I know what Annie Dillard means when she writes, “What you see is what you get.” And wow, have I been seeing. Online there is simply a wealth of seeing to be had! So many riches I must remind myself to find space to absorb. First to come to mind is Temple Grandin, a person on the autism spectrum, who speaks out about how we need all kinds of minds. Next is Mike Rose. He has dedicated hours of thinking and observation to understand the blue collar worker’s depth of mind. And then there is Adora Svitak. Through her youthful voice the inside scoop on what children have to offer is laid bare. After watching them my mind thought of another: Jeremy Rifkin. His RSA animate video exposes me to his idea about how high speed information might affect our society. He is convinced we may be moving toward an empathic civilization. These videos are available to anyone with a computer and high speed internet. And today that number is considerable and still on the rise. I think of this availability as if it were an adjustable aperture which I can peer through. My ability to connect to the internet allows me to see more. I can now adjust my aperture, which without the internet might be more narrow. Perhaps my view might be more fixated on differences rather than connections. Through the nearly instantaneous video of YouTube I can now hear from Svitak, Rose, Rifkin, and Grandin.
Like matches, the ideas of these thinkers, ignite the tinder of my experience. I follow the light, the heat. After growing up in a house of mixed ethnicity, I now parent six children of mixed ethnicity. Undiagnosed and diagnosed mental illness has affected those I hold dear. Recollections of my own thoughts and desires as a child haunt me. Vividly. I’ve worked as a waitress, and now in human services. More and more the synergy of the combustion--between my experience and the ideas create smoke, soot, and ash. The fierce burn sweeps my inner landscape illuminating lost thoughts, creating new ideas. After the mixture of soot, ash, and lingering smoke settle I find I am left with one central understanding:
Labels limit; no one wants to be limited; trust is essential in removing labels.
Jeremy Rifkin thinks global empathy might be an effect from the proliferation of information and perhaps our answer to many of our society’s woes. Is he right? He believes we are, as a human race, becoming more aware of the “other”. The “other,” defined as those who are different from whatever our culture would label as normal. We often have, I think, a definition of normal whether we question it through conscious thought or not. When I think about this awareness rising through the strata of our culture, I hope. I want it to be possible. We are becoming more aware of the “other,” in our lives and even those outside of our day to day lives. They speak out, those we define as other. Perhaps they (these people and groups of people) bare themselves because they have nothing left to lose and dignity is far from their essential worries. Mainly, it seems to me, they wish avoid being swallowed whole by the norm. And I can't blame them. As I ponder, I begin to believe the “other,” do not need or want our dignity. By dignity, I mean what we might use for ourselves in terms of symbols to show society we are somebody. Not just anybody but somebody within an accepted and successful norm. A friend of mine was discussing her understanding of this idea and shared how in many Latino cultures having a nice car is a sign you have “made it,” you are now successful. Peering into my own experiences with dignity, I find it may be because our version of it (dignity) would be culturally meaningless.
One set of memories, a mish-mash of the years before adolescence, comes vividly to mind. When I was a youth my parents would often take me out to get clothes. Clothes for school, for church, for special occasions etc. I hated it. I hated going into the dressing room. Picking out clothes from the rack that looked like nothing I would ever want to wear. Smelling the odd scents that new clothes often have. Coming out to show my parents what I had tried on. Feeling like I was wearing a paper sack with an expensive tag. My parents asked if I liked the clothes and there was no good answer. If I said no I was offered something else still not to my taste. And if I said no again I was ungrateful and hard to please. It was all vaguely embarrassing. I felt confined. Smothered. There was no trust. I did not trust them to hear me and they did not trust me to know what was acceptable; I think this was because they could not hear me. They had no understanding of my own otherness. And perhaps I could not speak in a way they could hear? I knew they only wanted to give me the best. My parents asked me to wear certain clothes they believed would say something positive about me to the world. Perhaps even about them as parents. But the clothes my parents chose did not reflect what I wanted to say about me to myself and to my culture. This was not a meaningful dignity. Not for me.
