Do not aspire to be different from others, be an "atopos"

Who I am
Louise Hay

Author and references

“Today everyone wants to be different from others. But in the desire to be different, the same continues ”, writes the philosopher Byung-Chul Han.

Being authentic has practically become a social imperative, an imperative that we have internalized to the point that for many it has become the common thread of their lives.

What if we're wrong? What if the search for differentiation made us more and more equal? What if normalized discourse progressively distances us from our essence, making us exactly what we intend to avoid?

The terror of the same

The aspiration for authenticity and the need for differentiation come from our deep desire to transcend. We must live in society and, therefore, share some of its values ​​and respect some of its behavioral norms. But we also need the psychological oxygen that comes from the freedom of choice that allows us to be ourselves.

Consequently, the same frightens us because it is synonymous with undifferentiation, it is as if our "I" is diluted in the mass making us lose our identity, what makes us ourselves. Deep down, the terror of the same is a sublimated expression of the fear of death. Differentiating ourselves from others not only allows us to excel, but reaffirms us as unique people and guarantees the survival of the ego closed in our mind.

Of course, wanting to be ourselves isn't bad. It is not wrong to try to understand who we are and express it. The problem begins when the search for differentiation and authenticity leads us into a dead end labyrinth that leads to homogenization.

The lost apos

Socrates was a particular philosopher. So unique that his disciples referred to him as an atopos, a word of Greek origin that was commonly used to indicate what is out of place, strange or unheard of, but also indicated "the other who tolerates no comparison" because each attribute that is supposed to be used to make the parallelism would necessarily be false, clumsy and mortifying.

Socrates was therefore incomparable and unique, which is not the same as being different or authentic. Byung-Chul Han explains the difference: “Singularity is something totally different from authenticity. Authenticity presupposes comparability. Who is authentic is different from others ". However, an atopos is incomparable, which means that "not only is it different from the others, but it is different from everything that is different from the others".

An atopos is a self-confident person who does not need to confront or seek external confirmation of his uniqueness. Thus he is able to free himself from the need to be different, because he simply IS, with a capital letter.

It is not a simple play on words, nor a terminological disquisition or a philosophical stunt, but an important differentiation that has been lost over the centuries - probably intentionally - to avoid uniqueness in a society that desperately needs homogenization.

Indeed, Byung-Chul Han believes that the proliferation of the same is the pathology our society suffers from, a society that expels the negativity represented by the other without resorting to repression but using more subtle psychological mechanisms.

In a totalitarian regime, it is easy to distinguish the mechanisms of expulsion of the different, since repression, coercion, censorship and the restriction of any kind of freedom are used. In an apparently free society these mechanisms are more complex, but they bind us just as heavily, albeit with invisible chains.

Freedom without liberation

Our society offers us freedom without liberation. It asks us to differentiate ourselves, but only within certain limits. It asks us to be authentic, but it forces us to confront ourselves. It asks us to be unique, but also to compete with others. Overwhelmed by these contradictions, it is not strange that we end up suffocating our uniqueness.

“The culture of constant confrontation to be equal does not allow for any negativity of the atopos. Everything makes it comparable; that is, equal. This makes the experience of the other atopic impossible. The consumer society aims to eliminate atopic otherness in favor of consumable and heterotopic differences […] Diversity is a resource that can be exploited. In this way it opposes otherness, which is reluctant to any economic exploitation, ”says Byung-Chul Han.

Or as Noam Chomsky said: “they understood that it was easier to create consumers than to subdue slaves”. Whenever we confront each other, we reduce our wealth and uniqueness to patterns we consider valid, as if being smarter, richer, more sociable or bolder than others meant something. When we compare ourselves, we use the yardstick of society and we consider it valid - more or less consciously - distancing ourselves a little more from our essence.

Unfortunately, we are so immersed in that kind of thinking that we do not realize that we live in a state of "enhanced conformity", a much more efficient mechanism than the repressive homogenization of totalitarian societies because it keeps us in the vicious circle of social competition, accepting the patterns of confrontation that mark our goals in life and that have been imposed on us by someone else.

Byung-Chul Han explains the trap that hides this mechanism: “Authenticity generates negotiable differences. With this the plurality of goods with which authenticity materializes is multiplied. Individuals express their authenticity primarily through consumption. The imperative of authenticity does not lead to the formation of an autonomous and sovereign individual. Rather, what happens is that commerce takes full advantage of it ”.

This closes the cycle. The more external confirmation we seek of our authenticity, the greater the dependence on that confirmation will be. The more we want to be different, the more we will confront each other. As a result, "the self drowns in itself". And what could have been an exciting adventure of personal discovery becomes a gray replica of the same. But, unfortunately, few will understand this.

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