Humans are Not Clip Art
Spend any time in a United States elementary school and you will see population presented as a number with perhaps a human clip art character to stand in place for all citizens. The clip art character usually looks like a game piece; circle head, boxy body for boys, boxy skirt-shaped body for girls. It’s the same figure that appears on bathroom doors, on pedestrian crossing signs — it’s the figure that means human.
It makes sense to reduce humans to a single graphic when we’re trying to convey where to cross the street or to signal to children that when we discuss population, we are strictly counting human beings (and not dogs or mermaids or any of the other animals or imaginary creatures young children like to ask if they are included in the count). It makes sense to create an icon so non-English speakers know which bathroom to use.
Image via WikiCommons in the public domain
But I think what happens when we cross from child to adult, with that ever-present icon in our line of vision to represent humans, is that we start to think of the citizens of this country as a faceless crowd, an enormous number, a set of statistics, a human icon. It is easier to consider people in gingerbread man-like form. It is much harder to stretch our minds to consider the very real lives which contain very real needs, and harder still to think about giving up things you want in order to ensure that people you don’t know can meet their basic needs.
Teaching population in this way in elementary school text books set us up for what we see now: an election where people tend to be speaking about the “I” rather than the “us.” Talking about the ideas of the candidates in how they relate to the self instead of the whole. We’re a country in crisis, with so many people struggling to fulfill basic needs such as food, shelter, and education, and others discouraged because while their needs are met, their wants go unfulfilled. I believe that is what makes us cling harder to the things we do have, hording for ourselves.
It’s not just the tangible; people horde what they consider their rights, working to deny them to others — as is the case with marriage — in an ultimate fight for control. We’ve stopped thinking about American citizens as John in Kansas and Mary in California and David in New York and Susan in Florida. We’ve reduced the 311 million Americans to that human icon — faceless and therefore, we don’t have to consider their expressions as we turn our backs on each other.
To ensure that the twins don’t grow up with this mindset firmly in place, reducing everyone unseen in the country to a human icon, I started talking about the election issues in terms of people they know and asking them to expand their imaginations to consider people they don’t know, people they may or may not meet in the future, but regardless, people who have very real lives with very real needs. Just like us.
When you start to look at the issues this way, it stops being about “us” and “them” and starts becoming this plateau where circumstances in life can change in the blink of an eye and you may join a statistic you never intended to join. I always tell the twins that we don’t vote based on how our life is right now, but we vote based on what could be since that “could” is someone else’s “is.” All of our hypotheticals are someone else’s reality.
It is the same concept that governs insurance; you need to pay for it whether you use it or not, and we buy it based on the possibility of hypothetical situations in the future. Truly, you hope you never have to use it, but if you do, you will be thankful that you thought ahead. Voting also requires us to think ahead; not just on what our lives look like right now, but helping others since one day, our lives or our childrens’ lives or our friends’ lives could be negatively affected by something we voted for in the moment without considering how it impacts the lives of others. Voting shouldn’t come from a place of comfort, but we should think about the difficulties of others and how we’d want aid, support, or rights if we (or people we love) ever found ourselves in different circumstances.
I was moved watching the First Lady’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. It was clear from the emotion that caught in her throat that while we see Barack Obama as the president, she sees him as her husband, the father of her children, a human being with a face. In other words, he’s not a remote entity but a very real person that she loves deeply. And that is true for all of us — we have the people we love, the ones that we keep in mind as we vote, wanting the best for those we know. But it also drove home the point that every person we don’t know is someone else’s loved one. That there are no nameless, faceless people in America. While we may not know them, there are others out there who love them deeply, who want the best for them.
I encourage you to do what we’ve asked the twins to do: remove that human icon graphic out of their heads for a moment because people are not clip art, and instead, humanize the vote by considering all the people you know and all the people you don’t know, and remove the concepts of “us” and “them,” instead embracing the idea that we are all Americans, all with individual wants and collective human needs.
Cross-posted on barackobama.com. The second post for the campaign.