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More on social invisibility - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2006-10-15 21:51
Subject: More on social invisibility
Security: Public
Tags:culture, personal, politics
I wrote recently about social invisibility. It was a context where I was actually mildly amused by a curious interaction (or lack of interaction). There have been some quietly pained comments on that post, reminding me of something I already knew perfectly well -- that far too many of us are socially invisible, for reasons of gender, size, appearance, affect, class, and so forth.

I don't know how much I can speak to that directly. I am a privileged case -- being white, male and of reasonable height is of great value in getting people to pay attention to me, even in the most casual interaction. I'm also capable of sucking up a lot of social oxygen, sometimes without realizing it. If I'm not deliberately dressed down and running quiet (which I sometimes do), I will almost always be noticed in face-to-face encounters. I wish I had a solution, either personal or societal, to propose for people who don't trip the triggers so readily, but I honestly don't know.

However, in my continuing quest to examine my own beliefs, I've been trying to think about what this means. I've generated two lines of thought.

First, who is invisible to me and why? I think my eye slides over economic and emotional distinctions far more readily than it slides over gender, race, size or age distinctions. Even writing that statement makes me distinctly uncomfortable. It feels only a degree or two removed from admitting overt racism, or Holocaust denial. Why should I look past poor people? Or needy people?

I can analyze both sides of that coin readily enough. I grew up in the Third World, and probably have more exposure to race issues than most white Americans who aren't part of multiracial families. For the most part, not the same race issues that American society struggles with, but sufficient to create an awareness on my part. I've never knowingly made a gender distinction in my dealings with people. Likewise size -- it just doesn't register for me at either end of the scale. One exception: I think I can become uncomfortable around extremely large people, perhaps because I am reminded of what my body could become, as large as I am already. Honestly, that shames me. Age, likewise -- I've had both enough friendships with and enough intellectual ass-kickings by elderly people to have long since learned not to confuse ageing with incompetence.

The people who can too easily become invisible to me are the economically and socially needy. It's not invariable. I've had very interesting conversations with homeless people. But I do think it's a defensive strategy on my part -- the sort of city dweller "oh, god, do I have to deal with another one, this is the sixth guy in three blocks hitting me for money" refrain. I don't have an answer for this, in myself or others, but as I write this I find myself wishing I were somehow able to be a better human being.

Likewise the social angle. I'm thinking here now of people you sometimes run into in our professional world, the sort you cannot extricate yourself from once a conversation has started, for example. It's a specific personality type (or types) in both fandom and writerdom. After you've been around a while, you learn to read the signals, and you start to go into see-and-avoid mode.

What the hell does that mean? I'm tough enough and jealous enough of the demand on my own time and my social needs to guard myself from being sucked into someone else's inability to recognize signals for disengagement, but I've wound up training myself to a certain level of rudeness in order to do this.

So there's two examples of social invisibility I'm conscious of practicing myself. And while I find both of them difficult to acknowledge (let alone write about here), I don't know what to do about them. Just as I can't lay down the mantle of white, male privilege for the sake of my friends who do not share it, I have to defend my time and social resources.

Someone who's tougher-minded than me could probably shrug this off. I'm not sure what it means about me, or to me. If I were a truly enlightened human being, I might have the wit to provide a measure of support, and the right words to help those people I currently try to avoid along their journey.

The other thing that I wonder about in this regard is what portions of social blindness I have that I'm unaware of. I don't believe for a moment that I'm as race-blind as I like to think I am, for example, but that's also something I don't have to give of myself to compensate for when I find it happening -- I can fix it when I realize it's happening.

The second thing I've been thinking about is how social blindness varies with context. This pretty much falls in the category of "ring the clue bell" probably, but let me explore it a bit. For example, how people behave behind the wheel of a car is often radically at odds with how they behave face to face. The same guy who will hold the door for you at the post office may well be the one who cuts you off in traffic. Automobiles actively enable depersonalization, while simultaneously providing readily-visible status markers.

There's something about not having to look the other person in the eye that's critical here. it's why the guy at the airport literally wouldn't look at me or lillypond. That would require that he acknowledge our presence, and that we had some social status beyond "obstacle." In a car, you never have to look at anyone's face if you don't want to.

One thing I do a lot in city traffic, and even sometimes on the highway, is look at other drivers. This is both me being interested in people, and to some degree, useful for defensive driving. (People tend to steer where they're looking, for one, and for another, watching the head position and/or face of someone changing lanes or turning into traffic is the best way to tell if they've seen you.) The vast majority never look back at me, and some of the people who do seem surprised or embarrassed. It's almost like they caught me looking in the windows of their homes.

An intermediate case of the face-to-face thing is the way people behave with grocery carts in stores. There's not a lot of eye contact in grocery stores, and plenty of line cutting and other minor social abuse for personal advantage. Again, depersonalization. The barrier of the metal basket seems to be enough to cut people off in ways most of them wouldn't have the nerve to do at a personal distance.

