A recent invitation to an art studio owned by a friend was as revealing
as watching the film called “Like the Benjamin”. The
film depicts an individual who is so intimidated by
his own insecurity that he lives his life running
away from it. It shows how deeply ingrained fear is
within human existence.
It reminds me of Michel Foucault, the renowned French philosopher,
saying that “fear is the driver of invention and the
source of advancement.” It appears that all the most
exciting advancements in the world relate to fear of
the unknown. Likewise, many businesses capitalize on
human fear and insecurity.
For my artist friend, the culture of fear stems from monotony. He
believes that peculiarity ensures competitive
survival. Sameness, he argues, deprives members of a
society their very instrument of success.
Progressive resemblance eats away at competitive
edge, and eventually leads to individual insecurity.
As complex as his philosophy might seem, it astonished me a lot. It
provides a rare workable theory for what used to
really bother me during my undergraduate studies.
Those years involved so much extracurricular reading
that the fear factor reached its peak level before
it plummeted down with established worldviews.
Homogeneity has become so obvious that my artist friend depicts it
through ‘ihumans’ just like ‘ipad’ and ‘iphone’.
‘ihumans’ are rectangular-headed humans with the
rectangle representing the many gadgets they use;
television being the primary quadrangle. ‘ihumans’
are highly affected by the television culture. They
think, dress, talk, eat and even aspire alike. As he
argues, life has become boring because it is filled
with overblown televised hot air.
Such homogeneity is a golden opportunity for businesses, however, as it
reduces the cost of niche marketing and enhances
brand recognition. The rule of thumb is to persuade
people to connect to a brand.
People easily relate to brands. They even define themselves by them.
Brands from Pepsi to Adidas have a huge fan base who
takes anything happening with the brands very
personally. Maintaining brand identity is tough.
Keeping individual identity is no less difficult.
It calls for resisting the tide of televised culture with a comparable
force of articulation, evidence and confidence. It
entails standing firm amid the chaos of fashion. It
requires establishing a comfort zone within the
sphere of instability. It demands an everyday fight
for individual boundaries and integrity.
What makes all this so difficult is the fact that it has to be done
without depriving other members of the society of
the same needs. Ironically, people often transcend
boundaries and challenge integrity. Not that they
would like to do so for the sake of doing it, but in
search of the benefits they would tap from it.
I agreed with my artist friend that Ethiopians are becoming
increasingly homogeneous: as if run by a common
algorithm. Thoughts, responses, methods of inquiry
and analyses are all outrageously analogous.
All aspects of life - from music to business - are tainted by the
contamination of homogeneity. Lack of innovation is
narrowing the list of individual choices. Droning
tunes overwhelm everyday activities.
It has all become too vivid to avoid. A walk on the roads of Addis
Abeba is evidence of what it all means - people
doing the same things, in the same places and in the
same way. There is no easy way around it.
For some, joining the crowd is the only alternative. They do not want
to pay the price of divergence. More than the cost
and the foregone benefits, they often think that it
is not socially healthy. Since perception
establishes status, they would rather opt to go with
the drift than go for space in the sphere of
These kinds of people frequent the hot spots of the city, from modern
cafes to clubs. Often, they are the movers and
shakers of the city. Sadly, they know their
self-credibility loophole well. What a pain!
However, the majority adopt the craze unconsciously. Few are mindful of
this development because the local culture disguises
all reason. It is only after it is too late to
reverse trend that they become aware of it.
Monotony has an even farther-reaching effect. It erodes
competitiveness. It would even rob people of their
identity. There is no doubt that a society without
any comparative advantage is heading towards
At large, cultural peculiarity is the sum of individual heterogeneity.
I would prefer to live in the shadows of prejudice
than bet on my identity. So would I choose to remain
foolhardy than die living the insecurity of
It remains a puzzle for me how interlinked fear, insecurity and
uniformity are. Maybe, the beauty of art lays in its
ability to transcend the conventional and create
such a linkage. I realized this linkage standing in
that small studio packed with portraits.
It was unsettling. It has made me even more doubtful, but also more
conscious. As I went out of the studio, however, I
joined the sea.