Pharyngula

Sunday Sacrilege: Unorthodoxy

We’re happier out of a straitjacket than in one.

I saw something wonderful at a science fiction convention a few weeks ago. At these events, people often put on odd and extravagant costumes, and I saw one rather obese young man who’d made a minimalist choice: he’d come as one of the Spartans from the movie 300, which meant he was standing in the crowd wearing a red speedo and a bright red cape…and nothing else.

Now imagine this same young fellow at an event at your high school. It would have been brutal. I know; when I was in high school, I was a little poindexter, ostracized, laughed at, and treated like a space alien, and I was treated mildly: being even more different, being the fat kid or the gay kid or the homely kid or whatever excluded you from the Jock Clique or the Heathers or whatever ideal the majority of the student body worshipped meant merciless torment and unremitting cruelty. Often in our culture socialization is achieved by maltreatment and unkindness and is directed towards shaping superficialities.

But this fellow at the convention…he was smiling and laughing and having a good time. Other people were smiling back, and they were complimenting him on his costume — he was being rewarded, not for having a jock body, but for being open, a bit ironic, and being unashamed of who he was. And that was a beautiful thing. He wasn’t alone, either; these events are the kinds of places where people who are misfits in the conventional world are free to blossom and be themselves, and being different is valued.

This does not mean that con culture is value-free and open to everything, or that it is entirely anarchic: it means that the group’s ideals are focused on properties of the mind, in particular creativity, imagination, and boldness. Conformity becomes the sin. Rules that infringe on freedom of expression, that condemn someone for who they are, become the new transgressions.

I was also reminded of this mind-set by recent events at Comic-con, where the hateful fundamentalists of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church showed up to do their usual stunts and to damn everyone who doesn’t follow the strict rules of their narrow interpretation of the Bible. This is the antithesis of what I liked about cons, so it was like a matter-antimatter collision on the public streets. And the wonderful thing is that the con attendees responded wonderfully, laughing and joking and being flamboyant. This was also a beautiful thing.

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The other commendable fact of this event, and I know this because I know these kinds of people well, is that if the Westboro Baptist picketers had walked over to the Comic-con counter-protest and said, “let’s talk”, there would have been a cheer and a welcome and people would have enthusiastically joined in conversation — because the WBC people are weird, and the con people love to embrace strangeness.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the members of the Westboro Baptist Church could do that. One of the terrifying properties of fundamentalist religions is the way they demand conformity: they lay down strict rules to regulate how people are allowed to think and behave, and often how they are allowed to dress and speak. Questioning the dogma is forbidden. Getting into situations where they have to think for themselves is dangerous. The community must be policed so that odd notions do not pollute the minds of their children or themselves.

Perhaps the cruelest aspect of conservative religions is the way they insist that all people must follow one straight and narrow path, regardless of the fact that people are diverse, and they impose endless misery on so many people by fostering fear of deviation. It’s the Chinese foot-binding of the human mind.

Now I am not trying to imply that the wild and crazy crowd is completely free of dogma: the caricature of the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons is an excellent counter-example, where sometimes even the oddballs can get caught up in the details of their fantasy canon and forget to have fun while carping over fidelity to an ideal. In this context, I also can’t condemn all religions, because you know that in that crowd there are many members of liberal religions, many people with strange ideas about spirituality, and more than a few techno-utopians. If you’re going to encourage weirdness, weird ideas will flourish.

And that’s all right. As long as no one is forcing others to accept Jesus as Lord, or that Star Wars is better than Star Trek, then we’re doing fine. The human mind should be a playground, not a military camp.

I do confess to some bias. I’ve chosen academics as my career, which, although it does have some significant strictures on behavior (I could not show up to teach a class in a speeedo and a red cape…probably), it at least offers a great deal of intellectual freedom. I also grew up in the 60s and 70s when, well, you had to be there…

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This generation, or some generation soon, I’d like to see the hippies win. Peace and freedom, man.

Besides, it makes the fundies and Republicans freak out.