What We Sacrifice To Be Seen
What other people think of me is none of my business.
Google tells me this is a quote from RuPaul — or possibly Wayne Dyer, or Eleanor Roosevelt, or Lana del Rey, or Gary Oldman. Maybe they all said it. It’s a good phrase, after all—a pithier and more secular riff on the serenity prayer that exhorts us to recognize the limits of our own influence and let go of what we cannot change. Actors and artists and other public figures tend to appreciate it, for obvious reasons, but you’re just as likely to hear a version of it in the mouth of a motivational speaker, a self-help guru, or your therapist. And it’s true — not just that you can’t control another person’s thoughts or feelings, but that it would be wrong for you to try.
The impulse to try remains, though. Of course it does: the axiom wouldn’t exist if not for the problem it tries to address, that deep-rooted human desire to meddle with the contents of other people’s heads. The human brain is a private place, and its impenetrability makes it scary. Lord only knows what a person might be doing in there.
The quest for control is convoluted. If another person is thinking incorrectly, it’s already too late: we need to intervene earlier, to stop dangerous ideas at their source, before they go viral and take root in the fertile darkness of an unenlightened mind. The pop culture discourse in 2020 is remarkably haunted by the specter of the Cultural Idiot, an ultra-impressionable boogeyman nobody ever seems to have met but who we’re sure exists. He’s out there somewhere, just waiting for someone to drop an ideological engine into the empty chassis of his brain. He will read this book, watch that film, and get the Wrong Idea About Things.
Before the coronavirus became the sun around which our discourse revolves, the Cultural Idiot loomed large in a controversy surrounding Amazon’s Hunters, a television series about a group of Nazi-hunters in 1977 New York City. The complaints centered on one brutal flashback scene in which a group of Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz are forced to play a game of human chess. It’s wrenching to watch. It also never happened, a fact that prompted the Auschwitz Memorial to condemn the show as “disrespectful and dangerous,” and worse, encouraging of “future deniers.”
David Weil, the showrunner of Hunters, defended this scene as “representationally truthful” — and indeed, what’s depicted in it is hardly more shocking than countless documented horrors that took place in the camps. It’s also worth noting that the scene is thematically significant: its emotional punch derives not just from the Nazis’ brutality but from the violence the prisoners are forced to inflict on each other, and this is the legacy of suffering, the self-perpetuating cycle of violence, that Hunters seeks to explore. “He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.” (That’s Nietzsche, not RuPaul.)
But the looming threat of the Cultural Idiot means that it doesn’t matter. To create gut-wrenching fiction surrounding an atrocity might encourage someone, somewhere, to believe that the atrocity itself was fake.
Does anyone remember American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins’ novel about a Mexican woman who flees for the U.S. with her son after a cartel massacres their entire family? The debate over this book seems like it took place a lifetime ago; in fact, it was just last month that Sarah Menkedick published her denunciation of the book at Longreads. There, she noted that the story would, indeed, “achieve the immediate effect of eliciting the empathy of a large, and affluent, white audience.” But, she wrote, the empathy “comes at a cost, and that is migrants’ full humanity. Their right to be something other than perfect vessels of empathy and safe admiration.”
In other words: what other people think of you, even if it’s not you they’re thinking of but rather a fictional representation of someone like you, even if they are thinking it from thousands of miles away and in the context of a work of fiction, is very much your business. It is, in fact, an existential threat to your very being.
What does it mean, this idea of empathy-at-a-cost? Do any of us really have the right to be represented fully, in all our complexity, in the minds of other people? How would such a right be exercised?
In the age of social media, one of the highest compliments paid to a work of art is that it made the viewer feel “seen.” On one hand, it’s an odd reversal: that we should expect a movie to see us, rather than the other way around. But maybe this is where we were always headed, a natural extension of a world where the act of living itself so often takes on a performative quality, where the validity of your experiences depends on how other people respond. The point is not to do things; it’s #DoingThings, and making sure people see you doing them. If nobody dutifully taps that little heart icon to acknowledge that photograph you took — at the Grand Canyon, on your wedding day, at your father’s deathbed — were you ever really there? If you look into a work of art and don’t see yourself looking back, how can you be sure the story you tell yourself about your life is true? Consider the accusation levied at the artist who fails to make people feel seen, who makes the mistake of imagining that his work is a window instead of a mirror: not that he has overlooked his audience, but that he has erased them.
If what other people think of you is a threat to your existence, then when they don’t think of you, perhaps you cease to exist at all.
“Having my gender interpreted incorrectly makes me feel panicky, like trying on a sweater that’s too tight around the neck in a crowded store,” explains a Washington Post piece from late last year, defending the rise of bespoke pronouns. “Those of us who make a point of identifying our pronouns want to make sure others see us as we are.”
