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Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Funny Animals

What funny animals we be.

It takes some effort to accomplish this, but try, just for a moment. Look at yourself in the mirror, or at a friend (it's actually harder with strangers) and try not to see them as people. Try to see them as animals.

If you accomplish this, you will see what I mean. We are ugly, weirdly-colored, inconsistently hairy apes with bad posture. Compared to the sleek functional lines of a Lion or a Wolf, we look freakish and lame. I was noticing this today, and it made me wonder why I hadn't ever noticed it before. I dropped it, then manually reassembled the ability to see through the gauze, and was amazed at what the process made clear to me.

Essentially, every time we look at someone, we make a series of assumptions. Their posture, their clothing, their color, their expression, their hair-do, the state of their makeup... all these things become information. We don't even see them, we see what they mean.

If you can't get this exercise to work, there's a similar exercise that can help train your brain up for it. Look at the words you're reading right now and try to let them mean nothing. Attempt to actually see the words. See their shape. Reduce them to meaningless pictographs, and then attempt to make a decision about how pretty (or ugly) our written language is.

Hard, isn't it? When you look at these symbols, you don't see the symbols, you see what they mean.

Well, it's the same when you look at a person.

This is intuitive, if you think about it, and explains how cultures vary so widely in what they find attractive and unattractive, and even how our sense of what is attractive can change over time. It's all about what a certain appearance means to us.

But think about the greater implications of this.

Not only is everyone racist... Everyone is racist, sexist, and everything-else-ist (is that a word, yet?) against everyone else, including themselves (oddly enough) and their best friends. It is so damn hard not to see stereotypes when we look at people that we never realize we're seeing them. We see them all the time, and everywhere we look. We can't see the wall because the wall is so big that we've never seen anything else.

Snakes and Lions are both bloodthirsty predators, but lion cubs are "cute" and snake babies are "gross" or "scary." Odd, huh?

Even your friends suffer from a stereotyping of a sort. Think about it. You know someone really, really well. They go away for a year, become a totally different person, and come back. Who do you see, when you see them again? I run into this all the time with old friends (and enemies) from high school. I run into them, they presume I am the person I was when I last saw them, and everything becomes awkward and weird because they're talking to someone who isn't there. When I think about it, the feeling of bitter resentment, annoyance and (strangely) long-suffering paternal patience that boils up when I run into those situations is extremely similar to what I feel when I tell someone overseas that I'm Canadian to avoid a beating. It all comes from the same place and accomplishes the same thing.

On the other hand, with effort, you can sit down and stare at someone, and peel away those layers, and get down to that ugly-looking animal. It gets easier with time.

So maybe with practice we can learn to peel away only the layers we want to peel.

It's a dangerous process. Get in the habit of looking at pretty girls and seeing ugly animals, and you'll live a miserable life. But it might be worth experimenting with, because in stripping away those layers, sometimes you learn where, and what, they are.

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