Columns

Krishnamurthy ’19: A toxic culture of customization

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, September 15, 2016

The summer is supposed to be a time of freedom ­— from all the banal obligations of life, from stress and tension, from the monotony of routine. But instead, just like my spectacularly un-lit Tinder, the past few months produced one calamitous disappointment after another. Violence against black men, gay people and police officers ravaged American communities on far too many occasions and claimed far too many casualties. In the meantime, two major party political conventions, immersed in shameless self-congratulation, offered little in the way of spiritual guidance or leadership.

Even Harambe, the beloved gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, and an unfading emblem of the American spirit, could not survive the nation’s moral unraveling. Despair, it seems, does not discriminate.

I like to think of myself as a patriot: I love this country dearly. That is why this summer’s disasters instilled in me — and most Americans, I imagine — an existential anxiety: Are we, as a people, even capable of love and peace and compassion anymore? Incisive introspection may not be our people’s strong suit, but I did get my answer in typical Yankee fashion: on TV.

A few weeks ago, I was watching “Naked and Afraid” — they have great survival tips, really — when, during a commercial break, a southern drawl spilled out of the television speakers. The voice asked me, “Why are you dating a city girl?” (Full disclosure: I was not dating a “city girl” at the time, nor am I dating one now, but I am very much open to the possibility.) The ad proceeded to promote the merits of courting a woman well versed in agricultural pursuits, like horseback riding and cattle raising. It ended with a catchy jingle: “You don’t have to be lonely, at FarmersOnly.com!”

For a moment, I was stunned. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that a dating service for farmers actually exists. But my initial bewilderment passed quickly and gave way to a more disconcerting revelation: We now possess the ability to demand precise specifications — from our coffee, our news, even our romantic partners — and have them satisfied. To be American today is to know what you want right from the get-go and get it without the inconveniences of coping or compromise.

This new mentality, of course, cannot be good for individuals or for society. Life isn’t a Starbucks drink, and the people in our lives aren’t shots of espresso or sprinkles of cinnamon — accessories that we can deliberately manipulate to achieve a desired result. Not only is such jerry-rigging obviously nonsensical, but it is also fundamentally divisive. When farmers only date farmers, or when Christians only date Christians — I see you, ChristianMingle.com — we, as a people, internalize an exclusive and highly un-American lesson: Love is to be showered only upon people who are similar to us, in faith or in occupation; those who are different, even remotely, are unworthy of our affection.

The consequences of this homogeneous love, both romantic and platonic, are serious. According to some studies, marriage between members of the same socioeconomic class may be responsible for one-third of the past half century’s increases in income inequality. And the poor state of today’s race relations can be explained, in part, by the fact that three-quarters of white Americans don’t have any non-white friends, so their social exposure is limited entirely to the white experience. Sectionalist relationships really do have the potential to reinforce existing stratification, restrict social mobility and perpetuate de facto segregation.

In the end, it doesn’t take a genius or a whole lot of life experience to see that life usually transcends our fallible premeditations. That’s why I don’t particularly like the new American, hell-bent on absolute personalization, unwilling to even consider the unfamiliar or the uncomfortable. So let’s all resolve to resist this rather repugnant mindset and the kind of love that goes along with it — the kind built on superficial and often irrelevant similarities, like religion, salary and profession. Can’t our shared American-ness and our common humanity — or at the very least our collective love for Harambe (HaramBAE?) — be enough?

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu.

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