One of the most important riches of our world lies not in cultivating familiarity, but in courting that which is different…
The need to be reassured
A central feature of the familiar is that it is reassuring. The well-known face that greets you as you enter your office building. The woman who just happens to catch the same bus as you every morning. You don’t know her, but you greet her with a nod to which she replies with a smile, albeit timidly. You surely have your own examples.
The reassurance of the familiar extends to ideas and behaviour. You expect those you know to behave in accordance with the image you’ve crafted of them. They are consistent and, even if they might not be trustworthy, at least you can trust the image you have of them. It is who they are. As for ideas, we are often more at ease discussing with those whose ideas don’t stray too far from our own. Of course, some might enjoy sparing with people whose ideas differ from theirs, but ultimately they shield their own ideas from any fundamental challenge.
Relaxing in a familiar world
The familiar bears no threat. You know what to expect. You can relax, freed of the need to maintain your defences, at least partly. At the same time, the familiar makes life easier. A lot of things can be accomplished without too much thought or effort. The path you follow unerringly to work. The pothole in the pavement for ever waiting to be repaired that you dodge without a thought. The easy-going exchange with a trusted friend, unencumbered by the obligation to watch your words. The familiar not only saves time and energy, it lulls into a welcome feeling of security. This security is conditional, however, as you well know, for, lurking nearby, the dangerously ‘unfamiliar’ waits in ambush.
Clusters of like-minded individuals
Recent events have demonstrated how people tend to cluster in ever-larger groups of like-minded individuals who shun, if not actively seek to exclude or eliminate, those who are different. They ward against people of colour, the gay and those who refuse gender norms, those with progressive ideas and any group that is deemed different. Even women and girls with their talk of ‘Me Too’ and their insistence on the right to abortion are seen as a mortal threat. What’s more, the dynamic within such clusters mutually reinforces the fear and the refusal of all that is different. In addition, there are external forces which have a vested interest in nurturing that fear and the related isolation, using targeted media as their main thrust.
Flirting with the ‘not-us’
Unfortunately, clinging to the familiar in a futile attempt to avoid all that is different, is not only claustrophobic but also extremely unhealthy for individuals and society alike. Why? Questioning the unknown is at the centre of the scientific method and exploring new avenues lies at the heart of both art and innovation. Which might explain why those who privilege only that which is familiar abhor both art and science. But probably the most significant reason in favour of courting the unknown is that without confronting that which is ‘not us’, in other words, the unfamiliar, the different, we cannot be sure our assessment of the world is reliable or our actions appropriate (1). A world from which otherness has been exiled quickly becomes untrustworthy, spawning such unhinged nonsense as ‘alternative facts”.
Cultivating encounters with otherness
There are many means of encouraging rich encounters with ‘otherness’, a lot of which require fresh ways of approaching the world. My particular contribution is through writing. By bringing what a friend called the ‘Martian’ point of view, which is second nature to me, I write to give shape to that shift in perspective in the form of fantasy novels, so that others can glimpse the unfamiliar in the world around them and further experience that ‘otherness’.
(1) On Truth, H.G Frankfurter, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006.