Learning to live with odd people

12th May 2000

I DIDN’T want to name my daughter after me – the surname I mean. I felt that the tradition of using the paternal surname is something from the past that should be confined to the past.

However, her mother didn’t want her to grow up different and her mother prevailed. Thus another Gormley was begotten and the dynasty will survive to see a new generation.

Still, I have my regrets. But the ‘odd one out’ scenario is a powerful argument and we know that children can be very cruel at times.

This was rammed home this week in testimony given to the Lindsay Tribunal this week. A young girl told how she had been shunned at school because it became known that her father was HIV positive. One of her classmates ran off to wash her hands after they touched accidentally.

This kind of treatment can happen for many reasons and most people have to go through some victimisation at some time. Too tall, too short, wrong accent, dodgy teeth, old clothes – there are a myriad of reasons to single someone out.

And of course there are the more serious ones like race, disability, religion and nationality.

Of course, if this was confined to children we could perhaps put it down to lessons learned. But some of the tales about workplace bullying and sexual harassment that appear in the press would make your hair stand on end.

Few people are completely unprejudiced. There are characters with which we find it easier to make friends and those we wish to avoid. If we expand on that, the tendency to like and dislike others is normal and reasonable.

And to be judgmental is also normal, contrary to current popular thinking. We size up the people we meet, sometimes instantly. This is something that comes to us through nature where our decision making processes are inward looking and based on self-preservation.

So to discriminate is human.

Into this pot you can mix the ferocious pressure on humans to conform to social norms. This can often lead to people altering their behaviour to fit in. Witness the way most people change their accents on the phone when speaking to strangers. That’s ok.

However, the conformity syndrome can lead people who are in the ‘social norm’ to exclude others. This is almost always unfair.

Take any of the major problems facing this planet today and exclusion is at the root of the problem. From poverty to war, drug abuse to human rights violations, all across the whole gamut of human behaviour, our inability to include everybody has disastrous consequences.

Our schools will soon be filled with black children, brown children, Traveller children, children from broken homes, children of junkies; all sorts of children that will fall outside the social norm. Will they all be fodder for our desire to exclude?

Kids take their cues from their parents. If we don’t learn the lessons of exclusion, they certainly won’t.

We need to teach kids to accept difference, even to revel in it. To date, youth culture has only promoted generational difference within which many young people are trapped by as strong a need to conform as ever.

Diversity must not only be fashionable. Odd people must be welcomed on their own terms.