Last year, I didn’t want to write, so I posted photo after photo of the sky.”I haven’t moved beyond noticing this pattern to analyzing what it says about me,” I wrote. Today, I will move in that direction.
Take a quick scroll through my Instagram or Camera Roll, and you’ll see landscapes, not people. Part of this is because I feel unbearably awkward asking my friends to gather for a group photo. But to indulge my need to overanalyze and jump to conclusions, part of this is that my photos are representative of how I relate to other people–namely, that I don’t like to do it.
On an individual level, I’m fine. I have friends (don’t worry, Mom), and we get along (right, guys?). I’m good with parents and professors. I’m even okay with group projects.
But when it comes to acknowledging larger, more abstract groups of humans as a whole, I struggle to relate. I find it so much easier to deny my place within the group. While some in my philosophy class could argue that David Foster Wallace’s depictions of his fellow passengers on a cruise ship in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” were mercilessly callous, I found it incredibly easy to emphasize with his feelings of isolation and disgust. People are horrible! I don’t want to be one of them!
This desire to exclude myself from the larger pool of humanity is rooted in good intentions. I mean, humans are responsible for every bad thing humanity has done, from racism to sexual assault to pollution. More specifically, the groups of people that seem most like me—white, cis-gendered, middle-class, American—are responsible for initiating and perpetuating some of the most pernicious and systemic problems affecting the world today (mass incarceration, the legacy of slavery, gender expectations and constraints—I could go on). Mentally separating myself from other people lets me feel assured that my morals, my values, and my actions are aligned differently than those of the perpetrators of harmful and immoral acts.
But left unchecked, this refusal to identify with a group can be problematic. It make it easier to cast groups I identify as “other” in an overgeneralized, negative, and inaccurate light, leading to the inadvertant classism in Wallace’s essay or more overt instances of that and other types of discrimination (not to mention alienating or insulting members of groups I am a part of, whether I acknowledge it or not). Further, by refusing to acknowledge my place in humanity, I refuse to take responsibility for what it—and the more specific groups I indeed belong to—have done. It’s easier to brush off problems and do nothing to fix them when they’re not your problems. But at the heart of it, I am a person among all people, and I am a specific person among specific groups that have caused a lot of harm. I need to work to improve these groups from within just as much as as I should criticize our actions from without.
This is a huge mental leap to take from pictures of clouds, but it’s one that I needed to take.