Uniqueness and the Desire to Distinguish Oneself

The desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is highly regarded in the popular culture of post-industrial liberal democratic societies.  It is repeatedly said that all people are unique and that they should be able to express their uniqueness. Consequently, this desire drives us to adopt our own unique personal lifestyle and tastes. Furthermore while this desire has taken on a particular form in post-industrial liberal democracies, it seems to be tied to the general human desire to distinguish oneself, whether it be through excellence or uniqueness. In this entry I will claim that the desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is at once something that moves us to live a more fully developed life, and at the same time is something that can drive us to lead a superficial, impoverished life.

This desire to distinguish oneself through uniqueness is at once a desire that is deeply problematic and something that pushes us to lead more fully developed lives. This desire allows us to live more fully developed lives because it drives us to engage in a richer set of practises, than the conformist engages in. The person who is driven to distinguish themselves by being unique will engage in many valuable practises that the conformist will not. This can help us to lead more fully developed lives because as someone engages in a wider set of practises they will develop greater self-knowledge than someone who merely conforms. This greater self-knowledge is intrinsically valuable, but it also equips someone to live a richer life as they begin to realize what is fundamentally important in the development of their life.

However, it should be noted that the desire to distinguish oneself by being unique can become problematic when someone lives their life as if the point of their life is merely to be unique.  The desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is a valid desire, because the desire can often lead people to lead a fully developed life, as I explained above.  But when someone begins to live life as though the point of life is to lead a unique life they are leading a deeply impoverished life. In such a case they are not focusing on living a life that embodies their reflective perception of the good life, they are focusing on being unique for its own sake. This is why everyone dislikes “hipsters.” “Hipsters” desire to distinguish themselves by being unique, but rather than putting value on leading a life that embodies their reflection of what the good life is, they try to lead a life that is unique even if it is impoverished.  The elitism of the hipster is superficial, because they think they are better than others as their tastes are unique, which is a pretty terrible reason to think that one is better than others.

The preceding commentary reveals the  way in which our desires to distinguish ourselves is at once something that can drive us towards the highest goods, but also something that can direct us to lead a life of petty elitism. Thus, we should not merely eschew the desire to distinguish ourselves, as it truly can help us to lead richer lives, but we must be mindful of the negative possibilities of this desire. Treading this middle path is full of hazards, but it is surely our best choice, as we often learn about the good through our desire to distinguish ourselves.

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Elitism and Music

Tyler Cornwall`s life revolved around his love of Techno. He spent most of his free time listening to Techno and could easily classify any Techno track within its appropriate subgenre including Post Early 2000s Berlin Minimal Housey Techno. Whenever he encountered people whose music taste revolved around what they heard on the radio he would feel superior as he had done the work to dig through all sorts of music to discover the most beautiful music in the world, Techno.  Consequently, in Tyler`s daily life he took every opportunity he could to display the beauty of Techno and would try to illuminate and re-educate those who did not see its shining beauty.  

Kyle Cassian had the same characteristics as Tyler, except in his case his love was for Extreme Metal, rather than Techno.  On one occasion Kyle had even skipped work in order to respond to a poster on an internet discussion board who had disparaged extreme metal, as something that lacked musical ability and all sounded the same. With his post Kyle had fulfilled his raison dètre as he had overwhelmed the naysayer with a post revealing the distinction between different genres of Extreme Metal, and explained why Extreme Metal takes a great degree of talent to perform. There was no way this naysayer would ever go around badmouthing Extreme Metal again.

By happenstance Tyler and Kyle ended up posting on the same internet discussion board. Kyle had bad mouthed Techno and referred to it as something `that any talentless idiot with a decent computer could make.“ This drew Tyler`s immediate attention and soon after he responded to Kyle. Tyler`s response clarified the history of Techno and how much talent was required to take simple, seemingly dull, rhythms and make something infectious with them.  Furthermore, he posted several examples of what he considered to be quality Techno. This did not convince Kyle however. In fact Kyle was offended by the fact that somebody could take Techno so seriously. Extreme Metal was a truly majestic art form, but Techno was trite and any person with the least sense of the true meaning of what good music was, could not consider Techno to be good.  

Soon after this exchange of posts occurred two other people posted additional responses to Kyle and Tyler. The first of these, Harvey Johnston, was upset with the fact that these two people were trying to prove that a particular genre was good. His response argued that there no way to distinguish between good music and bad music, and that music was merely a matter of preference. For Harvey, just as some people like Olives and others do not, some people will like Techno and others won`t.                                   

 However, the other poster, Anthony Martin, took a different tact. He saw the great passion for the beauty of music that both Kyle and Tyler had, and because he shared that passion for beauty, he wanted to expose them to his favourite forms of music, Classical and Jazz. He did not try to illuminate their minds or convert them to being avid listeners of Jazz and Classical; he merely suggested some artists they might like given Tyler`s love for Techno and Kyle`s love of Extreme Metal.  In this way Anthony just wanted to share the love that he had developed. While Anthony did think that his music taste was more elevated than Tyler`s or Kyle`s, and this elevation signified his ability to grasp a more nuanced conception of beauty, he was motivated by a simple desire to spread his love of music.  He merely wanted to encourage the growth of a love in others that had enriched his own life.