“You’re what’s called a pretentious absorber.” Stewart Griffin
“What’s that?” Brian the Dog
“You remember how Madonna lived in London for, like, a month and then started talking with a British accent? It’s that.” Stewart Griffin
“The easy life?” Betty Bettle asked her friends in college. “You think I led an easy life? My family had a small, family farm. If you know anything about farming, you know what a stretch it is to call that the easy life.” It was probably her fault they thought that. She told them too much about herself. She complained about how her overprotective dad strongly encouraged his daughters to stay home most nights. She made the mistake of confessing that her brother helped tend the farm, while she and her sister helped their mom in the home. She then compounded her mistakes by complaining about being cooped up, “I never experienced the world.” The idea that they didn’t see that life as an awful experience didn’t shock her, but she thought the idea that they considered it “the easy life” was ridiculous.
“I’m free,” Betty whispered to someone she didn’t even know at a college party. She met so many different people from so many different backgrounds that she loved these parties. Betty got wasted at the first couple parties she attended, but she didn’t enjoy them the way those who unleashed did. She didn’t enjoy getting drunk or stoned, but she attended every party she could find. She found that she could be whoever she wanted to be at these parties, because no one knew her. She eventually ruined that by telling them everything about her, but she developed so many friends before doing so that they still welcomed her to every party they had.
Betty didn’t just want to nibble at this newfound freedom. She wanted to meet more people, have more experiences, and grow, but the problem was she never had any money. Her family never had any money, and even if they had, there was too much work to do at the homestead to travel. When her new, college friends introduced her to their friends from other countries, Betty thought she found something of an end around to her need to travel.
For a variety of reasons, Betty was more attracted to these people from other countries than she was anyone else she met in college. She wanted to be there when they dropped tales about life in other countries, because she wanted to learn everything she could about the world outside the Bettle homestead.
It confused her when her foreign friends began accusing her of living the easy life. She was so confused that she found herself becoming defensive. She lost those arguments so often, with so many foreign-born people, that she became convinced that they were right. No matter how many hardships the Bettles experienced on the farm, they paled compared to what some of these people had to go through. Over time, she found the best way to avoid being so defensive all the time was to go on offense. She found herself becoming so sympathetic to their plight that she became empathetic. She learned their plight so well that she joined her foreign friends in arguments they would have with any newcomers.
“You don’t understand how that offends my people,” she told us when she returned home on a break. We knew nothing about her foreign-born friends at college, but we knew something changed Betty. We assumed that she heard that line so often that it became a reflexive response to her. The offensive statement she was addressing had nothing to do with the Irish, the Germans, Americans, farmers, or the Bettles. The statement was referring to the home country of her new foreign friends. When she informed us what she was learning in college, we assumed that this Irish/German woman was falsely attempting to assume the characteristics of her new friends, but we knew her so well that we couldn’t believe this was the case.
The only thing we could assume was Betty heard so many of their tales, and learned so much about their culture and customs that she began adopting them as her own. She learned how to prepare their dishes, and she eventually learned how to speak their language on a less than fluent basis. She did everything she could to have them accept her as one of their own, and when they did, she felt like she was one of them.
“Aren’t you Irish and German?” one of us said, in the midst of one of her rants. It shocked her. She said yes of course, and she blushed a little, but it was obvious that it shocked her that anyone would call her out. One might suggest that she enjoyed the company of her foreign-born friends so much that she bonded with them, and that bond was so strong that she considered any offense made against them was an offense against her.
At some point, the revelations she learned led Betty to believe that her parents lied to her. Either that, or she believed her small-town parents just didn’t understand enough about the human existence. When she learned “the truth”, she thought anyone who approached the issue from a different perspective was either as passively uninformed as she used to be or willfully ignorant. To further their knowledge, she used a “must” or “should” pulpit to help them view matters from her new perspective as a foreign-born citizen.
