What does familiarity breed?

I say not contempt but blindness.

Sometimes I make fun of things a little too close for comfort: being a teenager, the young professional lifestyle, following trends, etc. This is as much an attack on the tendencies I don’t like in myself as on the mindset of other people. And it is a certain mindset I don’t like, not the act itself of using a spiraliser or going to the gym or eating brunch in Clapham.

The people who scare me most in the world are those few people I’ve encountered who give the impression of having zero inner life, who’ve never thought that the inside of a nightclub might be the closest equivalent to hell that exists on the earth (no one’s in their right mind, you’re half-blind, half-deaf, half-ill, you’ve no personal space, your friends get lost), who don’t question whether their money and time might not be for spending on themselves, who don’t like children’s voices intruding on their attention – in short, who are so entrenched in their familiar environment that it doesn’t occur to them to question it, not to take it for granted.

Yet as I write this I am aware that there are probably very few people who are genuinely this comfortable or unquestioning – even if they outwardly seem so. In fact by attacking or making fun of these tendencies I am trying to remind myself that what I am most scared of is that I am like this myself, so familiar with the artificial structures of career and leisure pursuits that I am blind to the true realities they lie above and obscure from us: love, suffering, the ‘meaning of life’.

Poking fun of things is a way of making what is familiar the unfamiliar object of outside observation. Similar techniques are used in various pieces of literature, using the eyes of a foreign observer to show up and bring into question native cultural tendencies (e.g.‘travel’ literature like Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes). I’ve been reading a book called Diario Minimo by Umberto Eco, and many of the short stories featuring therein use similar techniques of what I want to call ‘estrangement’ (although this has a different meaning in literary theory). For example, we have mock academic lectures in which future society, going by the inadequate sources it has for historical study of our age, concludes that the Church was a corrupt temporal power, while Industry was a mystical religious-type force whose fasting, sleepless adepts discuss the production of objects in mystical attunement to the divine act of creation. More extremely, another story written from the point of view of a cat describes four cylindrical bodies rising from the ground at the four corners of a rhomboid and supporting a rectangular body at a height of 120 cm – we only later, after mentally reconstructing the shapes, recognise this to be a table. Just as the cat tries to piece together distances and shapes into recognisable objects, just as Eco’s future academics conclude that Italy did not in fact exist before the apocalyptic explosions of 1980 (!), so future generations will attempt to piece together what we actually care about and believe in from our legacy of faecal internet content. Our normal will be estranged from our descendants.

Seeing with our own eyes means unconscious bias and filtering of the truth. Attempting to be objective means attempting to perfect our eyes so as to detach ourselves from our biases and immediate preferences. Seeing with others’ eyes and putting ourselves in others’ shoes is the basis of compassion. (So go read some fiction!)

If you can’t understand why Lydia Bennett is condemned, if you think church is weird, if you can’t look a homeless person in the eye, if your flat mate brings a boy home and upon hearing that he told her she needed a ‘trim’ ‘downstairs’ you react not with horror but with equal disgust, you’re not seeing past your own nose, you’re too familiar with the norms that have been handed down to you.

I spent most of my growing-up years wanting to be popular/wanting people to like me/not wanting to be abnormal. Nowadays I feel it’s best not to be a sheep, to be in the world but apart from it, to cultivate ‘estrangement’. But not in a hipster way.

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