Sunday, May 1, 2011

Judging The Invisible Man

  Judging another person is a difficult and tricky undertaking. But judge we do, none the less. When we come into contact with people, we assess, among other things, their words and actions, and we use our own assumptions to fill whatever holes those observations leave, and based on these brief and inadequate perceptions, and our own views of right and wrong, we summarize and judge the qualities and attributes of those people. Its something that we all do, though we may try to convince ourselves otherwise. Its just how we're wired. Our brains crave definitions and categorizations. We need to be able to label things in order to walk down the street without being overwhelmed by everything we see. When crossing the street, we don't see all of the individual qualities of an oncoming automobile. We don't consider the tires, the body, and the driver. We don't speculate about the engine or the suspension. We simply see a car coming, and we decide when and where to cross the street based on a concept of moving cars in general that our brains have already put together. Our eyes simply take in far more than our brains can process on a conscious level, and so our brains choose to organize those images in a way that makes it possible for us to function.

  And we do this with people too. Certainly there are exceptions. We can limit our assumptions and make a conscious decision to consider the unique individual qualities of a person when we choose to do so. Just as we are capable of considering an individual car when we choose to do so. But given the number of people that many of us come into contact with, whether it be on the street, at work, in the store, or at a social gathering, it is unlikely that any of us are going to find a way to do this with all people, all of the time. And if we're honest with ourselves, I think we'll find that most of us aren't even trying to do that most of the time.

  So we categorize. We generalize. We stereotype. We simplify. When we do this with people that stand physically before us, we have a lot to work with. Tone of voice and body language. Age, gender, ethnicity, and clothing, just to name a few. And while those qualities provide a hopelessly insufficient means of wholly recognizing the dynamic nature of a human being, they can help us make necessary assumptions concerning what this person might mean to us. When I go into a store, I can assume that the person wearing a shirt with the store's logo is an employee. I can also differentiate between a robbery victim's cry for help, and a homeless person's request for money, based on tone of voice, body language, and probably personal appearance, even if the only words I hear from either person are "please help."

  There are also obvious limitations and drawbacks to making generalizations about the people we encounter, and those are well documented. This particular alleyway in our thought process is fertile ground for miscommunication, lies, and sweeping prejudices. And at times the consequences have been catastrophic.

  So what happens when we take this method of processing data, that is so ingrained in us, and is in many ways indispensable to us, and is yet so limited and potentially dangerous, and we limit it even further by blocking such tools as tone of voice and body language, while simultaneously extending its reach by establishing communication between billions of people that would not otherwise have direct access to one another? In other words, what happens when the world hooks up to the internet? And more specifically, what changes in the way that we communicate with each other when we're using the internet?

  With the advent of e-mail, message boards, social networking sites, and blogs like this one, we have undergone a dramatic shift in how we interact with our friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers. And we have gained quite a bit from this shift. We have the ability to stay in regular contact with people that just a generation ago would have drifted to the other side of the barrier of time and distance. And the relationships with close friends and family that we would have had anyway, can be enhanced with these new tools. The internet also opens the door to a seemingly infinite world of ideas and perspectives that offers far more depth and variation than the world of libraries and newspapers. And this world also has a demography that is far more complex than even the most diverse of traditional social environments. We can read about political protests in Syria or San Francisco, on the websites for NPR, Al Jazeera, the BBC, and Fox. Or we can find a blog that offers thirty-two variations on grilled cheese sandwiches, after reading about why gay kittens won't go to heaven. And we can then carry that information with us to a social networking site like Facebook, and share our thoughts with people we know, and often with people that they know.

  And in this sense, the social networking sites are just an extension of traditional social settings. Facebook, for example, is a lot like a big on-line cocktail party. Topics may vary from one group to the next. This bunch by the coffee table will prefer to discuss the day to day aspects of their lives such as work and family. The guys over there by the TV will talk sports for hours. Somebody in the kitchen has had one too many, and is making people uncomfortable with details that seem way too personal. And on the back porch there are those people that just can't help but dive into the dreaded politics and/or religion conversation, because that's what fascinates them.

