People

Here’s a simple exercise:

When you’re out in the world, look around you. See who else is out and about. Then call them what they are: people. Practice naming them as people.

It helps if you start out by ignoring everything you know about them. First to go should be appearance. Nice clothes or shabby? Doesn’t matter. Different skin, different hair, different eyes? Forget them. Young, old? Irrelevant. Ugly or attractive? Not a factor. Male or female? Beside the point.

It’s hard, truly hard. (I said it was a simple exercise, not an easy one. This is why we have to practice it every time we go outside.) Society has trained us to place people in categories, boxes really, which is why it’s so important to practice getting away from that. Because people are not boxes and do not conform to our expectations. When I see a black man, I don’t always think “criminal/dangerous” — but I have thought that, in the past. This despite the fact that such a snap judgment is a) ridiculous and b) goes against everything I’ve been taught by my parents and my faith. Society insinuates its lessons, despite all counter-instruction. I’m getting better. Even as I frequently manage to dissociate “black” from “criminal,” however, my brain still performs the snap categorization that permits such a false and discriminatory judgment in the first place: when I as a white man see a black man, my brain says, “black man.” When I see another white man, though, my brain says, “man.” Until I can change that, I am still racist.

Note that even just “man” puts people in boxes, though. The oldest divide in the human race is between male and female, a split we now know does not have a clear line, but a split regardless. Here I fight not just my socialization but my genes (and hormones!), for my brain has a deep predisposition to focus on young attractive women. Women, however, are far more than objects to look at, and far more than sexual targets to be desired.

Possibly the most important if least-frequent label to remove is “annoyance.” People bother me a lot, talking when I’d prefer silence, intruding on my time when I’m hurrying, interrupting the tasks I’ve set myself. They cut in front of me, they block my way, and (when traffic is involved) they may even hazard my health or life. Seeing those people as people is perhaps the most urgent part, because to see them as people may head off conflict. Harboring anger or resentment for someone permits our minds to denigrate, disrespect, and ultimately dehumanize someone who is, after all, a relative, no matter how distant. Dehumnanization is what permits all forms of violence, mental or emotional or physical. In fact one might say that to see someone as a problem or an annoyance is the first act of violence. Everyone who looks at another with anger has already punched that other in the face.

So I strive to pull back from all the labels I place on the people around me, and only call them “people,” nothing more specific. “Person,” I tell myself. “People. Person. Attractive person.” (I haven’t perfected my technique yet.) “People. Person. People. People. People.”

That’s the first step, pushing through the mass of labels and boxes and preconceptions to the point where you recognize human as human. This first step then enables the next. Once you have trained yourself to set aside all that you see of the people around you, appearance and action, then you need to remind yourself of what you can’t see, but is definitely there: hopes. Fears. Dreams. Love. Anger. Joy. Wisdom. Mistakes. History. A future. In short, all the stuff that makes a soul a soul, all that makes you, you and me, me — it makes them, them.

Look. Call them people. Fold up your boxes and put them away. Remember what you don’t see. Then take the last step, and love these your neighbors as you love yourself.

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