“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 farmed a small, family farm. If you knew anything about farming, you’d know what a stretch it is to call that the easy life.” It used to frustrate her so much when people said that, but it was probably her fault they thought that. She probably told them too much about herself. She complained one time that her dad was an overprotective father who strongly encouraged his daughters to stay home most nights. She also 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 in such a traditional home. “I never got to go out to experience the world,” she said to summarize her complaints. The idea that they didn’t see her life as such an awful experience didn’t shock her, but the idea that they would see it as “the easy life” was so ridiculous that she found it frustrating.
“I’m free,” she whispered to someone she barely knew at a party. Betty loved these college parties. She met so many people from so many different backgrounds that the parties felt fulfilling. She didn’t party the way most of her fellow freshman in college did. They unleashed. Betty partied, and she got wasted the first couple times, but she didn’t enjoy it the way others did. She loved the parties though. She loved them so much that she went to every college party she could find, but she dumped the beer out, filled it with water, and milked it for the rest of the night. The parties were so exciting, and she had so many different experiences at each one that she would find any excuse to attend as many of them as she could find.
If she didn’t drink at these parties, what was it she loved about them? Was it all about meeting new people, and all of the experiences she had? That was a huge part of it, but there was something else. She loved who she was at these parties, and she enjoyed the prospect of being something different, something more, and something vital. That’s what being free meant to her. The parties informed her that she didn’t have to be a farmer’s daughter the rest of her life. The parties also informed her what she missed being cooped up at the Bettle farm her whole life.
When she tasted freedom for the first time, Betty didn’t just want a nibble. Her experiences in college were so exciting that she craved them. She wanted to meet more new people, have more experiences, and grow, but the problem was she never have 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. She did find something of an end around to this when her new, college friends introduced her to their friends from other countries.
After a couple of interactions, Betty found herself more attracted to these people from other countries than she was the other new friends she met in college. She wanted to be there when they dropped tales about life in other countries. She wanted to learned how the other half lived, and she wanted to learn everything the world outside the Bettle homestead had to offer.
When these new, foreign friends started accusing her of living the easy life, she was confused at first, and then she found herself becoming defensive. She argued that farm life is not easy, but she lost those arguments, and she lost them 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 that sympathy progressed into empathy. 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 said when she returned home from college on a break. She said this to us, her long-time friends at home. We knew nothing about her foreign-born friends at college, but we could tell it was not the first time she said that. 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 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 well that we couldn’t believe this was the case. Some of us assumed that Betty’s desire to be on offense yielded some level of pretentiousness on her part. Yet, we knew Betty Bettle so well that we couldn’t believe this was the case, at least not consciously.
Betty had, by this point, so thoroughly assumed so many characteristics of her new foreign friends that it slipped her mind that she was born of Irish/German descent. After hearing so many of their tales, and learning so much about their culture and customs, she began adopting many of 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.
“Excuse me, but aren’t you Irish and German?” one of us said, in the midst of one of her numerous ‘You don’t understand how that offends my people’ themed rants. It shocked her. She said yes of course, and she blushed a little, but it was obvious that the reason this moment shocked her so much was because no one ever called her out on it before. One might suggest that she enjoyed the company of her foreign-born friends that she developed a loyalty and a bond with them that led her to believe that any offense made against them was an offense against her. After a number of incidents, we could tell that her convictions went deeper than that.
At some point, Betty’s new understanding and revelations led her to believe that her parents lied to her. Either that, or she believed her small town parents just didn’t understand the complexities of human existence. When she learned “the truth”, she thought anyone who approached the issue from a perspective other than hers 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 graduated college with a 4.0, and she immediately entered into a career that paid her some decent money. 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 that 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 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 her. 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 a model from which she would view all foreign-born citizens going forward. Betty met foreigners, who strayed from that model, later in life, and she developed narratives for why some in similar straits might succeed and others don’t. She preferred to focus on those who required sympathy, and she developed a certain criteria 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.
Somewhere along the path to the day the two of us met, Betty Bettle convinced herself that she was no longer of Irish and German descent. As odd as it sounds that someone could convince themselves they are another lineage, we should ask ourselves how we become so convinced of anything to the point that we develop 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, after our teenage rebellion subsides? Betty didn’t agree with her parents’ worldview, and 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 might 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 character, and their upbringing, people like Betty Bettle choose to imitate and emulate sympathetic characters, and they do this so much, and so often, that they begin to absorb their traits and characteristics until they exhibit them. They are so consumed by them that they become consumed by them. The first raging question that runs through our mind when we see a pretentious absorber imitate and emulate the sympathetic is how does an intelligent person wake up one day and believe they are another person? 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 the people they regard as sympathetic characters? 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, by contrast, 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 find those who succeed at it and try to find some way to imitate what they do. 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 number of the reasons we provided above, but those answers won’t be clear or direct. The gist of 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.