The social landscape we live in nowadays is a Sierpinski carpet of niches.
Down at the Capital Fringe Festival, I have heard, this year and in years past, plenty of people scoff at the theatrical proclivities of others. The local theatre world is a veritable cold warzone of resentments and superiorities. The laid-back get-drunk-and-see-a-show folks laugh at the folks who do Shakespeare. The experimental edgy-theatre folks sniff at the folks putting on crowd-pleasing cabarets. The folks who write tongue-in-cheek blog posts about the Fringeyness of Fringe and the ridiculous antics that go on there in a slightly removed, wink-nudge condescending way (and I’m not pointing any fingers) lean to each other under the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent, shrug their shoulders and raise their eyebrows and scrunch one side of their mouth up, and say “Who comes to Fringe and does that?” when they hear of someone putting on some serious established boring straightforward drama. “Don’t they get what Fringe is?”
It’s a microcosm of the entire social landscape we live in. To view this social landscape from above, it such a thing were possible, would be to see something like that fractal sqaure above (the Sierpinski carpet, thanks to Wikipedia). There are huge fenced-off acres within the contemporary landscape containing broad interests: athletics, fashion, arts, politics, religion, sex, substances, geekery, etc. Within each are smaller subdivisions: athletics contains soccer, hiking, auto-propelled-vehicle-sports (skateboards/rollerskates/scooters), etc. Arts contains performance, music, sculpture. Within some of those are even more specific interests, on down to smaller and smaller levels. Some areas subdivide more finely than others: soccer has fewer sub-levels than theatre does. The visual image isn’t perfect, because there’s realistically some overlap (geocaching is both sport and geekery), but it’s pretty accurate.
But for some reason or another, no one really can live and let live. The niches closest by one’s own often get the harshest judgment.
The theatre people fall into their own respective theatre niche and they happily, snarkily and righteously judge those who fall into other ones. Find someone in theatre who thinks the Musical Theatre People and the Shakespeare As High Art People and the Shakespeare For Everyone People and the Weird Experimental People and the I Want To Be A Broadway Star People and the Modern TV-like Theatre People are all fine and dandy and not deluded and I’ll give you a dollar. Even I myself, as I write this, can not honestly say that I refrain from judging a subgroup or two.
We’ll take the Musical Theatre People as an easy example and common target. Really, there are two kinds of Musical Theatre People: the ones Who Obsess Over Old Chestnuts and the ones Who Are Deeply Involved In New Important Musicals. The first group is the group I’m talking about. Most professional theatre folk dismiss those MTPWOOOCs as a sort of self-involved, snake-eating-its-own tail little community that mostly entertains itself off in a corner. Most professional theatre folk don’t talk about MTPWOOOCs all that much; we all have friends who at least dabble in that kind of theatre, and most of us at least like a Les Mis or a Cabaret here and there, so it would be rather foolish to outright insult it. But when a major theatre decides it’s going to perform one of the MTPWOOOCs’ old chestnuts, we roll our eyes, we sigh, we say “Really?” We call it the death of the theatre.
You who are reading this, you may or may not be a theatre person yourself, and so you may or may not be familliar with what I am specifically speaking about. But you know it in the abstract. You, too, in whatever niches you fall into, fall prey to niche-ism. You differentiate and subdivide yourself from the neighbor practitioners within your larger niche. They are the ones who don’t get it; you are the ones who get it. You watch movies and shake your head at people who play video games. You play FPS video games and shake your head at people who play RPGs. You play Western RPGs and shake your head at people who play Eastern RPGs.
You go camping and shake your head at day hikers. You go to bondage clubs and shake your head at people who go to swinger clubs. You drink local beer and shake your head at tasteless people who drink commercial beer, or pretentious people who pursue wine, or trendy people who drink outrageous martinis. You drink PBR or you don’t. You vote Democrat but shake your head at people who go to anti-war protests; you go to protests but shake your head at people who work within the system. You skateboard and are utterly perplexed that anyone even still rollerblades. Whatever your niches are, you follow this pattern.
Because you have to. We have to. We have to separate ourselves. Every single niche – every one, except possibly the broadest of the broadest ones, like athletics and movies and alcohol – gets laughed at by inhabitants of the surrounding squares. And the being laughed at is the worst.
It’s worse than being hated. We can all take – in fact, we all thrive upon – a certain amount of being hated.
If you’re a Democrat, you feel better about yourself that your enemies, the evangelist Republicans, call you names. If you’re born again, you feel proud and validated when the sinful liberal types complain about you. If you skateboard, it doesn’t hurt you one bit that a theatre person thinks you’re hopelessly stuck in some teenage 90s rebel white-trash-California-fantasyland. Who cares? It’s not the flack from far-off sqaures in the diagram that upsets us. It’s the put-downs and sideways glances from our immediate neighbors that keeps us awake at night.
