Sunday, November 28, 2010

The exclusion principle

i was listening to an episode of This American Life on the subject of fraternity parties the other evening, and it struck me how the cultural logic of this country especially encourages and rewards participation in social groups, and punishes individualists and loners by labeling them with tags like "creepy losers".

the sense of one-upmanship embedded in the partying circuit, which ira glass was gassing about for half-an-hour, isn't nearly as interesting as how frats and sororities perform the insidious role of weeding out "undesirable" people from the pool of potential american success stories.

most american school and college kids obsessively perform some sterilized, socially-sanctioned-identity-with-a-name under the narcissistic illusion that they are different from everyone else: cheerleader, dope addict with a cap worn backwards, party girl, mr. sarcasm. even if you want to complicate their identities by acknowledging that the cheerleader also happens to be a genius at biology and mr. sarcasm should be known for his singing talents, my point still holds -- the performance of identity isn't as interesting as the overarching structure that commands that performance.

the hostel system in indian high schools and colleges almost never works as a brand. while it certainly helps in building close personal ties, few make imaginative use of it as a networking tool. nobody is really trying to weed you out, people are randomly assigned to hostels and often folks don't care enough to manufacture a rivalry between rival houses. nobody is going to cite your house affiliation while giving you a job 10 years from now. except in the case of the indian institutes of technology, desi university networks at home or abroad, are virtually non-existent.

perhaps, then, the defining feature that distinguishes a developed nation from the rest of the world at a structural level is the value the former places on the conscious idea of efficient social organization. in countries like india where social evils like caste continue to flourish away from urban centres, the appeal to make distinctions -- while often cynical -- is driven by emotion, instinct and prejudice. in the west, however, the hegemonic force involved is the hyper-valued commodity of logic, or at the very least, faux-logic: distinction is introduced through the formal practice of education. school and college social organizations become the earliest gateways put in place to cock-block a) anti-social people whose opinions are unpredictable and difficult to read b) average-looking people, or more accurately, people who aren't sufficiently "well-groomed".

grooming is one of those peculiar american virtues drilled into students of all races at every step; which is to say, because of contemporary values perpetuated in the media --

the american people might forgive
unflattering features on an ugly face
but not a strand of hair that is out of place.

fortunately it's not as if people who don't make it to one of these social groups are doomed to fail, but all of this really does make you marvel at how america continues to thrive upon the principle of exclusion. fraternities and sororities can offer a wealth of connections to some of the best talent out there. but at its worst, the system reaffirms and re-inscribes the art of bullshit.

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