Betty Bettle graduated near the top of her class, and she immediately entered into a career that paid her relatively well. She saved every dollar she could to travel to experience the world in ways she never could as a kid. She hoped to use the college degree and the extensive travel to establish a status in life that might lead to a station. From this station, she developed an approach, based on a level of pretentiousness she didn’t intend, whenever someone argued with her. “How do you think you know so much?” she said one day. “You haven’t traveled.” Her book smarts proved a little intimidating at first, and she sought to round up whatever street smarts she might lack due to her upbringing, by traveling.
As intelligent as Betty was, she wasn’t a great debater, particularly on this topic. When someone scratched at the surface, just a little, Betty crumbled. Most of her conviction was tied up in the talking points her foreign friends, books, and TV provided. She had no firsthand experience being a foreigner of course, so she could not answer follow up questions or challenges to her newfound passion, and we walked away from her thinking she was someone who did what she was told.
Betty’s sympathy for citizens from other countries and cultures was genuine, but it was also conditional. The foreign-born citizens she met in college provided her prototype. Betty met foreigners who strayed from that model, later in life, and she developed narratives for why some might succeed and others don’t. She preferred to focus on those who required sympathy, and she developed a certain criterion of musts for them. She also developed a list of shoulds that they should exhibit. She considered successful immigrants anecdotal evidence of the foreign-born experience.
Betty Bettle always knew she was of Irish and German descent, but she ignored this fact so often and thoroughly that she viewed reminders as unnecessarily confrontational. As odd as it sounds for someone to try to convince themselves they are another lineage, how often do we become so convinced of something to the point of developing convictions? How many of our convictions are based on personal experience? How many of us use literature or philosophical text as a conduit to conviction? By doing so, aren’t we, in essence, using another’s experiences to modify our thoughts from theory to fact? How many of us absorb so many of our parents’ ideas and platitudes that we accidentally become them? Betty didn’t agree with her parents’ worldview, and she didn’t want to model herself after them. She agreed with her foreign-born friends in college so much that she ended up adopting their culture and characteristics as her own. Cultural appropriation was not a widely recognized term back when Betty was in college. As a person who abides by the prevailing winds, we can only guess that Betty now has a tough time squaring everything she did back then. She might suggest that she views her approach as complimentary, as she only seeks to understand other cultures better, and if she accidentally adopts some of their customs and characteristics, it’s unintended. To which the cultural appropriation crowd might say, “That’s what everyone says.”
Betty didn’t intend to be a pretentious absorber. It just sort of happened. It was an accident. It was something that happened in that way we incidentally mimic and imitate our parents, our teachers, and anyone else we admire. Betty never admired anyone to the point that she would mimic or imitate them, until she met those foreign-born students in college. She was so fascinated by their ways and customs that she hung out with them almost exclusively. She met their parents, and partied with their aunts and uncles, until she eventually gained acceptance among them. She never felt so accepted by a group of people before. She never truly believed she could change her ethnic heritage. It just sort of happened.
For reasons endemic to their upbringing, people like Betty Bettle choose to imitate and emulate sympathetic characters, and they do this so often that they begin to absorb their traits and characteristics until they exhibit them. The first question that runs through our mind when we watch this happen is how does an otherwise intelligent person begin to believe they are different? The next question is why do they do it? Are they trying to achieve some level of superiority? If that’s the case, why would they imitate and emulate people they regard as sympathetic? Are these sympathetic characters flawed, or in some ways relatively inferior? If they weren’t, why would Betty feel sorry for them? Most of us spend most of our lives trying to emulate and imitate the successful. Our desire to find some relative measure of success through money, love, or some other form of happiness drives us to imitate those who experience some measure of success in that regard. It has given birth to numerous multi-million-dollar industries online, in seminars, and in the book industry. Do we do it to one day achieve some level of superiority? Perhaps, if we consider it superior to conquer our personal flaws better, quicker, or in some ingenious ways others haven’t considered before. Pretentious absorbers believe that by imitating and emulating other cultures, they derive virtue. If we ask how they can abandon their own customs, tradition, and culture, they might provide a wide variety of reasons, but those answers won’t be clear or direct. Their answers won’t revolve around what it says about them that they do what they do but what it says about you that you don’t. They are pretentious absorbers.