  But there are critical differences and limitations as well. That same vast source of ideas and perspectives that can provide fresh new insights, can also make it more difficult to discern the value of any given piece of information. There are no more gatekeepers of information. And while that has clear advantages for many of us, it has often come at the expense of accountability and credibility. 

  Our personal conversations and relationships can become more murky as well, as it becomes more difficult to judge the tone of a conversation and the nature of the people involved. After all, the image of others that we get via sites such as Facebook, is one that that person has crafted in order to appear as they would like people to see them. Whether projecting an image of confidence, happiness, and prosperity, or one of frustration and self-pity; when we sit in front of a computer, we mold an image of our choosing, in a way that we are unable to do in person. And our perception of what is being said, and the meanings behind the words, are shaped in part by those distorted images. 

  We also choose to say things to people on line that we wouldn't say in person. Stripped of the ability to see first-hand the impact of our statements, and potentially face repercussions, we often become more careless and aggressive in our choice of words. And while we are speaking from behind these avatars that we have created for ourselves, we are making assessments of, and passing judgements on, real life people. Assessments and judgements that effect how we see those particular individuals, and also how we see people in general.

  I came across one example of this just a few days ago. President Obama had just released the long form copy of his birth certificate, in order to set aside the distractions of "sideshows and carnival barkers", and my sister posted the story on her Facebook page. In her view, this is an issue that really isn't an issue. Like the President himself, she is hoping that this will put the topic to rest once and for all, thus allowing the country to address more practical issues such as high unemployment rates, massive debt, and prolonged war. Most of the people that commented on her post seemed to share this view, as do I. But there were a couple of exceptions. One person appeared to remain unconvinced about Obama's birthplace. And another referred to the President as a "clown" that had "no real experience running anything", while also expressing his hope that Donald Trump would be ushered into The White House in next year's election. But neither of these people, even when pressed, chose to back their points with specific fact-based explanations as to why they feel the way they do.

  It is difficult to read comments like those without passing judgement on the people that are making them. From my perspective, the comments are ignorant and pig-headed at best. They appear, like so much of the right wing anti-Obama rhetoric, to be the product of fear and uncertainty. An irrational, knee jerk reaction to some perceived threat, that usually goes unidentified and unexplained by the person that feels threatened. Or if the fear is explained, it often turns out to be based on misperceptions or outright falsehoods. (That is not to say that everybody that is critical of the President is unable to explain themselves in a thoughtful manner. Nor is it to say that legitimate criticisms do not exist. But the carefully considered critiques that do exist are being lost in the deluge of  ignorance, fear, and lies.)

  So I take that bit of information, and I use it to form an image of the people that made those comments. I fill in the holes with my own assumptions, and based on my views of right and wrong, I assess and judge that image. And as I do that, I add another piece to my view of the world and the people in it. And by extension I alter my view of myself, and my place in the world.

  In a separate exchange with my sister, she conveyed to me that, politics aside, these were good guys. And I have no reason not to believe her. My sister is an intelligent and educated woman, and I trust her judgement. And I've met plenty of good people that happen to have what I see as bad politics. I would imagine that there are some people that see me that way as well.

  But that abstract knowledge does not carry the weight of my direct exchange with those people. And my direct exchange is limited to that small group of letters on my computer screen. I don't see that guy at the playground with his kids. I don't see the other guy using his day off of work to help a friend move. We're not trading jokes over a cold beer. And on the internet, we're not even offering each other a soft smile, a firm handshake, or a nod of respect. We're just giving each other one terribly small excerpt from a long and complex story, and leaving each other way too many blanks to fill in.

  So we walk away from the exchange with negative impressions of each other. But more importantly, we walk away having reduced another person to nothing more than a cultural stereotype. We've simplified them for the sake of making sense of them.We walk away thinking that the other guy is stupid, naive, or a jerk. And both of us could very well be some, or all, of those things. But what we can not be, is that and that alone. Human beings are simply not so static and one-dimensional as that. But we are often going to see each other this way anyway. Because this is the trade off that we accept when we log on. We open ourselves up to a world in which we can see billions of men and women. But the catch is that they're all invisible.   

1 comment:

  1. Wasn't sure where you were going with this at first, but the Facebook example concerning the comments about President Obama's birth certificate really tied it together for me. I love when real life examples are fleshed out in a thoughtful reflection.