In life there are at least two kinds of difference. There are differences we choose for ourselves and those differences that are forced on us by others. And, as might be imagined, we tend to feel very differently about those differences. If you are someone who has paid any attention to pop culture over the past few generations, you have recognized that for several decades now young people have portrayed themselves as different from their parents and often as different from each other as a way of staking their own territory to claim where they felt comfortable and recognized. Whether it is in the adoption of strange fashions or unusual lingo that has a way of spreading and becoming terminally uncool when the wrong people use it, there has been a conscious attempt by many youth to proclaim that they are different from their parents and not wanting to be mature and different from other kids as well. This sense of self-chosen difference often comes with a high degree of self-regard and self-love and the deliberate choice of some degree of isolation from others.
There are, however, other kinds of difference, that are marked with much fewer of these positive feelings, and that is when one is marked for one’s differences by others. Whatever self-regard or self-love is felt by those who choose to be different does not tend to show up in those who are made to feel different by others. As someone who has frequently been recognized by others as different, I can speak from my own experience that this is seldom a good thing. It is one thing to look down on others from a point of view of privileged difference, but it is another thing to have one’s perceived differences seem in the eyes of others to be justification for the refusal to treat one by social niceties or ordinary standards of politeness and respect and graciousness. As might be imagined, these are areas I tend to be rather sensitive and prickly about personally, and I tend to be rather quick to defend others whose out of mainstream position tends to leave them open to misunderstanding and mistreatment by those who fancy themselves to be the gatekeepers of what is acceptable and proper.
What is it that makes one sort of difference a positive and the other a negative? There are, I believe, at least a few elements at play here. When someone deliberately chooses difference for themselves and makes a moral judgment on what is normal or average as a bad thing, it is a matter of consent and their own personal will. Living according to one’s personal will tends to bring with it a lot of positive feelings, even in the face of obvious and eventual moral judgment from outside. On the other hand, those who are outsiders and outcasts and social lepers generally have not consciously chosen that fate for themselves, it is just that the cool kids (whoever they are) have thought that they were too earnest and try too hard and are simply not cool enough to accept. The absence of personal choice in the matter tends to carry with it a great deal more suffering and stigma, since their outsider status was not something freely chosen but something forced on them, and that tends to leave more of a negative mark.
There is more going on than mere choice, though. Those who choose to be seen as different from the norm do so consciously but do so as a way of making a judgment on what is normal. They usually do so from the point of view of being some part of a privileged elite or in crowd, and these are people who could easily be accepted if they only wished to be. Their choice to stand out from others does not make them outcasts, but rather makes them hipsters, snobbish social critics who seek to be arbiters of what is cool and fierce defenders of a difference that comes with a sense of privilege attached. Being an outcast and being driven from the comforts and pleasantries of honorable society do not come with any sense of privilege. Rather they come with a profound sense of isolation, and do not tend to carry with it any sense of membership in a desired social circle or clique. Most of the time, people who are deeply unpopular desperately want to avoid that stigma and so will often be less than kind to other outsiders, in the hope that being less uncool than someone else may lead to some restoration of acceptance. When a given status is one that is undesirable and that one wants greatly to escape, there tends to be far less cohesion within that particular group. And no wonder.