“Today everyone wants to be different from the others. But in that desire to be different, the same goes on”, wrote the philosopher Byung-Chul Han.
Being authentic has practically become a social imperative, an imperative that we have internalized to such an extent that many have made it the leitmotif of their life.
What if we were wrong? What if that search for differentiation equals us more and more? What if that normalized discourse progressively moves us away from our essence causing us to become just what we intend to avoid?
The terror of “the same”
The aspiration for authenticity and the need for differentiation come from our deep desire to transcend. We need to live in society and, therefore, share some of its values and abide some of its behavioral norms. But we also need the psychological oxygen that comes from the freedom of choice that allows us to be ourselves.
As a result, “the same” scares us because it is synonymous with undifferentiation, it is as if our “ego” is diluted in the mass, making us loose our identity, that which makes us ourselves. Deep down, the terror of “the same” is a sublimated expression of the fear of death. Differentiating ourselves from the others not only allows us to excel, but reaffirms us as unique people and ensures the survival of the ego encapsulated in our mind.
Of course, wanting to be ourselves is not bad. It is not bad looking for who we are and express it. The problem begins when that search for differentiation and authenticity leads us to a labyrinth with no exit that leads to homogenization.
The lost atopos
Socrates was a singular philosopher. So unique that his disciples referred to him as an atopos, a word of Greek origin that was commonly used to indicate that out of place, strange or unheard of, but also indicated “the other that does not tolerate any comparison” because every attribute that it is intended to be used to perform the parallelism would necessarily be false, clumsy and mortifying.
Socrates was, therefore, incomparable and unique. That is not the same as being different or authentic. Byung-Chul Han explains the difference: “Singularity is something totally different from authenticity. Authenticity assumes comparability. Who is authentic, is different from the others”. However, an atopos is incomparable, which means that “not only is he different from the others, but is different from everything that is different from the others.”
An atopos is a self-confident person, who does not need to compare himself or seek external confirmation of his uniqueness. Thus he manages to free himself from the need to be different, because he simply IS, with capital letters.
It is not a mere pun. Neither a terminological disquisition or a philosophical rant, but an important differentiation that has been lost over the centuries – probably intentionally – to avoid uniqueness in a society that desperately needs homogenization.
In fact, Byung-Chul Han considers that the proliferation of “the same” is the pathology that our society suffers, a society that expels the negativity represented by the other without using repression but resorting to more subtle psychological mechanisms.
In a totalitarian regime, it is easy to distinguish the mechanisms of expulsion of the different since are used repression, coercion, censorship and restriction of all kinds of freedoms. In a seemingly free society these mechanisms are more complex, but they tie us just as strong, although with invisible ropes.
Freedom without liberation
Our society gives us freedom without liberation. It asks us to differentiate ourselves, but only within certain limits. It asks us to be authentic, but forces us to compare ourselves. It asks us to be unique, but also to compete with others. Overwhelmed by these contradictions, it is not strange that we end up silencing our uniqueness.
“The culture of the constant comparison for equalization does not allow any negativity of the atopos. Everything makes it comparable; that is, the same. This makes the experience of the other atopic impossible. The consumer society aims to eliminate atopic alterity in favor of consumable, heterotopic differences […] Diversity is a resource that can be exploited. In this way it opposes otherness, which is reluctant to all economic use”, said Byung-Chul Han.
Or as Noam Chomsky said: “They understood that it was easier to create consumers than submit slaves.” Each time we compare ourselves, we reduce our richness and uniqueness to patterns that we consider valid, as if being smarter, richer, more sociable or more daring than the others meant something. When we compare ourselves, we assume the measuring stick of society and consider it valid – more or less consciously – moving a little further from our essence.
Unfortunately, we are so immersed in that kind of thinking, that we do not realize that we live in a state of “enhanced compliance”, a mechanism that is much more efficient than the repressive homogenization of totalitarian societies, because it keeps us in the vicious circle of social competition, accepting the patterns of comparison that mark our goals in life and that have been imposed by someone else.
Byung-Chul Han explains the trap that hides this mechanism: “Authenticity generates tradable differences. This multiplies the plurality of goods with which authenticity materializes. Individuals express their authenticity especially through consumption. The imperative of authenticity does not lead to the formation of an autonomous and sovereign individual. What happens rather is that commerce takes profit of it, completely.”
This closes the cycle. The more external confirmation of our authenticity we seek, the more we will depend on that confirmation. And the more different we want to be, the more we will compare. As a result, “the self drowns in itself.” And what could have been an exciting adventure of personal discovery becomes a gray replica of the same. But, unfortunately, few will understand.
Han, B. (2017) La expulsión de lo distinto. Barcelona: Herder Editorial.