Age of Special

“Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity” by Hal Niedzviecki. (City Lights)

By Adrienne LaFrance

A word to the mohawked and tattooed, to those who reject cell phones and popular music. Yes, you, the self-proclaimed non-conformists: You’re not special. Or maybe more aptly, you’re just as unique as the droves of people trying to be individual in exactly the same way you are.

In his latest book, Hal Niedzviecki explores how non-conformity has become mainstream, how emphasis on being special has permeated our lives, from school and work, to artistic expression, even religion, to an extent that reshapes tradition, corrodes communities and sends our relationships with institutions reeling.

“Hello I’m Special,” is a dark exploration of the Western world’s inward-gazing obsession, and the social chorus of “Be yourself (only thinner, richer and better looking)!” that has changed the way we live.

Welcome to North America in 2006 where narcissism prevails, reality TV rules and anyone who wants it badly enough deserves to be famous… or at least to bask in the limelight for a spell. Niedzviecki even offers the chance to his readers, with the online “Most Special Ever Conformity Challenge,” the winner of which gets a stab at a book deal of his or her own.

Hello I'm Special

In a world where everyone has a blog (with counters to monitor just how many people are reading) or a account (to tally the network of people who consider us friends), or a soapbox of some kind upon which one can showcase individuality, “being different” isn’t so different after all.

Niedzviecki holds a scalpel to this social monster with analytic precision that evokes Malcolm Gladwell, dissecting a beast we’re all peripherally aware of but haven’t quite articulated. He systematically divides the implications of social flux into bite-size pieces for readers to marvel at before devouring.

Niedzviecki takes readers through a fun house of “special,” illuminating a time where normal is abhorrent, where people believe fame and fortune comes to those who simply want it and believe they deserve it. Call it Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame run amok.

“More and more people want to be special and to be noticed for being special,” Niedzviecki said. “But if everyone is special, nothing is special. If everyone’s a rebel, what is rebellion? Now we have this problem but we can’t say the answer is ‘reject individualism,’ or ‘reject free will.’”

While the idea is complexly philosophical, Niedzviecki’s writing is sharp. He sustains richness of content with prismatic examples of the paradox he sets out to expose. Take the art student so desperate to achieve aesthetic innovation that he makes a film of himself butchering cats.

“The thinking becomes so polluted by this need to be special that they don’t realize that they’re, in this case, breaking the law and torturing animals,” Niedzviecki said in an interview. “I think there’s a feeling that everything’s been done and there’s nothing left to do. It’s not a pleasant feeling.”

But the trend extends far beyond artistic endeavors. Niedzviecki examines the deterioration of a host of cultural facets as we know them, all because the emphasis is turned toward the individual.

He offers such a wide range of examples that it’s hard not to take this work with you. From the mostly delusional but sometimes semi-talented youths taking their shot at stardom by appearing on “American (or in the book’s example, Canadian) Idol,” to the evolution of religion into something we’re only willing to accept if it fits into our desired level of commitment. Think: Catholicism’s introduction of the “Buddy Christ” to replace the “wholly depressing” image of Jesus on the cross in Kevin Smith’s farcical 1999 film “Dogma,” or television programs like the recently launched “Shalom in the Home,” (no, seriously) that alter the way we experience religion. Niedzviecki calls this shift “Tradition Lite.”

While the premise is relevant, one may argue that “Hello I’m Special,” would have worked better as a long magazine article leaving readers yearning for more, rather than an entire book, which may have them counting down the pages in the last few chapters.

It’s not that Niedzviecki is repetitive per se, it’s just that he makes his point effectively, and well before he finishes spelling out his argument. This is a case of less is more, especially since the book’s progression is less about drawing definitive conclusions and more about—get this—individual revelation.

“This isn’t ‘Chicken Soup for the Special Soul,’ or ‘How to be Special the Right Way,’ by Hal.” Niedzviecki said.

No, “Hello I’m Special,” isn’t warm and fuzzy self-help, nor is it outright social criticism. It’s a cautionary and observatory can of worms that isn’t afraid to spill open and writhe in circles.

“I came to a much more difficult series of rhetorical twists,” Niedzviecki said of his journey exploring the world of so-called specialism. “We can’t reject this (social trend) and there are a lot of great things about it. What we really have to do is take what’s good and what’s real, which is the human yearning to self expression and the natural human desire to say, ‘I exist.’”

If only mere existence were special enough.

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