This face-to-face thing wraps back into my political beliefs. There's a reason the government has been so adamant about not acknowledging military deaths -- banning photos of coffins coming home from Iraq, de-emphasizing military funerals. It would personalize our casualty rate. We don't even want to see our own service people as human beings dying for our political purposes. That being the case, how the hell can we see Iraqis as human beings dying for our political purposes?

What does it all mean? I don't know. No wisdom here today, sorry. Just a sense we could all do better as human beings if we noticed everyone around us at least minimally, and tried to retain social parity, on the sidewalk, in the grocery store, on the highway, or in the wider world.
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User: squirrel_monkey
Date: 2006-10-16 05:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The ultimate in depersonalization it seems often manifests on the internet -- people who are perfectly pleasant face to face turn into abusive jerks. This is not so much anonimity, but not having to see another person, IMO.

Context is an important thing too; being an average height woman is not necessarily a handicap in most social situations, but in traditionally male dominated professions (academia, medicine etc) it can be crippling. Basically, each person probably has some degree of expected context, and once you remove them from it they become less visible, as if to lessen the cognitive dissonance of the observer.
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User: mevennen
Date: 2006-10-16 10:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I absolutely agree with the comment about the net. People hide behind it and things get said which the speaker would never say face to face (largely out of their own personal cowardice, in most cases).

I live in a small town these days, so you can't get away with blanking people! Glastonbury has a large street/traveller community, who are usually reasonably pleasant - I say hi to them, they say hi to me. In London it's a slightly different story and in places like India I'm afraid I blank big-time, since eye contact is so often taken as an invitation to hussle for money.

But I can't afford to blank people most of the day, because I'm behind a counter and good customer relations are essential in this business.
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scarlettina: Deep Thoughts
User: scarlettina
Date: 2006-10-16 14:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Deep Thoughts
I'm tough enough and jealous enough of the demand on my own time and my social needs to guard myself from being sucked into someone else's inability to recognize signals for disengagement, but I've wound up training myself to a certain level of rudeness in order to do this.

I think this is social self defense, not the creation of invisibility. After all, you see the people you want to avoid. Their behavior makes them visible. Your protecting your time and psychic resources is reasonable and, as I'm learning for myself, necessary. (bravado111 and I had a discussion about this protection of resources recently in light of his personal revolution. ) I don't necessarily think there's kindness in indulging the clueless, the rude or, as kadath put it, the social vampire. Nor is it necessarily your job to educate or aid such types in their social development. In a perfect world? Sure. We're all Ghandi. But in reality, we all have limited resources and we must be discriminating (yes, I'm aware of the layers of meaning that word brings to this discussion) about how we allocate them. I leave it to others to decide if it's excusable. From my perspective, it is a necessary survival skill.

I think I can become uncomfortable around extremely large people, perhaps because I am reminded of what my body could become, as large as I am already. Honestly, that shames me.

I know exactly how that feels for very much the same reasons. It's a difficult and intimate issue. A prejudice against size is one of the few prejudices in this country that seems to still be acceptable, as unacceptable as it is. (I also find it remarkable given the increase in obesity over the last twenty years in the US.) And I think it's because we all feel this sort of discomfort and awareness. I have a friend who, last year, had a gastric bypass, and some of the stories she told me about the kind of abuse she received as an obese woman were just appalling. I've always been heavy, but I've never encountered the level of prejudice, disdain and cruelty she experienced as a result of her size. For myself, I know my size makes me invisible to certain categories of men. I also know that my presence and presentation can mitigate that effect, and I know this is true for others as well. Not everyone has that resource to call upon and, for me, it doesn't always work.
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Eva Whitley
User: wouldyoueva
Date: 2006-10-16 14:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
One exception: I think I can become uncomfortable around extremely large people, perhaps because I am reminded of what my body could become, as large as I am already.

Not really. There have been studies where people (prisoners, actually) were induced to eat as much as they wanted, as often as they wanted, and they were only able to gain 10% of their body size. To get *really* fat, you have to alternately starve and binge eat. (Unless you're doing that already.)

I weigh about twice what I did when I was half my age. I get consigned to invisible status fairly easily (not at cons, though). I don't get the people who say, "Oh, I didn't see you!" Geez, are you blind, folks?
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User: blzblack
Date: 2006-10-17 02:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I do try to smile at everyone, but I am initially nervous at meeting new people--who are you? What do you want? I gave at the office. I don't like my attitude and fight it everytime I see someone needy.
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Jay Lake: jay-windblown
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-10-17 02:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey, nice to see you! Are you back from the clutches of Big Pharma?
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User: blzblack
Date: 2006-10-17 02:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
More like back from the clutches of Big Doubt.

I like that pic, btw.
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LiveJournal: pingback_bot
User: livejournal
Date: 2013-07-16 20:53 (UTC)
Subject: Poem: "Throwing Souls Like So Much Clay"
User ysabetwordsmith referenced to your post from Poem: "Throwing Souls Like So Much Clay" saying: [...] Social invisibility [...]
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