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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.

13 comments

1 Tiara { 09.17.12 at 1:48 pm }

Here! Here! Well said!

2 Mud Hut Mama { 09.17.12 at 2:24 pm }

You’ve just motivated me to go organize my absentee ballot.

3 nonsequiturchica { 09.17.12 at 2:36 pm }

Absolutely. I can’t imagine NOT trying to help others. Although you may not need the social safety net now you never know what can happen tomorrow- you could be the person that needs SSI, SSDI, food stamps, Section 8 voucher assistance, etc. And there are other people that need the help NOW.

4 Cristy { 09.17.12 at 2:40 pm }

An interesting exercise. I agree with you that too often we view the populous as nameless/faceless individuals reducing everything down to simple concepts. Mainly because it gets messy to start incorporating backstories and believe systems. But the thing is, eliminating the messy makes it difficult to really understand why people have the belief systems they do. The issue is that people usually don’t live in a black-or-white context, but one that has many shades of grey (no pun intended, I promise). The question is, how do we help people think about the future regarding various decisions without getting muddled down in the grey? Humanizing candidates and the populous is a good idea, but sometimes the smooth-talker is much more dangerous and destructive in the long-run than the arrogant tight-wad.

I guess my question: how does one find balance?

5 Mali { 09.17.12 at 8:17 pm }

I think there has to be a balance, and ultimately in policy-making situations etc there needs to be, though too often it is tilted one way or the other. I do though like the idea of teaching your children to put faces to situations. I think that you can teach empathy, and it is much better to teach it than not. I mean, when people talk about “collateral damage” they seem to forget that we could be that collateral damage, or the ones we love – that “collateral damage” is in fact just people like us. It is this dehumanising of situations, of races or religions, of being other and different, that causes so many problems in this world, in our countries, communities, schools and workplaces. Starting small, at home, is in this case perfect.

6 Jo { 09.17.12 at 9:14 pm }

Yes! While I tend to lean most definitely in one direction with my politics, I still try to see the “other side” as human beings, mostly because they are, and many of them are people I love. While I may not agree with their stance on a particular issue, I do still love THEM — and feel that we need to work harder to find that common ground.

That being said, I will always fight for the underdog — because I am one (being both infertile and a woman) , and because you never know when you will need someone to stand up and fight for you.

7 a { 09.17.12 at 9:31 pm }

What? You mean they’re not percentages? People have actual stories and needs? Well, the nanny state will drain their ambition and make them never want to work for a living. And the President just made it possible by gutting the welfare-to-work program. I mean, people love their subsidized housing because it’s in such a great neighborhood. And they drive their Cadillacs to the grocery store to buy steak and shrimp. And then they line up to vote 3 or 4 times – especially if they registered for all the dead people. Oh, and we should probably go ahead a nuke all those Islamic countries – they’re nothing but trouble. Marriage is between a man and a woman, and no one should ever have an abortion for any reason. And, um, we need to cut all the regulations because corporations are people too, and they need to dump their waste into the groundwater to remain competitive with China. 47% of people don’t pay any taxes at all you know – they don’t buy anything and pay sales tax ever. And let’s not forget…unions are evil. Well, maybe it’s just unions for public employees.

I think I hit all the talking points there. Let me know if I missed anything.

8 Wolfers { 09.17.12 at 10:30 pm }

Excellent way to teach your twins, as well as introducing a concept to humanize… Me, I like to ask what is in the long run, (long goals) compared to short goals- too many folks look for instant gratification, and/or think what is it in for themselves which is a problem. I, too pull for the underdog, after all- I use Martin Niemoller’s poem “First they came…” to use the example.
We all need to work together.

9 Esperanza { 09.17.12 at 10:34 pm }

Best “political” post I’ve read all year. Thank you.

10 Mina { 09.18.12 at 4:04 am }

I envy you for being able to write such a post, and most of all to have the writing come from your beliefs.
I sadly have a different view. I am not American. It so happens that when I turned 18, I had the right to vote in the second campaign for my country as a free and democratic state. I have voted every time, and every time I voted against the former communists, turned now social-democrats, liberals, whatever have you. The name is irrelevant since they are still former communists, and many of them worked with the political police of the former regime. No matter who won the elections, some time after that the biggest party, the hub of communists who are just a pack of vermins of the lowest degree, come to power. They have twice impeached the legally elected president during his two mandates. They did not succeed, but still. They still rule the country, they steal, no, plunder what is left standing, they cheat, lie, manipulate masses, and we just cannot seem to get rid of them! Even the new generation of politicians holds no hope, because they are even worse, they lack absolutely all moral and ethical principles.
I am really at a loss. Elections are coming up again and I am just so tired of voting, because no matter whom I vote for, and no matter who wins, they still will come to power after a while. Why hold elections at all, I wonder…
So. I envy you. I do not envy how the democratic rule allows morons to run for and acceed to power. But still. You have hope. What do you do when hope is gone? And I am not just using big words to get attention. This is what I feel.

And a side note, unrelated to the substance of your post, but the image you used in the beginning. In East Germany, in the 60s, they introduced the Ampelmänchen, a little guy with a hat on traffic lights, who stands as a T for stop, and is pictured side facing walking for green light. It is one of the most popular and liked icons in Germany, and in Berlin you can get very cool souvenirs with him. It is amazing what a lil’ hat can do, huh? It transforms a generic symbol into a pop icon. He is described as perky, cheerful, childlike, anything but boring or reducing. Who would have thought? :-)

11 Mina { 09.18.12 at 4:08 am }

Dear lord, Mel, I am so sorry for the length of the comment! I did not mean to ramble so much! I got carried away. But then it is your fault, for making me think about your words and force my own come out. There. Write dull posts and I won’t comment. :-)

12 Battynurse { 09.18.12 at 6:18 pm }

Again, so very well said.

13 Peg { 09.19.12 at 12:30 pm }

Very well stated indeed.

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