I enjoy having my hidden biases unveiled and demolished, so last month was stupendous. Browsing CNN.com, I came across a TED talk by American model Cameron Russell, which is going viral as we speak. Looks are superficial and vacuous - this is one of the central themes of Russell’s talk, by the end of which you realize that she has unintentionally exemplified this adage by being a glamorous fashion model full of wisdom and depth.
Russell shares her life journey as a beauty icon with brutal honesty. She admits being part of a system that has constantly manipulated societal notions of beauty. In America today, more than 90 percent of girls – 15 to 17 years – wish to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, with body weight ranking the highest. The media has always held a strong grip on people’s self-perception on beauty and glamour, and this has partly led to a dismal state of affairs where 5-10 million girls and women and 1 million boys and men are struggling with eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or borderline conditions.
However, there is a further point that Russell drives across in her TED talk. She considers herself the recipient of underserved privilege, being born with extraordinarily ‘good’ looks in a society that values ‘good’ looks. Winning the genetic lottery is what she calls it. This is a very apt analogy. The idea that we are not all born equal is often forgotten by certain factions today. From a sociological perspective, we are born into communities that may be treated in disparate ways by those around us, into families that may have significant differences in resources and support structures. The very neighborhood that one is born into can have an unshakeable impact on one’s life. Take the example of the vitriolic gang culture that pervades urban communities across America. This American Life recently devoted two full episodes to the gun violence that is part of everyday life for students at Harper High School in south Chicago. Here is a short segment from the episode that illuminates the effect that just the location of one’s upbringing can have:
.. It used to be if you play sports, or you were academically better than the average kid, they didn't bother you. Now it's different. It doesn't matter. If you live here, you're part of them. You live on that block, or you live in that area, you're one of them. The way they get to school, they have to come to school with one of these factions, one of these gangs. They're going to come to school with them. They don't have a choice.
Linda Lutton- TAL Reporter
I can hardly believe that a Chicago police officer is telling me this, admitting that kids don't have a choice about being gang affiliated. I've never heard police talk like this. Later, I ask Officer Washington if he'll get in trouble for saying this. I mean, aren't cops supposed to just tell kids, hey, don't join a gang?
I'll put it like this. I'm not saying it's OK to be in a gang. And I'm not saying I approve of it, I agree with it. If I could take them all and say, "hey, look here, ain't no gangs," I'd do that. But this ain't a fairy tale.
Linda Lutton – TAL Reporter
And this is the point. Gangs aren't the bad kids in the corner here. They're the defining social structure in the school. It's who you sit with at lunch, the kids you say hi to in the hallway. It's the water everybody swims in.
It is often a herculean task to break out of the social environment one is born into, especially when that environment is highly toxic and detrimental to one’s wellbeing. Individual choices, hence, don’t exist in vacuums; they are greatly influenced by surrounding factors, those on which one may have no control, like one’s upbringing and social influences.
Biologically, we are born with inherent characteristics, skills, tastes and preferences – and the extent to which these attributes are valued in the societies we are born into is a sheer matter of luck. Whether we accept or not the deterministic basis of existence, we have to concede that our qualities and traits are largely a product of a.) the complex combination of our genes, and b.) environmental stimuli that guide these biological proclivities.
A lack of this fundamental understanding is responsible for a lot of unneeded suffering in the world. The way we think about others, from both political and interpersonal standpoints, needs to be informed by this philosophical premise if we are to try to create any semblance of justice and compassion in the world. As the moral and political philosopher John Rawles famously asserted, one ought to deliberate principles of justice and allocation of resources behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, in an imagined state where one is unaware of the particular benefits one may derive from society once the veil is lifted. Such a mode of thinking would compel us to consider life from the perspective of the worst-off.
Is the implication that there is nothing we can change about ourselves? Of course not. This is a red herring. We are our brains and our bodies, and by that definition we are constantly growing and adapting based on new inputs and stimuli that cross our paths. We simply don’t begin our life journeys at the same starting line. Nor do we intrinsically have the same capacities to succeed in the defined societies that we are born into. Yet we find ourselves in this endeavour called life together - so let's be united in our diversity and help one another.