Theatre, for example, as a medium-sized niche, is pretty much universally scoffed at by almost everyone else who doesn’t think of themselves as ‘cultured.’ It’s the exact same scoffing that the Pro Theatre Types have for the MTPWOOOCs. People who go to movies or who actually work as active liberal activists or who write for McSweeney’s – when they encounter theatre people, of any sub-type, they roll their eyes, because they know that theatre is a dead art and Every. Single. Person. Doing. It. Is. Deluded. At best, they simply find theatre people perplexing in our obsession with this dead art form they know nothing about. At worst, they see us as all having our heads up our own collective ass. (Should head be plural in that sentence? Should ass? Sorry, not important.)
But we repeat that same exact pattern within our sub-niches. That’s why most professional theatre folk resent the MTPWOOOCs: because the typical non-theatre person thinks that all theatre folk are like them (or the I Want To Be A Broadway Star type, or the Waiting for Guffman Type). We differentiate ourselves as far down as we need to, so that we can be disassociated from any notion that we are deluded, solipsistic, hopelessly without self-awareness.
Because to see ourselves, in our main niche endeavors, as deluded is to fall down an existentialist sinkhole of meaninglessness.
Now, I am exaggerating my case here for effect somewhat. Surely not everyone is as judgmental, all the time, about everyone outside their niche, as I am making out. In fact we all know of those enviably super-nice people who like and approve of anyone without judgment, and we try to be friends with them because they’re seriously great to be around. But the reality is that, for most of us, we live within a personal landscape of niche-ism and judgement – one that is, like the society-wide Sierpinski carpet, built out of a network of tiny scoffs and offhand eye-rolls. None of us sit there completely trashing our awkward neighbors; we just quietly, in brief snippets of conversation or internal monologue, put down little fences around those neighbors one little post at a time. And eventually, we have built ourselves a nice full-scale Sierpinski carpet of anxiety. Those sqaures are Them. This square is Me. I’m not like Them. Don’t lump me in. My theatre is self-aware and purposeful and forward-looking and authetntic and expressive. Theirs isn’t.
The way out of this is not to unbuild the carpet. That can’t be done; even if you could unbuild your own internal paradigm of niches by remolding yourself into one of those awesome super-nice people, everyone else around you would constantly insist and act like the borderlines are still there. Even the super-nice people have to deal with that.
No, the way out is to simply recognize that every niche is equally, and completely, meaningless.
Whatever it is you do – soccer, geocaching, Magic: the Gathering, blogging, opera, yoga, marijuana, dressing up like a furry wolf and going to conventions with other people in animal costumes, throwing themed dinner parties – the main reason you do it is because it makes your feel purposeful, like you are doing good, associating with good people. You feel part of a very specific community; you feel good. You may assert that there’s a higher purpose behind your niche; but it all comes down to, on the personal level, your feeling good about yourself.
Now again, I am overstating my case somewhat. If you can call, for example, the KKK a niche, then surely it’s not a good one, and in the harm it does, it’s not meaningless. But the vast majority of niches – including most political ones, that would seem to have some active effect on society – are little more than clubs for people to associate with folks who validate their self-image.
And when it comes to validating your self-image, any niche (KKK-type examples aside) is equally fine. There’s absolutely no real difference between landing yourself in the Shakespeare niche or the MTPWOOOC niche or the Experimental Theatre niche; no real difference between any theatre niche and the skateboarding or soccer or FPS shooter ones. The “work” and “stuff” of your niche – the actual hiking, theatre performing, clubbing, whatever – is incidental, the same way that the dancing and eating at a wedding is just incidental to the real purpose of celebrating that particular marriage. Fun, and half the point of being there, but not the real heart of the matter. The heart is the validation. If you feel at home in your niche, than that niche has done its job, and that’s all it needs to do.
That’s why each niche is equally meaningless: because it doesn’t matter what the niche is. The only thing that matters is that it provides a home for its members. And providing a home for people is always a good thing. (Again, KKK-type extremes that validate bad behavior aside.)
Most people, as they get older, find their personal niches through a process of learning what they naturally like; the point here isn’t that anyone could switch to some other niche. Of course not. The point isn’t even to try and “accept” other niches; that’s not natural to do. After all, finding your personal niche is a process of determining your values, and it’s natural that you will find niches outside of yours to lack those values; if they had them, you would have joined them. I’m not proposing cultural relativity.
The point is to recognize that someone else’s niche – even if it seems to be based on certain ideals antithetical to your own – is related to yours the same way a preference for chocolate ice cream is to orange sherbet. This doesn’t imply a different kind of judgement towards that other niche – it implies a different kind of judgement towards your own. Keep on judging other niches all you want (although of course it’d be neato to rock it out as one of those super-nice accepting people) – just judge yours the same way. And then keep on doing it.
There’s no moral difference between the vast majority of sub-sub-sub-niches. None. They are all equally meaningless, and thus all equally good, and bad.