Cat Pierro

Different People Are the Same?


ISSUE 20 | DIFFERENCE | SEP 2012

A familiar controversy: are people all basically the same, or basically different? The question seems foundational for ethics, politics, history, and, well, roughly everything, but there’s no consensus on the matter, provisional or otherwise. The argument comes up in its most rudimentary form late at night in college dorms all over the world. Different people’s DNA matches almost exactly (one side says), and yet they say and do such different things (says the other)—but maybe these things aren’t really so different, or maybe people have it in them to do all the same things. Among the many difficulties that would crop up in the attempt to answer the question rigorously, one very basic problem makes the matter unresolvable: just as no absolute measure of similarity can be gleaned from comparing DNA (only a relative one where humans seem more different from bananas than from mosquitos), no absolute measure of similarity inheres in DNA’s expression (or in anything!). Even if I can determine that 70% of my opinions match someone else’s, what does that mean? Are we pretty much the same person? Alas, only an absolute answer would satisfy: not “Canadians are less different from Americans than artists are from jocks,” but “people are all basically the same,” or “people are all basically different.”

Unresolvability does not imply meaninglessness, however, if human interest is at all suggestive of meaning. For some reason, the argument recurs again and again in many forms and with great ferocity. “If you and one stranger were the last two people left on earth, do you really think it would matter which person you were left with?” “Nothing you could ever say would ever convince me to like cities.” Both sides appeal to intuitions they don’t share, evidence they don’t have, and instances that fall short of proving the rule. The very audacity with which the adversaries fly in the face of reason must make us suspect that they’re on to something important. Let’s therefore evoke the question again here, on territory that is neutral and relevant. Are these two adversaries, the advocates of each side, basically the same as each other—or basically different?

* * *

That they are the same is immediately discernible. They like to argue, they like to string words together; they are arguing from their egos probably, they want to win the argument, they are egotistical, both of them. They have acquired some store of opinions, selected to withstand the test of collision. Their opinions are a costume, a thin veneer; all their speech can fall away.

Turn a dial so that their language is foreign to us. Content gone, they stand there without any qualitative differences: weaker than giants, stronger than worms, fighting within their bodies—mouth-parts pronouncing words in spite of other mouth-parts, muscles contorting faces, eyes widening, glands salivating, everything pulsating. Mutating when the universe breathes. Adopting, in this moment of life, the various poses of creatures that argue. Argument has its rules—each creature must have the appearance of continuity, must purport to care for himself, to defend himself. Without these blank, inhuman rules, there would be no sense in communication; they would just be listless bodies.

* * *

But hold on! Not everything expressed in the argument can be explained by the existence of the argument! This is chief among hermeneutic principles. All little variations and weirdnesses, all turns of phrase that could not have been produced in identical form by the investigator, must be brought forth, must be exposed, must be posed as questions. Why does the speaker mention this or that here—why does she emphasize such-and-such there? What made her give this exact argument, in this sequence in these words? This is, after all, the only time it’s ever been said just that way! Why here, why now?

Whence these contingencies? They can be traced to the difference within the individual. The form may be fixed, but when users wiggle and jiggle that form—and they always do, in a hundred little ways—something is resisting; something is trying to express itself.

* * *

Strange, though, that we have lined sameness up with bodies and difference with thought—sameness with ugliness and difference with optimism. It could have been some other way. In fact, the advocate of difference seems the less optimistic of the two—arguing repeatedly that something or other can’t happen, that we can’t escape our difference, that we can’t see things exactly the same way.

The advocate of sameness is therefore the advocate of what we can do. We can resolve this argument, for instance, and walk away from it with the very same vision. Maybe we won’t, but that doesn’t mean we can’t.

For the advocate of sameness it seems more important that people recognize their possible sameness than that they move toward acting as one and the same entity. One moment, the moment of seeing eye to eye with someone, strikes a sameness-advocate as something integral to all human endeavors; this too, even if it doesn’t need to happen all the time, has to be recognized as possible at all times. When it does happen, people appreciate one another and feel immense goodwill; when it doesn’t, it is important ethically to recognize that it could happen, that the other person is therefore deserving of goodwill even if this goodwill isn’t felt. We might get the sense that the advocate of sameness, in making his point, wants some kind of promise from the rest of humanity—a promise that everyone else too will see the sameness that underlies everyone. After all, seeing eye to eye with someone is always better if the other person’s doing it too, at the same time! Or at least at some time—that might be fine also. As long as my recognition and your recognition meet somewhere in conceptual space!

Even in times of the greatest tangible difference, and perhaps especially then, sameness must be recognized. An event that pulls two people apart—at work, one is promoted, the other demoted—can be a moment of recognition; as they pass each other in the hallway to make the switch, they meet eyes. As far as consequences go, the event separates them in every way: one’s tinge of guilt is not the other’s short burst of resentment; one’s tingling luckiness is not the other’s dogged determination to look ahead and make do. But both know what happened. To each of them it was the very same event. In conceptual space, before the event dissolves into its consequences, it is perceived. In this perception (held by both) rests the knowledge that it happened to two individuals, and that their roles could have been reversed.

* * *

Is the advocate of difference, the advocate of “can’t,” just a barricade set up to stop his opponent—a perverse killjoy? Or does this player too have something at stake? He does, he does! He is attached to his “I can’t.”

I can’t be other than a writer. A writer is who I am.

Alternatively:

I tried to cut away my ties to my family—but I just couldn’t do it. I don’t have the heart for it and I’m glad I don’t.

Difference plays no insignificant role in the formation of an identity—difference from other people, but also difference from all ways one is not. I mean the difference that makes one way of life more fulfilling than some other, that makes a life belong to the one living it. The advocate of difference refuses to think (as the advocate of sameness sometimes argues) that people invent their differences in the hustle and bustle of social self-determination, that differences serve the purpose of validating their smug feelings over others. The advocate of sameness leaves out the most important differences, the attributes that truly and meaningfully belong to the subject. That they meaningfully belong is demonstrated by the fact that no feat of action or imagination will permit the subject escape them.

* * *

The key difference between the adversaries, then, may lie in the source of their self-respect.

The reality in which the difference-advocate finds herself seems to belong to her in its particulars. She feels herself realized in the specific way of life in which she lives—it is what gives her self-knowledge and pride.

Not so for the sameness-advocate, who invests more in the intuition that this is not all that I am. A human’s qualities, which are finite, namable, and graspable, do not inhere in the human the way a rock’s qualities inhere in a rock. In their very finitude they are alien to the subject who possesses them—all the more so if they are unpleasing or adopted by happenstance. In this case, one’s enormous wealth of unexpressed possibilities is a power.

It led us astray, then, to begin by wondering whether these two subjects, both separate from us, are different or the same. The claim “people are basically the same as each other” should be refined to “people are basically the same as me.” The advocate of sameness, through his goodwill, wants to remind himself that others have the same power of possibility that he feels so immediately in himself. If he notices that everyone is egotistical, he means this: Just as I can at other times be otherwise, so can this fellow. Just as I am not attached to my particularities, neither is anyone else.

Plus—conversely—he wants to remind himself that all of these differences could be mine.