I was thinking fairly shallow thoughts about perception this morning, in the context of an old friend and how our relationship has changed over the years, and a pattern occurred to me about how I see people. I see individuals as a sort of web of relationships to other people and concepts, such that every strand connects to a concept or person with an indicator of how strong a connection that strand represents.
For example, imagine a person, Sam. Sam might play guitar and like Star Trek; I might know him from a job I had a few years ago. I see Sam as a node, more or less (well, a person, but I see him in terms of graph theory because that’s what I do), with edges connected to guitar, Star Trek, and that job.
Normally an individual with whom I’m familiar has a large network of such attributes: hair color, eye color (if I notice, I guess), sports preferences and team preferences, religious affiliation and dedication, political views, willingness to share those views, and so forth.
There are a few people that I know for whom such networks are really, really small, maybe three or four attributes, and I say that I “know” them in the loosest possible sense: I barely know these people at all. I might recognize their names; I might associate them with a single issue. That’s okay; that’s a person I recognize lightly, and it only says that our interactions were mostly insignificant.
There are others, however, for whom that’s not the case. That’s what got me thinking about the way I see people.
Lately, it’s been really easy for people to fixate on specific issues: “Donald Trump is the worst President ever,” “police are pigs,” “gun control now,” “free Puerto Rico,” and so forth and so on. I’m cool with that, although I don’t especially like it; all of these things can be real issues, and some of them I agree with to varying degrees, but I don’t like the fixation nor the hysteria.
The hysteria is … really awful. It’s distorting, in fact.
There are people for whom my networks of association, the way I see them, have become broken. There are people for whom I used to have dozens of associations in my head – the relationships – and now I see them and the association is dominated by their hysteria over a single issue.
They become dehumanized in my head. They’re no longer Sam, but “Sam-who-hates-Donald-Trump.” The hatred and hysteria – which, again, aren’t necessarily undeserved – become their dominant attribute, and they lose something in the translation.
I have to stop trying to pay attention to those people. Sam – who is, by the way, entirely fictitious – is someone whom I would have to unfollow or ignore. My RSS reader would no longer follow his feeds; I’d unsubscribe from his mailing lists, if any. Whatever the requirements would be to isolate myself from him, that’s what I’d do.
It’s not that I would despise our poor fake example, Sam. I wouldn’t. I recognize that Sam’s humanity is not actually impacted by my perception. With that said, a single-issue relationship like that – someone who is so strongly associated with a single issue that I don’t recognize them without that issue being dominant – isn’t typically helpful.
And even there, there are caveats. There are single-issue relationships that aren’t dominated by hysteria; some are just strongly held beliefs that are positive in nature. (“I know this person because they are associated with this charitable cause.”)
I guess that the cut-off for me is based in negative expressions.
So whose fault is it? Is it Sam’s, or mine?
I don’t know. It’s easy for me to blame the Other; it’s Sam’s fault, not mine, right? But it also might be that I haven’t reached out to Sam in such a way that I see other, more positive attributes. But maybe that’s because I don’t have the time, or Sam doesn’t respond in ways that don’t reinforce the negative association.
Like I say, I don’t know.
It actually pains me to stop seeing people in the full glow of their humanity; we’re all human, we all need that association to remain human. Ceasing to interact with someone, even when the level of interaction isn’t very high, hurts both of us.
But sometimes it’s necessary.
And if you’re wondering, the initial thought that started all of this was about my thumb injury last year, and what I’d have done had the doctors recommended amputation.