I’ve been sitting on this post for weeks, but last night’s South Park episode put me over the edge … “The Poor Kid” is both funny and excellent commentary on the ways in which we see ourselves and each other.
The main point of the plot (aside from mocking the Penn State scandal) revolves around Eric Cartman’s constant attempt to solidify his identity as “not the poorest kid in school.” The introduction of course begins with Cartman realizing that he is, in fact, the poorest kid in school. A terrible blow for his shallow identity. He then fakes a meth lab in order to get the attention of CPS and a new start as a foster child in small-town Colorado. Ridiculous, yes, but I bet everyone who reads this post (or watches the episode) can relate to such a desperate attempt to restore their identity rather than own up to reality and move on.
Cartman’s first conversation at his new school highlights this experience:
“O.K. All right, so listen, I know our family is poor, ok, but before we lived here, Kenny was actually poorer than me so technically he’s the poorest kid at this school.”
“What are you talking about? The poor kid at this school is Jacob Hallery.” “Really?”
“Yeah, dude. His dad died five years ago and his mom went crazy from depression so she can’t even keep a job.”
“YES!! Did you hear that, Kenny? We’re good! I seriously didn’t think we’d stand a chance but everything’s gonna be O.K.! (singing now) Cause I’m not, I’m not the poor kid in schoooooool.”
The point is not that Cartman’s mean, although he is. The point is that he’s saying what everyone else is thinking. I laugh because I know it’s true. More broadly, I laugh because the greater message is that we generally follow the human instinct to identify ourselves against others rather than towards ourselves or a purpose.
So this post is about our perspective and identity as well as the external places and people that give us a standard from which we may contrast ourselves. In the same way that Cartman feels relieved by the presence of a “poorest kid” in school, I’ve found that we all believe, in some small way, that we will be “O.K.” as long as we’re not the worst.
For me, if I found that I actually was the worst (e.g. being one of two in the first round cut from the basketball team in 7th grade), then I just decided that it wasn’t worth my time. Ever. But no matter how well I invested my energy in other places, I still felt the need to “beat” basketball (or whatever it was at the time) by thinking of jocks as uneducated or otherwise illigitimize general athletics. In this way, I propped myself up on a prejudice that made me feel more intelligent, industrious and orderly.
In short, this is Orientalism.
Originally used to denote academic and artistic work focussed on “Eastern nations,” Orientalism has now become the term for a strong critique that debunks the very perspective it used to denote. In 1978, Edward Said published the book Orientalism which fundamentally shifted the usage of the word from the study of “The Orient” to the actual perspective with which “the Orient” had been studied and the imaginary space was created as a result. Today, his ideas form a sort of standing check on every scholar attempting to “understand” anything remotely foreign or exotic. The reason why this concept is still important is that Orientalism (the critique) states that the very act of such research is fundamentally a form of identity formation rather than simply an intellectual pursuit for understanding.
I propped up my identity on the myth of the “uneducated athlete,” Cartman celebrated the existence of a “poor kid” on which he could rest his shallow pride, and Orientalists may have sought the “Orient” in order to further the narrative of the progressive, industrious, and powerful West.
At its best, this sort of identity gives people confidence and empowers them to remove themselves from negative influences. At worst, the Orientalist perspective is a delusion completely unable to engage reality. This delusion can lead individuals as well as entire nations to stigmatize other people and regions as inferior to the point of dehumanizing the other. As Ziauddin Sardar writes,
“Orientalism’s failure, Said argues, has ‘been a human as much as an intellectual one; for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience’ (Sardar, “Orientalism,” 74).
In other words, the perspective established it’s object of study as so distinct that it no longer engaged the complexities of human experience. After years of this study, the Orient became as much a myth as a reality. More broadly, this perspective can prevent individuals from forming whole and healthy identities if they are positioned in opposition to imaginary people and places.
Some more fine examples of this perspective in action are the “rebellious youth,” the “corrupt inner-city,” and “the backward south.” Implicit in each of these titles is the presence of an onlooker (Adults, suburbs, and the Northeast) employing this dehumanizing Orientalist lens. In the context of my general thoughts on “savagery” I believe that everyone, to some extent, believes in this notion of the Orient. The farther away from yourself that you find this ‘other,’ the saver and more comfortable you may feel. The closer the ‘other’ is to yourself, the more unsettled and protective.
Either way, the more we work to prop up these identities, the more unhealthy our lives will become. Humans are complex … we can seek to understand each other as long as we accept that we never truly will. It’s more difficult, but I think this acceptance will allow us to be a little more realistic about ourselves and each other.
That’s the point of this post … and this series: “Savage Places, Human Places”
P.S. Nina just called me out the other day for still maintaining that “all b-school students” are completely out of touch with society. So this never stops … and it never should because humans are complicated. Amen.
This post is a continuation of my “Savage Faces, Human Places” series that I’m putting together in my section on Power.