In a way, it’s a lovely idea. Imagine it being so easy, to direct how others perceive us. Imagine never suffering the misery of feeling misunderstood. What other people think of you is not only your business, but yours to dictate: they will see what you instruct them to see.
But when you tell people who you are, do they believe you? How can you be sure? Your pronouns are not really yours, after all; other people, not you, will be the ones to use them. And while the preferred pronoun trend may be fueled by an earnest belief, so prevalent in certain progressive spaces, that changing the way people think is best begun by policing the way they speak, it also endows them with unspeakable, undeserved, and dangerous power — to invalidate you, to erase you, to make you feel panicky and strangled, all because of how they talk about you when you’re not around.
It’s a paradox of our gender discourse: we are freer than ever to live our truth and express our identities, unbound by convention or social norms, but only if everyone else expresses it along with you. Your identity lives or dies on another person’s lips.
Not long after the advent of the smartphone, social critics began to note that we were losing our tolerance for boredom, our ability to be alone with our thoughts. It’s true, but it’s not only that: increasingly, we don’t know how to have a thought, a feeling, an experience, without performing it for an audience.
Maybe this is why every quotidian conflict becomes a drama for public consumption. The inconsiderate person taking up too much space on the subway; the rude DM from a stranger; the ex-boyfriend who, in hindsight, behaved very badly indeed. Why suffer these people in silence when you could make them famous, reviled, shamed? The value of privacy pales in comparison to the prospect of dozens, hundreds, thousands of people validating your right to be hurt; the complex truth of human interactions is subsumed by easy narratives about good guys and bad guys, victims and villains. And don’t you, don’t we all, have an obligation to call out the bad guys, lest they hurt someone else?
On the social web, there are no individuals behaving inconsiderately, no interpersonal conflicts that are best resolved behind closed doors and between their participants. There is only the narrative, and the person smart enough to get out in front of it before the other guy does. On the internet, it all blurs together: the personal, the political, the professional. The past two years have showed us what happens when a bad date makes for a good story, when a person can be made into a public pariah over a private misstep. Mishandle yourself during a breakup, and heartache may be the least of your worries, especially if your scorned ex has a large Twitter following or a Medium account.
This is the multifarious power of social media: that it amplifies minor slights while at the same time flattening them into Just Another Example of Some Larger Problem. The people who’ve wronged us are no longer people but walking avatars of privilege, identity-category mascots, perpetuators of systemic injustice who’ve been getting away with it for far too long. Accountability is in order. Posts will be published. Let the crowds, in their wisdom, referee our relationships.
What other people think will decide the nature of the truth.
It’s a strange moment to be musing on these concepts — privacy, culture, community — when the fear of disease has left us hunkering down in our homes, more physically distant from each other than ever. We crowd into virtual spaces now while the bars, the theaters, the sports arenas sit empty; the internet is the only gathering place left to us. Our new public space is the timeline, and what other people think, about us, about anything, is all there is. Just an endless scroll of inner monologues turned outward-facing.
Some things have changed. A fictionalized, sensationalized, and entirely terrifying account of a person contracting COVID-19 has been widely shared and praised for driving home the severity of the situation; nobody seems to think that it flattens the experience of actual sufferers, or will only encourage conspiracy theorists who believe the virus is a media-driven hoax. Maybe it’s that the frightening specter of the Cultural Idiot has been eclipsed by the far more alarming and undeniable presence of actual idiots, those determined spring breakers and bar-hoppers whose ignorant refusal to stay home puts us all at risk. The greatest threat, it turns out, is not what these people think of us. It’s that they think of nobody but themselves.
And mostly, the discourse takes the same familiar shape, with minor adaptations for present circumstances. Instead of shaming the person who takes up too much space on the subway, the outrage coalesces around those who have the audacity to take the subway (or even leave their homes) at all. Instead of debating bespoke pronouns, we battle over the proper naming conventions for the virus that’s destroying our lives. The Cultural Idiot rears his ugly head again: dutifully staying indoors, but getting radicalized by problematic YouTube videos.
We update our Twitter handles to signal our solidarity with the rightside norms of the day: WASH YOUR HANDS. STAY THE FUCK HOME.
We still, after all this, want to believe that there is no more important business than the private thoughts we make public.
Maybe this is what we need, to feel normal. Our cultural institutions may have all gone dark, but the culture wars can be fought from home. And fight we must, because what else is there? Boredom. Loneliness. Solitude. Silence. The terrifying prospect of being all alone with our unshared thoughts. With our lives so thoroughly upended by the force of the pandemic, what other people think of us seems like it might still be within our power to control.
Otherwise, we might have to face the reality of the moment: that we are all in this together, alone. Trapped in the privacy of our own homes. Trapped in the echoing darkness of our own heads.
Lord only knows what we’re doing in there.