Once upon a time, on a frosty day in January, I was on a domestic flight from one city in the United States of America to another. I was seated next to a fellow named Joe, who spent the first thirty seconds of the flight flipping through the airline magazine, and the next thirty talking to me. “You going home?” He asked. “Sort of…” I replied, as my voice trailed off. “I’m returning from a trip to South Africa.”
“Oh, cool!” Joe said, adjusting himself in his seat and leaning in a little closer to hear me over the plane’s loud rumble. “Is it hot over there?”
“A bit,” I said. “I mean, it’s in the Southern Hemisphere, so it’s summer there now.”
There was the tiniest of pauses. Then Joe chortled and said —
“Oh wow! Random.”
And that was it. We did not exchange another word for the remaining four hours of the flight.
“Random” is a word that every single person on this planet must learn if they are to understand, and adapt to, life in the United States. It is an important word, a central concept in American public life. I was first introduced to this word in a middle school, in a town in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Coming from a different geographic and cultural context — dare I say, a “random” context — I learned early on that without this word, I would not survive. I would not be able to dismiss things with the swiftness that is required in American society. I would not be able to deem things irrelevant with the uncompromising efficiency of my peers. I would, in other words, be utterly, hopelessly lost.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What is this word, “random”? Where does it come from, and why is it an essential pillar of American culture? The Online Etymology Dictionary helps us to answer these questions. According to the OED, “random” is an adjective that has Germanic, Old French, and Middle English origins. Its root words have meanings like “impetuosity, speed,” “rush, disorder, force, impetuosity,” “to run fast,” and “to flow, to run.” All of these meanings do not quite capture the word’s contemporary usage, but by 1650, the definition of “random” started to approach something we might recognize: “having no definite aim or purpose.” The dictionary on my computer confirms this definition, and adds that the word is often used informally, and just as often has a derogatory connotation.
Sure enough, in the 1980s, “random” entered the lexicon of US college slang; and “random” meant, “inferior or undesirable.” A column by William Safire elaborates upon this definition, saying that, at its spiritual core, “random” meant — “a person who does not belong on our dormitory floor.” But from these humble origins, “random” has become a word used to describe not only those scary people who do not belong on our dormitory floor, but possibly everything, everyone, whenever, wherever!
In my early-2000s middle school cafeteria, we learned to embrace “random” as a word for any sentence, any circumstance. It was a persistent feature of people’s efforts at social cohesion; and with time and age and our blossoming maturity, the trend does not seem to have abated.
My short-lived friendship with Joe is but one of hundreds of encounters that I’ve had, in which “random” is casually used to dismiss anything that seems unusual, challenging, or different. Unfamiliar people, unfamiliar countries, unfamiliar stories and unfamiliar ideas — conversations about all sorts of things can be very easily terminated with an uncomfortable guffaw and the refrain, “Oh wow! Random.” In the cafeteria, “random” was used to describe T-shirts of an unexpected color, food with an unexpected aroma, music with an unexpected beat — even such egregious offenses as notebooks with an unexpected type of binding. It was also used, openly and without an iota of self-reflection, to describe unexpected people.
Such people could potentially come in any number of shapes, stripes and sizes. But I recall in particular the kids who came from other countries, and who spoke a language other than English at home, and sat at separate cafeteria tables. These kids were kept aside, kept in the realm of the “different,” and thus “irrelevant.” Those of us who were also from families of so-called “ethnic minorities” walked an unsteady line. We could very easily be “random” too, and the only way to prevent such a catastrophe was to use the word as often and as indiscriminately as possible.
Six or seven years later, when I had developed a personality and a deep conviction that diversity, dialogue and justice were interwoven aspects of life, I enrolled in a seminar called “The Politics of Exceptionalist Narratives.” The class was part of my degree in History — more specifically, in the histories of colonialism and imperialism which have shaped the modern world all too deeply. The seminar was provocative and wide-ranging. We read primary texts on capitalism, learned about Eurocentrism, discussed settler colonialism and apartheid, and beyond. The subjects on the syllabus took us in many different directions over the course of the semester, but they all pivoted around one concept, to which the fate of the word “random” is tied: exceptionalism.
The definition of the term “exceptionalism” is less obscure than people might think. Put simply, “exceptionalism” is the conviction that one is separate from, and superior to, others. Exceptionalism can occur at an individual level, but it can also occur on a grander scale. It is, and perhaps has always been, an important aspect of how many social groups, economic classes, nations, and empires have justified their power, and turned it into a cultural value. History has countless examples of exceptionalism. To choose one at random (hah), let us look at the United States.
The United States has assumed itself to be an empire for much of its brief history. Conquest and colonialism have been defining features of this country from the beginning. So has such violence’s inevitable companion: Manifest Destiny, the idea that “we” are destined to live on this land. Why? Because according to Manifest Destiny, owning this continent is somehow “our” privilege and “our” right. After all, “we” are separate from, and superior to those who came before us.
Exceptionalism was woven not only into the idea of Manifest Destiny, but also into policies such as the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine was established in 1823, no doubt to coincide with the wave of secessions from Spain that were taking place in South America. The Monroe Doctrine proclaimed that the U.S. would protect the Americas from European imperialism. However, decades and centuries to come would reveal that this “protection” most curiously resembled imperialism itself. Here, too, exceptionalism was in full swing — the idea was that “American” (or rather, USAmerican) abuses of power were somehow different from the same actions on the part of someone else. Why? Because yet again, “Americans” are inherently separate from, and superior to everyone else.
Many USAmericans do not know about the Monroe Doctrine and the relationship it established with the newly formed countries of South America. (Of course, many USAmericans cannot point out South America on a map, either). And far fewer have heard the word “exceptionalism” before. Nevertheless, it is a defining feature of how people are encouraged to view themselves — and others — in this country. It is apparent almost any time a so-called “American,” on TV or in a movie or even in the news, encounters someone from somewhere else. Most often, the other character’s life is inconsequential, and the place they come from is not worth much time, energy or attention. Such potentially illuminating details are seen as, in a word, “random.” Even the characters in some of my favorite shows can be faulted for such uninformed dismissiveness.
As the dictionary on my computer points out several times, “random” very rarely has a positive connotation. But as we learn early on, in the middle school cafeteria or even before, “random” is an important life tool in the U.S. It allows us to stake our belonging to the mainstream, in that patented, proudly exceptionalist “American” way: by asserting that other people, places and experiences do not matter. They are random, end of story.
But I find “random” to be a funny word, because it serves as a watertight door, fearlessly protecting all from the joy of new experiences. It is a most helpful aid to the demise of curiosity — and if you are in the right circles, the demise of curiosity becomes a great victory.
But in this relationship to the world, who loses out? Had Joe not brought our conversation to a standstill, he might have learned something new. I might have had the pleasure of telling him all that I had learned in South Africa, as well as the many questions which I was still curious to answer. He may have told me something unexpected about his life. And we may have both been improved, in some small way, by our paths’ crossing. Maybe we would have found commonalities of mind and heart and soul… maybe we would have lived happily ever after…
But no. None of that happened, of course, because our conversation ended all too soon, with a single word. “Random.” And sometimes it hits me… “Random” and its underlying philosophy of exceptionalism — the idea that only “we” are relevant — is not really improving anybody’s life. People would be so much better off without it! They would be more open, more alive, more closely connected to the world’s diversity, knowledge and humor. And yet an overwhelming majority of USAmericans do not seem to want to partake in such simple joys. They do not seem to recognize how much they are losing. Instead, they ardently defend a lifestyle which routinely dismisses all that is positive about life on Earth as… let’s see… what is the word…
Ah, yes. “Random.”