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Thinking about the dynamics of Sameness & Difference

Lyn French (A Space, Director), takes memories of school life, triggered by the month of September, as a starting point for exploring experiences of difference and the politics of power in our social relationships. Examples given feature images from our most recent set of Emotional Learning Cards ‘How do we live well with others?

September officially marks the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.  Mixed feelings are bound to be stirred up – there can be a drop in general mood knowing that a return to the more mundane or demanding tasks of life and work is in order while the dip in temperature hints at colder months to come casting a faint shadow.  This may be balanced by the relief at returning to a more regular structure to the week and the excitement of starting the new season which is traditionally associated with heading back to school or university or perhaps embarking on a course or a new project.

Whether or not we are preparing to return to studies or have committed to something which will support our own development in some way, September reminds us of school, whatever our age.  We all have school day memories which often percolate to the surface at this time of year.  Some of us associate that period of our lives with feeling academically or socially ‘inferior’ most of the time, or with being shoehorned into a type of learning that wasn’t a comfortable fit. Others will have warmer memories of small and large successes, favourite teachers and old friends.  In reality we will have all had ups and downs, good times and bad. Very few get through childhood and adolescence without having at least short spells of feeling on the outside or in some way not fitting in, even if we disguise these feelings and rarely admit them even to ourselves.

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Bani Abidi Intercommunication Devices, 2008

Bani Abidi’s series of photographs, 2008 (see above) of intercoms of the kinds you might find on blocks of flats or apartments or on gated properties is a clever way of alluding to the power dynamics played out in human relationships. Key questions that come to mind when looking at Abidi’s work include, ‘When do we ‘gate keep’, allowing into our social circle only ‘the chosen few’ while keeping the ‘less desirable’ out?and ‘What guides our choices?’  As children or adolescents, we might not be conscious of the ways in which we exercise the power to include or exclude but we will have been acutely aware of the times when we ourselves have been kept on the outside looking in.
If we are left out of a social group or overlooked in some way, we will read meaning into this, creating our own explanations or ‘stories’ to explain why. Often we focus on our differences to rationalise our exclusion.  Most of us feel ‘other’ in some way. This might be visible and something we can’t hide such as our skin colour, our body shape or size or our ethnicity for example. Or it could be less obvious and relate to external realities such as feeling ‘inferior’ because of our family’s financial circumstances or our parents’ lack of education or professional status or having a family member with mental health problems.   Maybe we have differences that are known only to us such as confusion about sexual identity or a sense of ‘imposter’s syndrome’, worrying that, at the core, we are not the person others perceive us to be.

Perhaps a way of describing it could be to say that we all have a ‘free floating’ sense of ‘difference’ which attaches itself to something particular that could be as innocuous as having a generous sprinkling of freckles on our face to the more extreme, feeling different because of our class, ethnicity or culture or having some form of disability.  Some differences are socially determined and need to be worked on by society as a whole. This includes challenging any form of discrimination and also reconfiguring gender and social roles. However the internal, ‘felt experience’ of ‘being different’ can probably, in part,  be linked to early years experiences when as infants or small children we had moments of feeling abandoned which stirred up fears of  being left forever. Being left behind by ‘the tribe’ is a primal fear and, on some level, it is most likely that it feeds our shame and anxieties about being perceived as somehow ‘different’ from everyone else and therefore less likely to retain our value in ‘the tribe’. Of course, there can be pride in difference as well and a more celebratory attitude towards the unique qualities that we all have.

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Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds, 2010

How we experience ourselves as individuals and as members of a group ebbs and flows. Many, if not all of us have to manage the tension between having shaped our individual identity which gives us a sense of who we are, and a perhaps more primitive, contradictory yearning to be ‘the same as’. Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds, 2010 (see above) might suggest a social parallel – if we are all the same, such as the seeds in his work, then, or so the somewhat distorted thinking goes, none of us will stand out or cause awkward tensions because of our differences.  ‘Sameness’ seems to unite but it can bring up uncomfortable questions including ‘To what lengths will we go to fit in? What will we deny ourselves, repress or hide, in order to ensure we have a  place in the collective whole or the social group we want to identify with?’


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Roohi Ahmed No Mans Land, 2008

Roohi Ahmed’s No Man’s Land, 2008 (see above) depicts everyday sewing needles arranged in rigid lines almost like weapons. The needles’ sharp points, like dangerous swords, are all directed outwards. They could remind us of what happens when ‘sameness’ is privileged. Like the family of needles pictured in Ahmed’s work, groups which get their identity primarily from ‘sameness’ may define others by their differences. The need to protect the group’s cohesion and the comforting sensation of ‘belonging’ can lead to directing all the ‘bad’ elsewhere and attacking it either in nuanced ways through subtle discrimination or low level exclusion, or in overt ways that could escalate to warfare.

Looking back on school days and childhood or adolescent experiences in general, can remind us of how important peer groups are but equally, how wounding social dynamics can be. We all struggle with everyday social complexities, often never more acutely felt than when we were young. Even in later years, understanding our emotional responses and knowing whether or not to talk about them openly, and if so, what words to give them and with whom to share them, can be difficult to work out.

Building an emotional vocabulary is a lifelong task.  The first step is not just to identify feelings but also to admit to having the more uncomfortable ones such as humiliation or shame, jealousy or envy, anxiety or fear, hostility and hate.  Feeling jealous of a good friend or a partner or even of our own child, for example, can be confusing, painful and difficult to own, even infantilising. However we all feel these feelings whether we think we have ‘outgrown them’ or they are unwanted.  Taking the risk of talking about them as individuals and as a society from the position of trying to understand them better or simply accept them is the first step towards ensuring emotional integrity. Refraining from judging our feelings but noting them, and gauging whether they are signposting us towards something we need to work on, are both central to living mindfully.

To foster this kind of development, Iniva Creative Learning has developed 3 new resources, each linked with one of our existing sets of emotional learning cards entitled Building an Emotional Vocabulary now available to download FREE via the Resources Tab.  In November 2014 Iniva Creative Learning will be publishing a 4th set of cards entitled the A to Z of Emotions. Watch this website for updates and in the meantime places are available on our A to Z of Emotion Workshops running throughout October.

Written by Jenny Starr