On yesterday's ESPN B.S. Report, Chuck Klosterman and Charles Barkley have an interesting conversation that I think illuminates a lot about the rhetoric of difference. (It starts around the 11:40 mark if you'd like to listen).
Klosterman asks Barkley about recent comments he made saying that he knew he had played with gay teammates. He wonders if these teammates disclosed that information to Barkley (or the team as a whole) or if this was assumed knowledge. His response: "Let me tell you something, I don't think people assume people are gay. I think you really know when a person's gay. . . I think their interactions with people, who they hang out with, where they hang out at, because I think everybody knows certain parts of town or, uh, areas are certain ways. I think their interaction with you as a teammate you're like, 'wow, that's weird,' uh, not weird just different"
Barkley goes on to talk about homophobia in America in general: "America has always been homophobic."
Klosterman says that he thinks "the climate is ready" for a professional athlete to come out; he asks Barkley if he agrees. Barkley notes that "Bible thumpers" are the "most judgmental" and he thinks it will be "interesting from a team standpoint as far as sponsors." But he uses this to get back into a discussion of his personal view on homophobia in the NBA and how the NBA players would not likely respond to such a disclosure with the discrimination the media thinks they would: "I actually got a great text from one of my coworkers, 'Listen, I think what you did [making statements supporting gay marriage]. . . it was really cool, but I gotta tell you something. It made me think it's not my thing, but to each his own.' . . . and that's my point . . . man, that's all gay people want."
There's more about race, homosexuality, and discrimination, but these quotes highlight something I'd like to look at a little closer.
You can hear Barkley struggling with the terms of difference and discrimination even as he talks. There's a strong sense of defense on behalf of the NBA players--we wouldn't react homophobically--that comes with the recognition that a homophobic reaction is wrong. But look carefully at that first quote; he just 'knew' some players were gay, and he would think to himself "that's weird." But then he catches his own rhetoric and backtracks "not weird, just different."
The problem with difference is that you can't have it without a norm, and it is the heteronormative narrative that allows homophobia to exist in the first place. If there is no normative expectation, there is no difference. And if there is a normative expectation there must, necessarily, be difference. These things define one another. You can only identify what is normal by identifying what is different, and you can only define what is different by defining what is normal.
Barkley is struggling with trying to maintain a norm while simultaneously removing the stigma from deviating from that norm, but even in doing so, he inadvertly falls into stigmatizing himself ("that's weird").
Furthermore, the deviation from the norm (in this case, identifying as homosexual) is not based on the individual's self-identification or self-disclosure. Instead, it's based on arbitrary and external factors that the rest of the team witnessed and extrapolated meaning from: "their interactions with people, who they hang out with, where they hang out at, because I think everybody knows certain parts of town or, uh, areas are certain ways." (We use similar external markers to identify someone, without his/her self-identity taken into consideration, as a certain race. Skin tone, hair texture, and other phenotypical markers fit here as well as things like speech patterns, clothing style, etc.)
Finally, Barkley comments on his friend's text message. "To each his own," the friend writes, and Barkley is relieved. "That's all gay people want."
Well, probably not. See, this comment is getting to the heart of how we establish difference to begin with. Any difference categorization (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) only makes sense from a collectivist point of view. If we were to look at each person as a true individual, we wouldn't need any of these markers or categories because each and every person would stand alone. We don't work like that, though. We're social creatures. We need labels to make sense of the world, so we categorize and label people because it's easier and it's important for making meaning.
"To each his own" suggests that we have to move to a wholly individual view in order to accept difference into the norm, but that won't work because we're still setting it outside of the dominant narrative. We're still saying, "Hey, you go stand over there, alone, and the rest of us will stand over here, together."
I really like that Barkley is sparking these conversations. If we don't talk about these issues, we will never, ever move beyond the labeling and stereotyping that has become so comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that even people who recognize the problems (as I think Barkley does) are unable to break them down without falling into the same language that built them in the first place.