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Wednesday, 10 June 2015

We need things to be at least a little familiar

When I was driving through Tamworth on the way back from New England on Monday I was listening to the radio and Maggie Beer, the cooking writer, talking about menus in aged care facilities. If you want the elderly to more fully engage with the food you are serving them, you need to introduce it first with a menu, she said. They will pass the menu around and talk about the food on offer. Not only that, she went on, but the description should be at least a little bit familiar so that they can understand what you are serving them. You can make a small change to an item on the menu, to introduce something new to the diners, she said, but only a small change, otherwise it will be too different for them and they will not take to the idea.

The draw of the familiar is something that we are all prone to. Look at literature, for example. In genre fiction, which some people say is "cliched", you get books that contain ideas and tropes that are often familiar but they are interlaced with small differences. It is the friction created by the small differences rubbing against the familiar that generates a sensation of pleasure for some readers - those for whom reading genre fiction is a satisfying experience - but for others there is no sensation at all, and they dub the book cliched and a dud.

We even cleave to the familiar in our politics. Without public figures to hate where would we be? We love to deprecate the words of certain people who operate in the public sphere, even powerful ones, because they are familiar parts of the political landscape. They punctuate the vast landscape of popular ideas like familiar landmarks, and we orient ourselves in that space with reference to them daily. They make us feel at home, despite the fact that we may disagree vehemently with their ideas, and with the notions they express on a regular basis.

Without the familiar we are lost. Without familiar elements in the places that we inhabit we cannot find ourselves, and we don't know where to go. We don't even know what we should like or hate. But how that reality reflects on us - particularly with reference to our politics, whether we are progressive in outlook or whether we are conservative - remains to be discussed. Are the conservatives really bold adventurers who need to have something familiar fixed on their moral and ethical compass by which they can orient themselves as they go out alone in the wilderness to venture far? Are progressives really just meek followers who must have familiar bugbears to give them comfort in the otherwise bewildering spaces that surround them in their daily rounds?

Or is it the opposite? Are progressives the ones who venture out free of restraint except for the pure motor essence of ideas, and who therefore despise the small-minded, hide-bound verbal shenanigans of the conservative politician? And are conservatives merely born followers who shiver with revulsion when you offer them the chance to float free of old certitudes, and to venture out into unfamiliar realms beyond their diurnal ken?

Who knows? What is certain however is that a certain modicum of cliche is desirable when you are trying to communicate something unfamiliar to an audience, which is why journalists and their subeditors often turn to well-known tropes for headlines. Those familiar hooks draw the reader to the story, they attract passing strangers to sample the goods, and to read. Without those familiar markers, we would all be a little disoriented. And what on earth would happen then?

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