We humans have perfected the art of dehumanizing people for our own ends. We modern people have perfected the art of rationalizing this, even to the point that we believe it is Good and/or Deserved.
Reality TV doesn't help, but, perhaps ironically, I think blogging does. In snippet situations--which abound in all areas of media and life these days, from text messages, to brief interactions, from hectic schedules to ideology condensed to a talking point--we can find our brief summaries of others reinforced. Blogs and other lengthier more personal interactions force us to pause and reconsider...if we let ourselves.
It's so simple to sum up another person: she's organized, he's loud, she's a christian, he's a liberal, she's scary smart, he's so nice...
We often even think of these things as compliments. But are they? Or are they oversimplified labels that in some way dehumanize the other person? Have we snapped people we know into lock boxes, never to be taken out and examined more closely? Have we missed something key to that other person?
Here's why I find that troubling: what do we value, when we value people? And are these the attributes we seek, past the surface, if they are not displayed superficially for us to easily grasp? Some may hide deeper those things which you value.
I was thinking of examples in my own life. One of my favorites is Harry. I met Harry at work when I was still wet behind the ears despite a wedding ring, college degree, and more than a few years of professional working experience. I was, at the time, probably an ideal employee: self-starting, knowledgeable and experienced enough to have and volunteer ideas, but still eager beaver loyal and desiring to please. I joined a really cool start-up, replacing Harry.
"Why are you leaving?" I asked.
"I don't really work here. It's just a contract. I'm not into the whole working for the man, staying put thing. I work, save up, and spend the rest of my time in South America climbing mountains," he said, emulating the epitome of Cool Alt Dude.
A fairly traditional gal at heart, I admired what had to be my polar opposite. I shared Harry Adventure Tales with my husband the entire week I spent being trained for my job by Harry. I was fascinated by Harry's incredibly different lifestyle and life choices. I kept trying to get to know him. Harry, however, was unimpressed by me and I accepted that. I was Normal, Average, I had no problem Working for the Man, carrying home a regular paycheck, and missing South American mountains. I had no stories of adventure.
At the end of the week, I learned Harry had recommended I be fired.
Why would he do this? He didn't want this job -- he was heading for Chile next week anyway! Wasn't he Nice? All Cool Alt Dude let it flow? Why would Harry do this to me? I'd only tried to do my best, learn everything -- was it a problem with my knowledge or performance? No. Wasn't I nice? Yes. Then why?
Harry had pigeon-holed me and it wasn't in a good way. My neat desk indicated I was Uptight. My questions to ensure I learned my job well indicated I was High Maintenance. My carefully organized files indicated I was Anal. My excitement meant I was High Strung.
The very things I cultivated carefully to be Really Really Good and that I thought were valued highly in employees -- plus, just happened to be fairly innate to me and were my techniques for doing a good job -- were somehow twisted and sounding awful coming from his mouth.
"She's not ever going to be a fit," Harry told my boss, who thankfully ignored him. My boss, much wiser than me, probably saw past the Adjectives and Perfect Dehumanizing t0 the realness of both of us and the situation. Harry resented me taking his cash cow, however innocent I was in that decision. He had a good thing going, what with being able to eat his cake and have it too.
I wasn't wrong, Harry was Cool Alt Dude with a Brown Belt in Zen, but that didn't mean he was above feeling very human in this situation. Harry wasn't wrong, I am organized, and a little high strung, but that doesn't mean I'm not human, or much more than that string of judgments.
Harry labeled me, and locked me out. As a result, neither of us gained a better picture and understanding of Who the Human was, really. We probably never would have been friends. But, we'd have each had -- especially Harry -- a better idea of a complex person, one we might never know, or even like, but that we could accept as a multi-faceted human. (Although, I hadn't yet learned that it was an option to not like another person then -- I was still trapped in the idea that I had to like everyone and had to make all of them like me, too. Not managing that was a major failure, indicating Imperfection and Something Bad in me I had to fix.) (I am, to some degree, over this, except when it comes to people I do like, who do not like me back, or who do in some ambivalent way that does not lead to the friendship I hoped for.)
I might have understood and been more thoughtful of how it worried Harry, losing this contract and putting the very Cool Alt Dude lifestyle he so valued in jeopardy. He might have understood that Id just moved over 2000 miles from home for this job, was trying to acclimate, and was desperate to succeed for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which was not wanting to prove all our parents dire predictions of failure and ending up in a box under a bridge" true.
I might have grasped his Cool Alt Dude was a protection from the commitment and chaos he knew he'd have to someday deal with, but that he still fought and feared. He might have seen that my organization was compensation for my fear of chaos, and my social awkwardness of not knowing what to say or do sometimes.
But we each needed to know ourselves better, first, needed to understand and accept our own complexities, before we could see that others had more surface area than we initially saw, too.
With time, I came to understand that.
I came to understand that I needed to open up my personal book just the right amount to not dump too much or hide too little. Leave a bit to wondering, wanting to find out. This is not a natural skill for me, like it is for some.
But in time I learned people value that more, just as I learned that workplaces appreciated organized, motivated workers, but not as much as they valued people they liked. Offices were no different from high schools or life, in that respect.
At the end of the day, you don't hear people saying, "I LOVE her, she's so detail-oriented! That's why she's the best employee!" any more than you hear people say, "I LOVE her, she's so organized! That's why we're best friends!"
You do hear, "She's so fun, I love being around her!" Fun. Kind. Thoughtful. You know the rest. You know the things you say you like about other people, and you know you need to like other people to value them.
Those adjectives are hard to come by, though, and are nearly empty compliments.
I do worry about how so much of today's world seems to encourage and reward fast summation of other people, condensing their lives into brief talking points and their humanity into 140 characters or less.
Perhaps we are active participants in our own labeling and dehumanization.
I think of my friend Cyn explaining why she's given up on adjectives and nouns in the short social media bio sections. To attempt to paraphrase her: Verbs say so much more about who I am, through what I do, instead of just labeling myself for you. Verbs can lead to questions. Verbs make you active. Adjectives and nouns coat you in amber for viewing.
What is valuable to you and why is that valuable?