4 Reasons You Can't Judge People By Their Appearance
Much like Stereophonics back when they were good, I've been people-watching again, and I think they watch me too. So now I'm making an animated webseries about it that also conveniently aids in the point I'm making with this column, so watch this trailer first, or whatever I'm writing here will make even less sense than usual:
No matter how hard you watch people you can never actually see them, is the point here, and we all know to not judge by appearances, but the reasons are less obvious than you'd assume. So let's discuss using myself for the examples, since I'm the only one I can see inside of (until I sell enough seeds to get me some X-ray specs, anyway).
Because TV Taught You To See Cliches
Life is like a box of chocolates, not because you never know what you're going to get (you are going to get chocolate) but because you assume you know what kind of chocolate you want because you tried coconut once when you were a kid and you didn't like it, so fuck coconut. But you've read the little card that says what chocolate is what, and you have no reason to doubt its veracity. For so many of us, the little card is TV and movies, and it told us life would be one thing ... but then it was dramatically something else. Most of what I know is because I saw it on a viewing screen and believed it was true, and there's a long argument about entertainment being an escape from reality, but the fact is TV and movies affect us and inspire us and in general shape our expectations. They are our window into the world beyond the house where we grew up (IF we grew up; I'm still working on that one).
We don't even have frats in Canada, and yet I expected to be in one.
But then you get older and look back with the knowledge of actual human interaction, and TV shows that seemed to be a window into adulthood now look like a bunch of aliens doing a grotesque pantomime about The Humans based on a few stray observations through a telescope. The problem is that you don't realize this when you're a kid and then you define yourself according to how different your apartment is from Monica's and how different your abs are from Brad Pitt's in Fight Club. Everyone is doing this to themselves, and it's like a dictatorship where Dear Leader doesn't actually exist -- it's just that no one's actually gone into the palace to check because someone keeps updating his Instagram, so he must be real. Life is supposed to be a box of whatever you want to put in it, but so often we just fill it with things like chocolate because that's what the movie showed and it stuck in our mind, and then someone watches us do that and assumes it was our idea and copies it. And that's why you shouldn't judge by appearance -- because so often we're just dressing the way the movie said to in a way that's entirely disconnected from who we are as individuals. If it helps my point, I'll relay the anecdote about me literally going into the hairdressers with a photo of Jake Gyllenhaal as a character in a movie and saying, "Do this; it looks Normal. Oh, and give me his face and charisma too." And that is what you're seeing when you people-watch me: someone trying to look like a photo and feeling bad because they couldn't do the face and charisma and could only kind of do the cut, because the hairlines are different. You might as well just watch TV at that point.
Life is a video game; just try not to die. And use mushrooms to get super powers.
Because It's Impossible To Dress Differently
Why does everyone dress the same, you lament, as you wipe the nacho crumbs from your Star Wars T-shirt. Those hipster clones with their Urban Outfitters fashions, they're all the same, I tell you! Watch people in winter and you'll see 10,000 of the same damn coat. Watch people in the summer and everyone's in those newfangled "tee-shirts." Wake up sheeple, etc. I myself have become increasingly hipstery in my dress sense, with the skinnier jeans and the more confining shirts and the goddamn shoes that everyone fucking has, so what's my problem? I don't have a problem, but your problem is that everyone dresses the same because once something is in fashion, guess what? Those are the only clothes you can buy. And standardized clothes can't help you see people how they see themselves ...
The shadow knows where I stole this idea from.
Scale it up, in fact. Why is everyone dressed in jeans and T-shirts to begin with? What happened to the good old days of ruffs and pantaloons and burlap rags and samurai armor and mammoth hides and Zubaz and those giant rings that stretch out your neck? Because for all intents and purposes everyone you are ever likely to meet in industrialized society dresses pretty much exactly the same, because clothes are this now, and 500 years from now when we're all in neon jumpsuits with big rubbery sleeves, because it's the only fucking thing they stock at the ultraHyperpaceMall. We'll look at megaPhotos in virtualBooks of the 21st century with its old-timey non-self-cleaning fabric drapings, and we'll not be able to draw any conclusions about individual people, because they all look the same. If you don't believe me, then look at people from previous eras and note how they all might as well be the same person, how the only way to ascertain what medieval peasant #547 thought about the lower field drainage was to ask him, because looking told you nothing because everyone has always dressed like everyone else, a massive veneer of sameness spread over entire civilizations. And thus, judging by appearance has always been as pointless as it is now.
