Friday, January 23, 2009

Don't Pin Me

When I was 19 and a counselor at summer camp, the thirty-something cook took a special interest in me. We'd stay up late talking in his tent and he'd dispense hard-hitting epithets on my character (We were also fooling around. Is that relevant?). I couldn't figure out how he had me pinned after only knowing me for a few short weeks, and I developed a sense of awe for what appeared to be great wisdom.

It wasn’t just me he had a knack for analyzing. He’d entertain me by going through our co-workers and pronouncing them this or that: Alpha-female. Type A. Or her parents didn’t love her enough. Or, she’s American, so of course she’s got no passion. Being in the company of such an astute observer was intimidating—at times it felt like he knew more about me than I did.

But then one night he tried to mock me for my supposed naiveté. “You’re just a giiiirl," he crooned. I protested, playfully at first. “Ok fine, you’re a WOMAN.” But that didn’t feel right either, and now I was annoyed. He kept trying to pin me down under his thumb and I kept slithering out; I could see he was struggling and it only made me more indignant.

I’m none of those things, I told him. Why can’t I just be Lindsay?

At first, his commentary had been chillingly accurate, and it made me want to believe everything he said. But now I saw how inconsistent his little pin-me game was, and I began to question whether he had ever really seen me.

It became increasingly clear that he had not—that he was incapable of authentic vision. The cook saw the world in terms of types, a strategy that allowed him to produce quick insight with limited information. The formula is simple: take a single observation, plug it into the appropriate category, and bingo: he’s an Achiever, she’s an Intellectual, or maybe a Creative—along with all the associated attributes.

But the same thing that allowed the cook to be so perceptive at times also prevented him from ever really seeing what was in front of him. Confronted with oddity or novelty, he consulted his mind’s library of archived experiences to help make an appropriate judgment.

This is what I think my favorite rhetoric professor in college was getting at when he talked about “seeing sameness.” A comment on one of my posts illustrates the utility of this mode of vision:
People (in mass) follow statistical patterns and can be described by generalizations, whereas individuals can't be. You don't need to make a new "sense" based on what could easily be a statistical outlier.

When you’re a physics grad student, like this dear little commenter is, it’s useful to streamline the process of seeing otherwise you’ll probably never get through the first steps of your experiments to look for variations in the fine structure constant. There will always be statistical outliers, and sometimes its best just to ignore them.

But when you’re seeing in terms of pre-established notions—seeing sameness, seeing what’s already happened—you’re not really seeing. And when we’re looking at art, or listening to music, or trying to really know a person, it's those statistical outliers that make a painting worth looking at, a song worth playing on repeat, or a person worth falling in love with.

We don’t always see what we’re expecting to see, and when that happens the temptation is to look away—to reach inside our heads for the Platonic ideal, and see that instead. But when we let go of preconceptions, we can look at a thing as totally individual and completely unique—not fitting into preexisting categories but forging new categories.

This is what I think my professor meant by seeing difference. It’s a way of seeing that’s interested in the features that distinguish an object, not the features that align it with some larger category. Seeing sameness is an act of gathering up the chaos of the world and organizing it into boxes. Seeing difference is making more chaos, doing away with overarching order. The only presumption it makes in looking at the world is that everything it encounters will be unique.

Maybe this is why I’ve never been able to identify with a political party. Those labels have never resonated for me; they feel like cages. They’re shortcuts, and though I'm aware of their usefulness, I want you to really see me, see me slowly and carefully and not call me a “giiiiirl” in a knowing drawl like that damn cook. Or a democrat. Or an intellectual. Or an achiever. Whatever. It sort of all feels the same.

I’m glad that other people can call themselves democrats and creatives and conservatives and introverts—really, I am—but it’s just not for me. Sorry.


  1. i know one label under which you self-identify.

  2. (starts with an H and ends with an R)

  3. Every time I take one of those tests I come up with one of two results: INTJ or INTP, with J significantly more often than P. My friends would agree that I don't fit molds well or fall into categories easily... I guess I do take tests well.

    I think you underestimated my cynicism in the last comment. It's possible that I am "constantly looking for the best in people" only because I automatically assume the worst. ... or maybe what I was trying to say (I'm not quite sure) is that even when I find someone I enjoy I still catch myself trying to justify my feelings according to a list of criteria (and believe me, there is a list).

    I have thoughts about your deep ecology post that are potentially worth sharing, but they will wait.

    If you're into physics and rock climbing, I'll marry you on the spot (nb if != iff)

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