As I consider the “other” subcultures: the youth, the autistic, the blue collar workers, the harvesters, I begin to believe thinkers who speak out like Grandin, Rose and Svitak want us to see they are part of our norm. Disregard the labels, they seem to say. These persons, those you call other, have contributed much to society, to the world.
In just the last fifty years society has begun to have an ever evolving vehicle for the voice of the “other”. Media. Can we hear them more clearly? If we begin to listen, can we hear some resounding repetitive idea? A rise of their mingled voices as it becomes one whispering roar? I think they are saying trust. Trust that we exist. That we contribute. That we have more to offer if you can trust. Children open doors to possibilities because their minds are not closed (Svitak), the autistic have built the solid capable dependable foundations of our world (Grandin), the workmen have incredible minds dedicated to realizing their craft through the navigation of foreseeing potentialities (Rose). As I stand back I can only really stand in awe: eyes wide, mouth a gap, as I try to be aware of the powerful strength lent to the world and our society by these “other” people. People we have for so long chosen not to see. Perhaps, we were not able to see. Now I am exposed to these people through internet media and mass market paperback “On Sale! 50% Off Market Price!”
Looking at the connections between the ever expanding information available over the last fifty years and our experiences of the other as a society bring to mind Sven Birkerts' essay “The Owl Has Flown”. Again my thinking is ignited. Birkets investigates how we may be different now from the time when humanity had not yet invented the printing press. Before computers and long distance communication how did we treat the other? I begin to think back to Rifkin as he thinks about this very question and the conclusions he has drawn. He believes we have become more empathic. Birkets notes, “In our culture, access is not the problem, but proliferation is.” I find Birkerts is correct in many ways but is it a problem? He is examining this proliferation of information and finds we skim the surface of things rather than diving deeper. We do. There is an overabundance of information. I cannot argue. And I appreciate greatly his idea of being vertical vs. being horizontal in our thinking or as one classmate, Rachel Recker, said in our online discussion, “digging deeper (thinking vertically) or moving around (thinking horizontally).” I think as we manage this onslaught of information it is possible we become vertical in new ways. I think Rifkin is on to something. Isn’t empathy vertical? Perhaps we are now able to be vertical when we look at the “other” because we have these humanizing people to see.
And see them we do. There are so many “reality” shows and now we also have YouTube and other media platforms. Perhaps it is by first seeing through the distance created by these platforms we are able to see the “other” in our lives. The veil that allows us to keep our preconceived notions is lifted and removed. Or shifted temporarily perhaps? In this environment is it more difficult to maintain the habits of mind that allow for prejudice? I hope so.
It requires trust, I think, to avoid acts of discrimination and even more to be investigative of your own possible prejudice. YouTube has brought this around more than any polished news story could, I believe. Is the veil not easily shifted by the news because the stories are always processed through the vision of someone's specific culture and agenda whereas YouTube is less discriminating? Could this be helpful? Discrimination is the act of prejudice, is it not? Perhaps, since YouTube is not a person, it doesn't require trust in order to allow information to enter its domain unheeded. Or does YouTube trust because it is immune to many of the pitfalls since it is not alive? I don't know. Does trust mean believing or agreeing with everything someone else says? I don't think so. Not the kind of trust I am thinking of. As I write, I think of the kind that listens. It is the trust where we truly believe each of us has a voice worth hearing. The willingness to be aware of the “other” those outside of our everyday experience, to allow them to change our conception of the world, this is kind of trust I think we may be moving toward.
When confronted with something outside of what is known we have two main responses I can see. Fear and curiosity. Perhaps fear is a horizontal (cold, frozen) response and curiosity (igniting, heat) is more vertical; I think this makes sense. If we are curious we can dig deeper, burn brighter. To be curious requires trust in ourselves perhaps more than our environment. As I turn this idea in my mind, I begin to believe if we trust ourselves to be effective and safe in an environment (one where we deal with the fire of the new experience and thoughts) then we have more power, more choice. We can learn to see beyond what we can fit into our “norm”. Maybe, with the buffer technology offers between ourselves and those we would consider “other,” we feel safe enough to be exposed (watch the bonfire on the far hill) to people and ways of living we would otherwise avoid out of fear. Perhaps this is where the veil between us and the other has shifted. Becoming something more malleable. Now it is the soft layer (of space) between us. Through this we can hear and see. Can understanding like light pierce what remains of the barrier created by our preconceived notions?
