IV. 2. The Gothic Conversion of Harry

 

In order to truly start belonging to a community it is not enough to adjust our actions to its morality. If we don’t go beyond this stage, we will be justifiably considered conformists – not fought off, but not respected either. Since morality determines the very identity of any social group, community always makes sure to “implant” its morality not only into our perception of the environment, but into our self-perception as well, and from a very early age at that. This means that if we intend to be embraced by our fellow community members we have to embrace their morality first, turning it into our own.One of the most important conclusions humans have come up with along their path to forming alliances is that by letting community morality become a fixture of our self-perception, we stop viewing it as an outer circumstance which we always have to take into consideration; we acknowledge it as an inseparable part of our own nature and view its affirmation as another way of self-enhancement. We turn into our community’s deeply convinced defenders, thus reinforcing its power. This is the way every community, big or small, works. It accepts in the fold only those who have turned its morality into an important inner circumstance of their own.

The most visible proof are the oaths which we are supposed to take when it comes to being accepted into certain communities – a new homeland, a new religion, a new fraternity, brotherhood, or, for that matter, when we get married or assume elected office. Even though they are nothing more than overt declarations of personal subjection to the morality of the group we are joining, events like these make the most solemn moments in the life of the group. They underline the fact that individuals willingly embrace the community’s moral principles, thus celebrating its significance and influence.

But the real oath is our changed or improved behavior, which reveals a way of thinking relevant to the moral codes of the group we have striven to conjoin. The group is always hungry for proof, and through our actions we continuously feed that need. For most of us there isn’t a single reward bigger than acceptance. Eager for more of it, we spend virtually our whole lives trying to determine the right moral vibe of our surroundings and turn it into our own. Sometimes we spend years in planning to join a certain community. Sometimes we suddenly find one or feel the urge to join another. Sometimes we become threatened by expulsion from our own community, which reinforces our self-improvement efforts. All in all, our underlying effort is to make the community believe that we are – or will be – its best moral ensigns.

Harry wants to become a painter. Succumbing to the pressure from the rest of the family, his father invites a friend of his, a professor in architecture at the local university, who goes carefully through Harry’s sketchbook. After encouraging the teenager, the professor is invited to the back yard where he and Harry’s father start chatting about the good old times. Ten minutes later, attracted by the lowered voices, Harry overhears the professor’s real opinion about his talent – “Joe, I’m really sorry to say that, but your son won’t become a great painter…” This turns Harry’s world upside down. Drawing has been his dream since he was seven, and now his life seems totally empty and meaningless. For the next month he experiences the worst crisis of his young life. He shuts himself up, almost stops eating and spends the days staring at the reflection of his pale face in his room’s window.

Then he meets his neighbor, who he has a crush on. The only thing that used to scare him about her and prevented him from inviting her to the movies was that she was a Goth. Harry didn’t get those guys, and felt uneasy in their presence.  But now… now it’s different. “Wow, look at you”, exclaims the girl, “You totally look like one of us!” Harry laughs the remark off, but then starts asking her about her friends. In a couple of weeks Harry already has his black clothes, his black and white makeup, his chains and metal accessories; he starts following his neighbor like a puppy, learning about Goth and experiencing the double joy of being close to her and getting accepted by a group of people who don’t give a damn about his talent, or the lack of one. But not only this has made his new community attractive. He likes the Goth concept of the depressed artist, misunderstood by the world and withdrawn into himself. This stereotype is very close to him right now. He can’t care less about their tattoos, graveyards, their music or self-cutting. But he learns how to go through all these things, because that’s what the group is about, and he dreads the possibility of not being admitted into it. Within less than a month Harry starts a collection of Type O Negative, secretly throws away his jeans and most of his t-shirts, and even makes two cuts on his underarm, which he carefully covers when being around his parents. He also avoids sunlight and doesn’t smile.

Harry accepts the philosophy of the community he wants to belong to, and turns this philosophy into his own. Even though the overall logic behind Goth is not even a little bit close to what he really likes or enjoys, he embraces the culture with his whole being; he knows that otherwise he will be expelled and this time the humiliation won’t occur in the solitary darkness of the hall leading to the back yard.

The treasured reward of acceptance is so powerful that it can work on our nature like a biscuit on a dog: when promised, it might make us do (and believe in) anything without even questioning. History provides us with numerous examples of this pattern. The civilized world was shocked by the horrible criminal enterprises of the Nazis and astounded by the fact that so many Germans were capable of taking part in them. This phenomenon was least related to some national peculiarity. For many fear wasn’t a factor either. It was the individual self-perception disciplined to embrace as its own the general moral outline of the time – that of the revival of the great German nation. From that point everything that followed was a consequence of this decision. On a macro-level Nazism and communism might have been the global geo-political monsters of the last century, but they haven’t fallen from the sky; their occurrence was due to the eagerness of many, many poor and uneducated people to be accepted into a strong, victorious community, no matter to what degree they had to sacrifice their personal morality.

© 2009 Peter Budevski

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