Because That Doesn't Sound Like Your Voice
Everything is a microcosm of something larger, and much as a simple event like a toilet relentlessly backing up during a dinner party metaphorically scales up to be the current electoral campaign, so too can other phenomena tell us about ourselves. Nothing is more illuminating of humanity than That Thing Where You Hear A Recording Of Your Own Voice And You Don't Think It Sounds Like You (sorry for the scientific jargon). One of the voices in the video above is apparently mine, but I'll be damned if I believe it, because when I talk in real life I don't sound like a moose doing a Larry David impression, and I've had similar experiences seeing myself in photos and on film ...
Even my self-caricature is a barely accurate version of me from 15 years ago.
And perhaps you have as well. The point is that there is and shall always be a massive disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us, but the only view of ourselves that matters is our own. That idealized version I see in the mirror is the only me I know, the one I have to base my decisions on, and literally no one else can see it. So you can people-watch all you want, and you will see some chicks and dudes in very tight pants, but you can never see someone the way they see themselves. It's not quite at the point where literally everyone in the world might as well be blind (although the conversion of Hollywood to a radio drama industry would save a lot of money), but it is at the point where we are blind to others' self-images, and I don't remember ever being told that, so I'm saying it now. In my head I sound normal -- it's you that are hearing it inaccurately.
Because We Have No Imagination
I can watch a video of people on drugs, actively knowing that they're on drugs, and I still can't tell that they're on drugs. They still register as normal, because as a great big innocent baby, I lack a frame of reference to be able to imagine what it's like to be on drugs. Take the list of all the things you've never done, all the people you never asked out, all the places you never went because you thought about it and decided you knew how it would turn out so you never tried it, and add another entry -- everyone you've ever met and what you think about them. It's no good judging from appearance because we lack the imagination to accurately convey what we ourselves are capable of, let alone anyone else (and so woe betide you if you're the victim of a crime but don't act in the way people expect). We don't know, and because we're afraid to not know something, we act like we do, and we look, and we assume (I know I sure do).
I assume you are assuming right now.
Nothing is as it seems, especially not, uh, everything, so what if someone seems horrible, or someone seems really progressive? Having to consider that everyone you meet could be paradoxically different inside is a wearying prospect, so it's natural to just want to take things at face value, and the vicious circle emerges. Being better is just time-consuming (and moreover, you don't want to fall into the trap of having TOO MUCH spare time to imagine things), but this is a world where artists are less rich and famous than you think and happy people are more depressed than you think and addicts are more addicted than you think and you yourself aren't who you were or who you want to be or neither or both or some fifth thing that I lack the imagination to even conceive of. And then one day you're me, and you realize you didn't have to spend the past 15 years judging yourself and assuming you were unworthy of love because people will understand, and then you start to resent even that shard of belated imagination that you do have because it makes you feel like your entire life has consisted of Giant Mistakes. Because Reality is Hard.
Maybe Oedipus had it right with the whole "might as well gouge out your own eyes" thing.
TV and movies aren't filled with archetypes and stock characters and cliches because writers are all stupid and lazy -- it's because it's hard to know even ourselves, let alone accurately imagine the kind of people who would end up as James Bond or Lisa Simpson or Under-Written Non-White Law & Order Character #740. It's not even close to impossible, but it takes a lot of spare time to figure out who you are (and thus who other people are), and, if you're a writer, even more time to figure out how to translate that into something that people would actually watch. You can't judge by appearance because it's even more meaningless than you think, we're hidden behind so many layers that I'm only scratching the surface of, and The Prejudiced are even stupider and lazier and more misanthropic than we realize. All we can do is try to know ourselves and try to make art that actually says something about what it's like to be a human being (and my webseries is me trying to put my money where my mouth is BOY I SURE AM GREAT) and realize that watching people is a lot like watching TV -- it's fun and distracting and you're gonna see some butts, but don't base your decisions on it, because no matter how widescreen it is you're not getting the whole picture ...
Coming soon, whether you like it or not.
Winston Rowntree is also available in webcomic form. Like me on Facebook for updates about muh new webseries, or I'll get you ...
Learn why there aren't more female investment bankers in the world when you read Winston Rowntree's 5 Responses To Sexism That Just Make Everything Worse, and find out why you obsess like a manic child over pop culture even though you're a supposedly high-functioning adult in The 4 Reasons We Fall In Love With A Piece Of Pop Culture.
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