Cannot See People Anymore

I’ve written here before about the increasing difficulty we have in our Western world seeing and valuing “personality,” and especially differences in personality. The only kinds of diversity people within (and even outside of) institutions have been able to recognize in the last two decades or so are broad categories of human beings — particularly race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Anything else is inconvenient or irrelevant. This is one reason I believe “diverse and inclusive” communities and institutions are at least as conformist, if not more so, than those they seek to differentiate themselves from.

It doesn’t matter what people look like, so long as they think alike.

I’ve taken some heat for this view, and I’ve never really seen it articulated elsewhere. Which may mean I’m either observing something no one else is seeing (yay for me!), or I’m seeing something that simply is not there (because I’m a self-centered asshole). Take your pick.

Until today. I came across the most amazing blog, More Crows the Eagles, which I will read until my eyes hurt. The writing is sharp and visceral. I wish I wrote like this.

It’s in the author’s musings on what it takes to create a surveillance state. The author sets up this matter of personality in a short discussion of working as an EMT:

For instance, I can say that I have worked, generally, for two kinds of companies. In one, individuals may participate with varying degrees of attentiveness, or acquire various specific skills, but by and large there is enough slack in the system that people can be recognized for what they do well. For some, this is a certification, such as ACLS Instructor, or a skill, like fluency in Spanish that directly benefits the work. For others, this may be something useful but not directly related to EMS, like grantwriting or fixing truck engines. Some people may be notable for modifying uniforms (sewing in elastic expansion panels for pregnant EMTs is a good skill to have!) or barbecuing in the back parking lot or just being a funny person to hang out with.

In the other, this sort of individual personality, for lack of a better word, isn’t part of the plan—either people are swapped around so often that they never get to know each other, or all possible services are provided from outside the department, or else some other implicit hierarchy excludes the majority of the department from recognition. In these workplaces, look out—people write each other up for virtually any infraction. If people aren’t given the chance to differentiate themselves by achievements, they will differentiate themselves by turning everyone else in. [Author’s emphasis.]

Without the ability to distinguish ourselves — to be something resembling individuals within a community — people cannot develop social capital. (To paraphrase the Qur’an, God made us different so we could know each other.) “Without a strong sense of mutual recognition, people begin to mistrust and surveil each other, and use their knowledge of each other’s mistakes and shortcomings in place of social capital…” the author writes.

Which gets to the point that struck me:

In the seventies Bob Putnam began charting the connection between the arrival of television in a region and the collapse of social capital—the inability of individuals to recognize each other for their personalities, abilities, and individual narratives. [Emphasis mine–CHF] He reasoned that this was because the time people had once spent in clubs, churches and (famously) bowling leagues had been replaced by time sitting on a couch alone. That process has developed further with the arrival of new tech, yes, but it was probably underway throughout the twentieth century due to suburbanization, changes in the workplace, basically the whole industrial package. To an extent, what started the cycle is irrelevant now.

What I ascribed to ideology is really the product of mediation and isolation — that, increasingly, we have little contact with other flesh and blood human beings and more contact with mediated images of human beings, carefully controlled and entirely scripted, so they adhere to widely held narratives. (I do believe an ideology has taken hold that seeks to bend and shape the world into a particular shape, to remake humanity in its image.) We don’t so much meet and deal with human beings as the idea of what human beings should be like.

Not humanity, but an incredible simulation.

Because we no longer have much unplanned, unscripted, unprogrammed, and unmediated time with each other — time with no pre-determined purpose — we have to rely on the overarching and largely ideological narratives we have at hand. In neoliberal capitalism, those are utilitarian narratives — of human use, value, profitability. Our encounters all have pre-determined outcomes. We have to rely on shorthand to understand each other, to apprehend and make sense of each other. It’s the only way can do any of this successfully.

And for those human beings who can fit, or be effectively shaped into preconceived understandings of humanity, it works. How satisfying any of this is, I don’t know, being someone who doesn’t fit well. I know it’s horrific not fitting, and probably dangerous as well, since this is a utilitarian and profit-driven notion that increasingly sees no point to people who cannot be used effectively. We’re a long way from making soylent green out of the socially and economically useless, but growing up I often heard or read in the local newspaper people misunderstanding the wrought iron “Arbeit Macht Frei” over Nazi extermination camps as an honest sentiment about what needs to be done with the shiftless and the lazy.

This is something the Benedict Option church can and should do — recreate that space for the unplanned, the unscripted, the not-obviously useful encounters between human beings. Space where people commit to life together, whatever it means, stripped as much as possible of ideological meaning and purpose, and hanging in together for the long haul1, attuned to the rhythms of creation and of human life. Getting to know, and know how to accept, those things that make us different and therefore truly knowable.

  1. I suspect my wandering driven by inchoate ambition is as much a cause of my deep sense of alienation as anything else, never having found — or discerned — any place or people that it looked like I belonged to. Another thing I can wish I knew at 18 or 28 that I know now. I promise I’ll do it better next time. ↩︎

One thought on “Cannot See People Anymore

  1. The physics lab where I worked my last 20 years had, when I started there, a management concept that all technicians should be interchangeable. Everyone should learn all the necessary skills, and people would be differentiated only by a level number (1 through 4) indicating their experience and level of expertise in all things technical. It was nonsense. Some people knew all about vacuum systems, I was good at electronics, there was a guy who was a genius at designing and building mechanical systems — he and his dad competed in truck pulls in their spare time. There were jobs which some of the people could do easily and which others would never be able to do — everyone had different strengths. It was a laid-back enough place that within a short time a very different sort of differentiation according to individual skills and predilections was allowed to prevail. The 1 thru 4 system remained on paper, but it came to signify only a system of automatic promotions for time accrued on the job. Later, when money for the physics experiments was drying up, and the lab diversified into medical treatment, among other things, a hitherto foreign degree of bureaucratic formalization was imposed on the place, which eventually tore it to pieces.

    Now of course the powers that be cannot permit seat-of-the-pants medical treatment centers. The FDA has rules for certification, inspection and accountability for good reason. (This became evident when a factory robot-arm was used in the patient positioning system. Great idea — except robot arms are designed for speed as well as precision. The first time a human-weight crash dummy was laid on the positioning table and an operator began to move it over a couple of feet, the table jerked with such force that it flung the dummy against the far wall of the room. Oops! You get do-overs in physics experiments (unless you blow up the world) but in medicine you get malpractice suits.

    So sometimes when big and complex things are done, a big bureaucracy is needed. But so much can be lost in the process. I am all for ways to enable real human life for real human beings.

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