The Prisoners Are Also the Jailers

Dan Savage devotes his column today to gay teenagers struggling with the closet. To one recently out lesbian highschooler stuck in a small-minded town he writes (“How to Cope in the Closet,” The Stranger, 13 March 2008):

The shits conspiring to make you miserable, TALI, are unlikely to have lives anywhere near as interesting as the one on which you’re about to embark. Your classmates are making you miserable now because they know, deep down in their little black hearts, that their lives are going to be duller than day-old douche water compared to yours. Their lives aren’t going to be dull because they’re straight, TALI, but because the value they place on conformity — that’s the reason they feel they have a right to abuse you now — is a prison they’ve constructed around themselves.

Contra The End of History and the Last Man, someone should make a study of that other force in the composition of humanity, every bit as fundamental as thymos, the demand for conformity. It would seem to be the central front of resistance to the march of liberalism. One can imagine that in socially oppressive countries the world over it is some deeply felt need for everyone to cohere, the tendency to see any difference as a personal affront to one’s self — among the politically powerful, but among the masses as well — that is the cause of the oppressive culture.

I’m not sure how adequately I have characterized it here as the demand for conformity. I’m not sure that is the fundamental feature. Perhaps a certain commonality is required to execute that similarly fundamental impulse, the us-them distinction. Or perhaps conformity is required for adequate mirroring. Again, I think that a study, informed by all the human sciences, is in order — its cognitive and evolutionary source, its logical structure, its sociological operation, its historical and political consequence. As a fundamental characteristic of the human psyche, its suppression, like so many other human blights, must be subdued anew each generation. But having made a more thorough study we might forge more effective weapons to the cause. To suggest the Foucaultian point, to make a study would itself be to forge one such weapon.

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