There are some 7 billion plus people living today who, by virtue of their sheer number alone, are going to identify with a huge range – unlimited in real terms – of groups, types, allegiances and identities. Yet society, as a whole, insists that the vast majority of us conform to often arbitrary and contrived norms, and chooses not to validate perfectly legitimate lifestyle choice, or the often unasked for consequences of personal circumstance, with the veneer of ‘respectability’. As a result, there are a huge number of people who are actively and passively marginalised for no reason other than they don’t ‘fit in’.
Worse, for those who find themselves in that position, the knowledge that one is somehow ‘different’, whether through choice or situation, can itself impose barriers to integration in addition to any other physical, emotional or mental challenges that these individuals may be living with. Often, the only choices available are to try to conform anyway, retreat to a safe haven, or seek the solace of those in a similar position – none of these is an entirely successful panacea, rather they are coping mechanisms that only serve to mask the real issues, compromise individual integrity and do little to change the attitude and responses of society in general.
Inevitably, some of these so-called misfits find their way into SL, however – unlike many new sign-ups who poke around for a bit, get bored and disappear back into reality – a surprising number manage to find their niche within the virtual world, settle down, and become part of the scenery. I’m sure that, to some extent – at least initially – the ability SL has for masking RL personalities and traits plays an essential role in this process, however as time goes on I think there’s an even more potent enabler that allows the dispossessed, the different and the reclusive to find not only their feet, but their voice in the virtual world – and that is SL society itself. It may not be immediately apparent to the casual observer, but there is a not-so-subtle difference between the SL societal norm and real world societal norms. Simply put, in SL ‘normality’ means to be different.
In the real world, our gender, sexuality, faith, skin colour, upbringing, attire, background, sex, affectations, associations and goodness knows what else may serve to stigmatise, marginalise or push us to the boundaries of what is acceptable. In a virtual world, where we are required to grapple with the wildest and most diverse variants of expression and experience imaginable, such things are simply one amongst many and are accepted without question as legitimate expressions of humanity – which, of course, should be the case in RL, but patently is not.
And it works! I’ve seen people expressing and showing genuine friendship, compassion and acceptance in circumstances that in a real world setting you’d be unlikely to witness; people who, in RL, would be diametrically opposed, intolerant and fearful of those who do not fit into their world view, are best buddies in SL and forge strong relationships and allegiances that simply would not occur in RL. SL on the whole – and I’m aware that there will always be exceptions to any rule – tends to foster tolerance and acceptance, and this can be enormously empowering for those who feel disenfranchised in RL.
Such empowerment is often a very private thing – being able to socialise and feel comfortable doing so; being able to express oneself without fear or anxiety; being able to truly be oneself – these are things that only the individual may be aware of. It can also have its moments of wonder… I’ve known people to disclose things amongst friends that has almost certainly taken immense courage, strength of character and a huge amount of trust, and it’s a remarkable thing. What is equally remarkable is the response that almost always follows – it’s a combination of ‘Big deal… let’s get on with what we were doing’, inevitably postscripted by a raft of support, encouragement and validation. Whilst that initial response may seem a little callous, uncaring and dismissive, it is anything but – for someone who is used to a world in which to admit being different results in a harsh backlash, followed by a distancing and the alienation of others, it’s a refreshing change to know that the same revelation in SL is likely to be considered un-noteworthy, perfectly normal and isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference to the way those around you perceive and treat you.
In just the same way as it’s OK in SL to have a fondness for glam rock, gallivant around as My Little Pony, have pixel sex with whoever and whatever you fancy, wear fairy wings, pretend to be your favourite superhero or possess a body type that transcends biological boundaries, it is equally OK to be gay, Christian, transgender, suffer from a mental illness, be lonely or emotionally damaged – it’s OK, it’s no big deal, and above all… It’s normal.
Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits, we’d like to go to town but we can’t risk it
Oh ’cause they just want to keep us out.
You could end up with a smash in the mouth just for standing out
Pulp – Mis-Shapes