Four Exceptionalisms

On Tuesday we were delayed in Newark so I took myself to the bookstore. Given the fact that my bag was already full and heavy, I decided in advance that I would buy a light, inexpensive book that I would read quickly and abandon as soon as possible. I picked up Auel’s The Land of Painted Caves. I read most of that series years ago and, although the plot of all the books has been subpar, the prehistorical information is interesting (even given the implausibility of one amazing woman who accomplish what in reality probably acquired thousands and tens of thousands of years).

One of the things that struck me in the 100 pages I’ve read is the way that Auel imagines the perception that the prehistoric human people she focuses on hold of the Neanderthals they shared the European continent with. The humans do not recognize the Neanderthals as humans and instead classify them as animals that are qualitatively different from them despite occasional inter-breeding. In Auel’s fiction, humans see humanity as a positive and distinguishing factor. That Auel wrote human exceptionalism into the pre-history of our species got me thinking about many of the ways in which we can make moral/status distinctions.  Here are some of my wandering, malformed, jet-laggy thoughts on exceptionalism:

  1. Human exceptionalism: The idea that there is something different/special/important about humans is an interesting one. I remember when I was pregnant and strangers would stop me to talk about pregnancy as “a gift from god” and to me that seemed so strange because I experienced pregnancy as a powerful connection to my fellow MAMMALS (mother squirrels and elephants also gave birth and nursed live babies) and felt profoundly that I was doing something that embedded me in the history of life of the planet. To the extent I was raised to think of “god” as a (hu)man-like power that favored humans, evoking the big g in relation to my procreative efforts seemed wrong and exclusive. There was something sacred going on, to be sure, but the limits of sacred life do not end with human babies or even humans.
  2. American exceptionalism: I interpret American exceptionalism as dysfunction – a counter-productive combination of bravado, ignorance, political instrumentalism and fear. That is not to say that there is nothing special and unique to the United States but it is to suggest that those particularities should not be mistaken for superiority and higher status among nations and our own particular system the apex of systems of governance. Ironically, there isn’t even anything that is exceptional about American exceptionalism (there is Chinese exceptionalism, too) despite the fact that nations/cultures are always in transition. The U.S. hasn’t always been, it hasn’t always been the way it is now, and it will not always be.
  3. Local exceptionalism: At this point I have lived in different regions/cities/countries/localities. I frequently say that I could build my own utopia by picking and choosing characteristics of the places where I’ve lived. Sometime when I am in a place (like Montpelier) I love it so much and it seems to fit so well that I cannot imagine living anywhere else and catch myself disdaining folks who are blind to the superiority of the life I feel I am living. But then I find myself someplace else and, frequently, learn I am quite content in a completely different life lived in an entirely different fashion. Don’t get me wrong. Not all places are the same and I have lived in a couple of places that did not suit me for various reasons (one of the major reasons, incidentally, being that the collective assumption was that life in that place was just like life anywhere)  but there is no inherent, objective “best” place to be.
  4. Individual exceptionalism: When Jie-jie was about 8 months old I started taking her to the symphony. I remember that first day as she sat in my lap, attentively watching the orchestra and swaying to the music. I was enthralled and noticed with some amazement and irritation that the people sitting around me were listening to the music instead of noticing how absolutely brilliant and beautiful my baby was. A person like that was going to change the world and they didn’t even notice. Even I as thought this, I was somewhat amused (but not surprised) by my propensity to see my child as the most important child that had ever existed– in possession of unique talents that would lead her to make important, original and necessary changes to the world. While I simultaneously love the feelings of efficacy that come from believing in your own talent and uniqueness, I sometimes think that we would be happier if we were able to dispense with the idea that talent must necessarily be important. One of the things I find compelling about China and Hong Kong is the anonymity and lack of overblown self-efficacy that follows from the physical and historical scale of things here. People are unique and expected to make contributions to their families but the notion that any individual’s inherent importance and impact will change the world does not thrive in an environment characterized by 7000+ years of cultural history and the sea of people you wade through every time you step outside.
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