Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

More on social invisibility

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.
Tags: culture, personal, politics

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