Opinion & Thought

The Passeggiata Paradox

The first of several pieces on personal expression, social pressure and a search for quality.

“You two look smart. Big occasion?”

“We’re just going for the newspaper”, we replied.

The reaction was uncertain – but as a compliment seemed to have been paid, it would have been churlish to be churlish. Yet expectations of normal behaviour had clearly been transgressed…

There is, they say, no accounting for taste. But that’s not true: if anything, there is too much accounting for taste. Trying to figure out what makes people tick is perhaps too complex to fathom – in particular, the dynamic between a simple visible expression of personal preference and the reaction that others have to it. Individual these situations may be, but they bear on us all, affecting what we choose to do – and what wider society will accept our doing.

The passeggiata only works because of the collective will. One person putting on their glad-rags and going for a walk alone of an evening just doesn’t work in the same way. We know, we’ve tried. No one actively prevents us, but the critical mass just isn’t there when everyone else is indoors, glued to the Box. Without them, our passeggiata cannot exist. It is not only individual decisions but also collective ones that determine (even by default) what matters and what does not, what can or cannot happen, even what an individual can easily do. Some things somehow become considered normal, others oddly deviant.

While this might seem trivial, behind it is a complex dynamic around the values and attitudes that shape society, and the serious matter of the ability of individuals and groups within it genuinely to live as they choose. Choices are often straightforward for the mainstream – but for those who step outside it, headway can be difficult enough without the indifference, let alone condemnation, of the majority to make it worse.

There may be more at stake than meets the eye: not all situations are equally benign for the human condition, and societies that find a good balance between belonging and individual free expression are perhaps healthier and happier than more conformist or repressive ones. Key to it is the social interaction that all humans engage in constantly – and the effects that this has on their behaviours. The Passeggiata Paradox, then, is simply my shorthand for the possibly beneficial things that never come to pass, even for those who actively want them, simply because of mass ignorance or indifference. What are we missing, because of it?

In the days when recorded-music shops were more of a thing than they are now, the same issue could be seen at work in the shelf-space given to different types of music. Most was given over to the many sub-divisions of commercial ‘popular’ entertainment-noise that may or may not have musical merit as opposed to being a vicarious route to Celebrity. Other types of music: classical, jazz, folk, early music and so on, were usually relegated to the further reaches with a just a few bays between them, despite the fact that each is probably just as capable of filling an entire shop. (R.I.P. Coda Music, Edinburgh). Thus, one thing became the self-perpetuating ‘norm’ at the expense of (at least) equally deserving others: the interests of one group: “the majority”(?) unwittingly given almost total precedence over others.

The reason for such inequality is a collusion between the herd instinct that assumes that most people would rather seek safety in the crowd than do anything much actively to assert their individuality, and the unregulated commercial interests whom it suits to encourage it to be so. Tribalism is hard-wired into our species; I suppose it saves an amount of thought – and making social errors. Of course, business is entirely happy with this, since it is more profitable to shift large quantities of homogenised lowest-common-denominator to an undemanding mass-market, than to respond to a diverse range of individual preferences. Done skilfully, you can even persuade them that they are still making individual distinctions…

On the rare occasion that the mainstream’s attention is drawn to something more specialist, it will normally be commercialised to make it more “accessible” (read marketable and mass-producible) – thereby losing many of whatever distinctive qualities it had in the first place. Step up, amongst others, almost every themed chain restaurant or cafe in the country… What you get in such places is rarely more than a pastiche.

The habitual solution for those who cannot accept this, has been to resort to specialist providers. But these are often of limited viability (especially when ‘helped’ out of business by the aggressive tactics of the big boys) and frequently beyond the geographical reach of many. The internet may be the saviour of many such minority concerns.

More concerning is the ghettoisation of niche groups that brings the risk of misunderstanding and conflict, and certainly diminishes the scope for crossover and mutual discovery. There are many examples of minorities for whom the consequences have been much more serious than over their choice of music.

One can argue that the freedom with which I supposedly make my choices is precisely the same that others have, to make different ones – but this ignores the fact that one person’s freedom can easily trump another’s.  It is also at odds with my persistent doubts that many personal choices are really anything of the sort. How else can one explain the dominance, in a nation of millions of individual sentient minds, of the overwhelming homogeneity of mainstream taste? Conversation has yet to convince me that many people bring much real thought or conviction to these things and more often just take the line of least resistance, conveniently provided by ‘convention’ – and the mass-market retailers. It might not matter if it did less harm to the interests of the few who think harder…

From our early years we learn that people’s actions have social meaning. It is a fundamental of human psychology to signal and infer identity. Today, this is complex: what and where people eat or purchase, how they dress, what they read and listen to, where they travel, how they furnish their homes, with whom they associate, whom they marry, where they holiday, and pretty much all stops between: everything can be seen as a form of social statement. We can’t avoid it since the message is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, not the sender. Despite (or more likely because of) that, remaining in the herd and playing-safe is a strong driver of behaviour.

This is the logic behind chain retailing: that which is numerically dominant thrives and that which is not, withers. It is the law of the market society – but hardly a recipe for diversity. It doesn’t matter whether what is popular has any inherent merit: majority buy-in is all that counts. But there is a weakness: this can be manipulated. Fashions and trends are rarely really determined as much by popular demand as it seems, but by what suppliers decide they are going to provide. We can’t easily choose what is not available.

