An Experiment in Seeing People as Nothing But

What do you see people as?

And I don’t mean ‘people’ as in ‘humankind,’ or imaginary
figures, or as philosophical concepts. I mean those real folks around you.
Right now. Sitting quietly, or wandering, and maybe holding their hands in
awkward habit. Somewhere deep in their own thoughts.

Really though, give this a moment. Put down this newspaper.
Close your laptop for a second. Put away your phone. Look around.

Again: What do you see people as?

It is hard to say, isn’t it? What could be one of easiest
questions you’ve ever been asked turns out to be a bit more complex. Some shred
of mystery remains in the ink. Maybe these real people around you are stories?
Objects? Variables? Spirits? Flesh? Empty?

It seems more often than not we end up cutting this question
short, abandoning the inquiry just before we have to do any real personal work.
That hard, uncomfortable, skin-dredging work. We avoid it like the plague and see
people as the thing most pertinent to us.

This could be seeing people as metaphors, as if the lives
of others serve a story-like purpose in the living of your own life. The dining
hall worker who you just became friends with serves as a ‘turning point’ (metaphor
red-flag) in your college career. Your best friend is your ‘extrovert friend’ (ditto) in relation to your own tendencies. A crowd is not a ‘group of
individuals’ but a ‘setting’ in which you act out your life.

Or maybe you see others as ‘economic-style
objects’—variables in the sociological trends of the day, aspects in your own
inquiry into the makeup of the universe, statistics.

All mannerisms fade out; all ticks and idiosyncrasies blend
together into categories already known to you. People are sexual objects,
people are means to an end, people become integers masked in an equation,
hidden in variable, dehumanized by certainty.

In a similar vein we also tend to paint people as ‘legal objects.’ Others are less variable and more consequential. In other words: you are ‘this’
because of ‘that.’ You are an American because of your passport. You are a
criminal because of your record. You are my friend because you helped me
yesterday. As if others all exist on this nice, simple one-to-one ratio of
definition. We judge externally and proceed to give ourselves exception on all

It is almost as if we will do everything in our control to
avoid the simplest answer: “I see people as people.”

People—us kind of uptight and grimy people—stripped of
metaphorical interpretation, sans-value function, without the requirement of
being connected to systems. Seeing people with all of their complexities of
belief, instances of self-loathing and remembrances of real joy.

This is a frightening thing to take into account because it
forces us to ask the question: “How many people have I never considered?” That
list grows and grows until it no longer is quantifiable; it’s just there, in
the background staring us down. It becomes harder to trivialize another’s

All of a sudden we are confronted with a potential to not be
so self-absorbed.

Because we all are self-absorbed. Studying all day and night
so I can succeed. Rushing from here
to there so I can be on time. Not
communicating with campus workers because I
don’t feel like it.

Some of us go four years staring into textbooks,
intellectualizing our own experience, encouraged every step of the way that we
need ‘good’ grades more than changes in perspective. Three years into my time at Pomona, and I still hear, every day, my
peers lay out complex, beautiful and elegant reasoning into people not being people.

And I don’t expect everyone to agree with what I’ve written,
in part because there are really no distinct upsides of ‘seeing people as
people.’ All the normal ‘upsides’ fall back into those catch-all categories of
metaphor, economics and/or legal gain. Maybe the only hope is that there is
something on the other side of this shift in perspective—that maybe apart from
personal gain, a more intricate and visceral world is an end in and of itself.

This is all starting to sound a bit too heady. And to be honest, I’m not good at this whole business of
seeing people as people. In fact, I’m so terrible that I am writing this column
to remind myself of others out there—hoping that maybe somebody will read this
and help me move forward. I’m so twisted and tangled in my own thoughts that I
barely see others for who they are. But I’m trying … I’m trying real hard to be something more.

That’s really all we can do: try—try real hard to live here
with people and not placeholders; to see those folks sitting quietly, or
wandering, and maybe holding their hands in awkward habit, authentically.
Finally, taking a moment or two to step out of those intricacies deep within
our own thoughts. 

Conner Roberts PO ’16 is a philosophy and religion major from a few places scattered around the world.

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