could have left that character as a natural default, a white straight male Christian, but you changed it." 

Anything different from the default represents a deliberate choice. You deliberately chose to make that character Black or LGBTQ or female, the reasoning goes, and therefor it feels as if you're shoving it in my face. 

Folks who think of themselves as tolerant can also fall into the default trap. "I don't see color" is another way to say, "I just treat everyone as if they are still on the default setting" or "I assume that underneath, everyone's self is based on the same default settings as mine." I can look past the differences of the other people because they aren't a foundational part of their identity, but just surface overlays of the default.

And when people can get most cranky is when they sense that someone is trying to change the actual defaults, to suggest that white, male, straight, Christian is not the default setting for all humanity, that there are other ways to be that exist as their own baseline and not in some sort of relationship with an imagined default. This is why a simple "LGBTQ persons exist and are ordinary" is seen as "shoving" because it's an attempt to change the default, to suggest that LGBTQ can exist as a sort of normal and not some degraded version of the True Normal. Some get cranky about "identity politics," sensing that it says something about having different identities that are not just simple skis placed over the default.

Why do we create default notions of what a person is? Heck if I know, though we've always separated ourselves into We People Over Here and Those Others Over There. We want to belong and we want to know that we're not Others. We soak in culture that tells us what the defaults are (and now get frustrated as culture splits and centers on a variety of different defaults and so we get grumpy and complain can't we all just be Normal Americans, like that's a thing). 

Why some of us are so resistant to the rich varied nature of human existence and experience I do not know. Humans have never handled that aspect of existence well. But education has an obligation to try.

We've learned in schools to discard some defaults. No teacher who's half-alert assumes that every student has two parents who are together in a family where everyone shares the same last name. We can do better. 

Students are always busy finding, examining, determining, and getting comfortable their identities. They need a better message from schools than "You're just a slight variation on this standard default human identity" or "You're so far from the standard default human identity that you're basically broken and possibly unacceptable." And that means that some of those students (and their parents) who are aligned with the old standard default will feel that something is being taken from them, that other ways of being human are being forced on them. 

Other ways of being human exist. Schools have to acknowledge that; students have to know that to successfully navigate the world. Telling people who live in the desert that rivers exist is not forcing water on them, nor is it demanding that the whole world be flooded. We can do better. We can expand our library of defaults, and be better for it. 

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