I wonder about what might be a paradox in my thinking. I want everyone to have a voice. I am glad YouTube doesn't discriminate. But I want to discriminate when it comes to my children. I do not want them exposed to the darkest side of human nature when they are still figuring out their own nature. I immediately veto things like forensics books aimed at my youngest. Perfect for new readers! But perhaps it is my awareness of my decision to discriminate when it comes to certain information (not against people or groups of people) which allows it to be beyond a paradox or hypocrisy. It might also be less of a concern because I accept it is a temporary decision not one made to withstand the test of time. When dealing with fire we would not offer a young child a book of matches in a room by himself would we? Information discrimination is not really the same as the discrimination of people. Usually it is called discernment. But I worry about the habit.
Ultimately, I want my children to discern for themselves. I want them to think it through. Warm themselves by the fire of their thoughts and experiences. And perhaps that is where I arrive in my paradox. For surely, I do not have difficulty with my eldest deciding to learn more about forensics. However I want him to choose to lift the veil. I want him to decide how close to get to the flames. The thoughtfulness to uncover your own interests and investigate, to dig deeper within first, is part of what steadies them (the children) as they confront their own paradoxes in life, I think. I believe this is another buffer. I think perhaps we need those.
Many books on negative emotions highlight the importance of a pause. When something new comes in, pause. In fact, according to renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist in his RSA video “The Divided Brain,” that is what our frontal lobe is for. It gives humans a way to look at what is going on within or without before we act. It is our pause button. Before we get hooked into labeling something or someone or an experience, we can pause. In that pause everything is untitled, unlimited, not one thing or another. It is the moment before ignition where we gather the ideas and our experiences. The matches. The tinder. The Schrodinger cat of possibility lay within a pause between question and fact. It is in this space I suspect we may begin to accept. Accept the new and allow for curiosity. Curiosity killed the cat? Maybe. But satisfaction brought him back. In curiosity we have a triumvirate of super powers: we have the power of trusting ourselves, the awareness from listening and (according to quantum physics and this children's rhyme) possibly power over death as well. I'll take it!
Maybe this is how we avoid the pitfalls of labeling everything. We pause. Use the handy dandy frontal lobe and pause. In the pause we have the room for our curiosity. Curiosity we need to handle both ideas (matches) and experiences (tinder). It allows the flame of our thoughts to light the way rather than burn us. By this we find our own ideas, we pause and can be with the “other” vertically. Labeling is horizontal. Curiosity divine, I mean human, I mean vertical.
Birkerts, Sven. “The Owl Has Flown” Think Vertically! Essays for Inquiry, Analysis, and Reflection. 1st ed. Eds. Whatcom Community College Faculty. Fountainhead Press, 2010. 31-39. Print.
Dillard, Annie. “Seeing” Think Vertically! Essays for Inquiry, Analysis, and Reflection. 1st ed. Eds. Whatcom Community College Faculty. Fountainhead Press, 2010. 63-82. Print.
Grandin, Temple. “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds”. TED talk. February 2010. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.
McGilchrist, Iain. “The Divided Brain”. RSA Animate, YouTube. 21 October 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2011.
Recker, Rachel. Discussion 4.1: Thinking about Sven Birkerts' "The Owl Has Flown." ANGEL, Whatcom Community College, 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.
Rifkin, Jeremy. “The Empathic Civilization.” RSA Animate, YouTube. 6 May 2010. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.
Rose, Mike. “The Mind at Work”. ANGEL Whatcom Community College. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.
Svitak, Adora. “What Adults Can Learn From Kids”. TED talk. February 2010. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.
copyright 2011, Jessica Bee