Herd behaviour can become a form of oppression of those who have different ideas: either you conform, or your “unviable” needs go unmet. The numbers game is intimidating, and it takes a determined individual to swim for long against a strong social or economic current. It is not helped by the fact that despite their numerical advantage, herds often do not tolerate deviants, being more inclined to drive them out; it is no coincidence that victims of bullying are often those perceived as being “different”. It is true that some people choose to be different precisely to send a certain message – and they may thrive on the adverse reactions they get. But there are others who neither want this, nor indeed the only alternative of going it alone. They simply need a different herd from the only one on offer.

Awareness of “inclusiveness” has grown in recent times – but this is curious and perhaps self-defeating. True inclusiveness is not a matter of low-level homogenisation, but tolerance, pluralism and perhaps cross-fertilisation. Yet society in effect chooses which minorities it will ‘include’ and which it will ignore – which is not inclusiveness at all. Yet there is a contradiction here too: such pluralism might also seem precisely the opposite of the kind of cultural cohesion required to make the passeggiata and other collective experiences work. How to reconcile these opposing forces?

My experience suggests that more egalitarian societies, or those lacking a history of rigid hierarchy, are less socially competitive, and therefore less troubled by those who step outside their norms – or by status-signalling more generally. Or perhaps it is just that their norms are more loosely defined so that people have less need to step outside them in the first place. Some limits to individual freedom are always necessary to avoid breaching the boundaries of legality – but some societies self-impose constraints of social convention or commercial pressure which are much narrower than that.

Despite its self-delusion, Britain is still strongly socially stratified. One cannot grow up here without absorbing an awareness that judgements may be inferred about one’s standing – and worse still, aspirations – from almost everything one does. Wearing a certain tie – or a school uniform – is often a badge of social differentiation rather than anything of much beauty. In Britain, going the opera is likely seen as a social statement whereas in Italy it is more likely to be accepted as a musical choice that cuts across social groups. The minor misunderstanding at the start of this piece derived from an assumption that we were making a deliberate social statement rather than reflecting an innocent personal preference; it was not the first time.

Personal choices and social ambitions are indeed easily confused, as their means of expression can appear identical – but the motives are very different: one seeks intrinsic pleasure, the other extrinsic advantage. Yet it can be extremely difficult to distinguish them, especially when one has been raised in a society that routinely does the opposite.

In this way, we arrive at a situation where it becomes intimidating for individuals to express their real preferences for fear of disapproval or misunderstanding; all the more so when judgements are attached not just to one’s personal choices, but implicitly even to one’s worth as a human being. This may sound extreme, but it is not such a great step in a society where some people are still implicitly considered inherently socially superior to others.

I do not have an insider’s view of the passeggiata: I have only ever participated as a visitor. But as far as I can see, it is not the social straitjacket that it might appear. There is little compulsion to take part. But what it does do is present an opportunity for people to see and be seen if they so wish. Their motives for doing so may be complex but are not, I suspect, primarily avaricious. For a start it takes place in a society where creative, aesthetic self-expression is given greater approval than in Britain; where it may be possible to appreciate (or disapprove of) behaviours and choices without attaching the heavy social condemnation as well. I have noticed the diversity that results – for within that social framework exists the possibility for wide individual interpretation. Sometimes things that appear to constrain freedom have the opposite effect – and vice versa.

The trade-off between the individual and the collective is not the same everywhere; there is no single “right” answer, even though some solutions may be more benign than others. Neither, despite its conservatism, is the UK uniquely cursed: for example, the beacon of social liberalism that is Denmark has also been criticised as a subtly conformist form of hell – and the anarchy of the free-for-all has clear downsides too… Perhaps conservative cultures are more likely to pass social judgements than others, but even in Italy, for all the strong currents of individual flamboyance, there co-exists a distinct thread of social conservatism.

Norms change over time: when everyone else is wearing jeans and hoodies, it is the necktie-wearer who is the rebel.  The best trade-off is perhaps where people freely make their own choices, but still choose to participate because they do not feel unduly constrained by doing so. Only when people can participate reasonably on their own terms will they do so willingly and unselfconsciously. The key to this is tolerance and understanding from everyone else.

The problem for the British (and nations like them) is that they do not recognise their own conformism: it is hidden by the fact that so few step outside it.  When it does happen, it is often in violent or destructive ways that seem the only way to make it register: the conformity of rebellion by getting wrecked every Friday night – which is not rebellion at all…

It is reinforced by those commercial interests: it is easier to appeal to people’s groupthink and snobbery than their individuality. Products are advertised on their supposed exclusivity or sophistication rather than their intrinsic appeal. Even when that depends on an inverted form of snobbery, the mechanism is the same. And life-events such as weddings are widely planned primarily for their social impact, sometimes at the cost of aesthetic crassness. And of course, it is precisely in such circumstances that the two are most hopelessly confused, for a wedding remains perhaps the worst place to make a social faux pas.

The dominance of mainstream culture makes it harder for those who operate by different criteria to live and act the way they choose, without fear of misunderstanding, or worse. It reaches its censorious head when attitudes balkanise into prejudice and hostility.

But we should perhaps remember that all people have their foibles, and therefore it is perhaps unwise not to accommodate minorities: at some point, we may find that the minority is not others: it is Us.

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