Personhood, And The Lack Thereof.

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I recently made a video for a doctor. 

But, not just any doctor — a highly specialized cardiologist with a 0% mortality rate, a well-established worldwide precedence in his field, and the conception of a heart surgery procedure that’s saved a ton of people’s lives. Needless to say, the thought of representing this guy was super daunting. He’s impressive and I am not — He’s got power and influence and this perceived kind of success, and I just don’t. Even before the very first email was exchanged, I had this intensely opinionated and assumptious view of this guy who’s story I’d be telling, and it influenced the way that I proceeded in the production.

The entire purpose of the video was to clearly show that he’s actually a person, with a face and a personable demeanor, and isn’t this scary figure that people need to fear. At first, I was kinda just like …what? Isn’t that kindof unnecessary? Like, if he can save a person’s life with his talents, why does it matter that people think he’s nice? 

But then I realized that I’m part of the problem. I’m the target of the video that I’m about to make for him. My previous emotional inventory proved that I, for whatever reason, put this guy into a different category than other people, simply because I felt like he was more “impressive” or something. 

How many times — how many people — have we done this to? This demonizing of humanity and placing of our perception before the reality of other people's existences? We know it’s not right, because it’s not fair and we intrinsically know that all people should be treated exactly the same, but we keep doing it. There are obviously a million ways in which we get this whole human interaction thing messed up, because we’re prejudiced toward people in a million various ways based on our circumstances and beliefs. I can’t say that they’re all rooted in the exact same reasons, but I’d like to examine how maybe they’re all correlated, and specifically how our mis-judgement of those “important” people may be the most prevalent example of all.

People in power are the obvious first pick for our craving for scrutiny.

Pastors, Communicators, Presidents, CEO’s, Managers, Parents… basically, think of anyone, anywhere that does anything at all that’s important and hold a position of power. Think of the people that you’ve grown up thinking negatively of, or having some kind of bias toward, for no other reason than that your parents told you so. Think of the leaders that you think are brilliant at what they do, and think of the leaders that you dislike so much that you might not even hold an elevator for them. Think of the most influential person who’s ever been in your life. Think of the person who’s face on a television makes you squirm out of disapproval.

Now, consider the fact that you’re probably entirely wrong about what you think about them, based on your completely skewed perspective. And not like 5% wrong — try something like 80% wrong.

And why is that? Because we see their position before their personhood. We see who they are relative to us, checking off mental boxes of comparison, contrasting where we’re stronger or weaker than them. Take out the bias of positive or negative perception — every person of position that we ever interact with occupies a place in our heads that is amplified, resulting in an opinion that is simply incomplete and often untrue.

How do I know this? Because I can almost guarantee that you’ve said or thought one of these things about a person who has a lot of influence / power / money:

— “Of course they’re successful — If I had ______ like they do…”

— “So-and-so is a great ______, but I don’t like them as a person…”

— “There’s no way that their success is real… like, they must have cut corners somewhere…”

— “What they do is easy. I could do the same thing, and better.”

— “What they do is amazing. I could never do what they do.”

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With the advent of social media and celebrities being more seemingly accessible with their lives, we’ve got this itch to throw shade at whoever we please because we feel like they can take it. Like, because they make themselves more available and willing to connect with the people that they influence, we believe their position is something of a pass to be absolutely horrible to them. It’s their position we see, not them. Don’t believe me? Check the comments on popular YouTuber's channels. You’ll see some things being said about wonderful people making wonderful videos that you probably wouldn't even hear being said about a dictator. It’s the backward nature of acknowledging power, and quickly making magnified assumptions that are deeply biased.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Holding reverence for position is essential. You should most definitely keep respecting and encouraging a culture of honor for your leadership and authority. Keep being inspired by those leaders and creators and influencers that are enriching your life from the position that they’ve been given, and support them in any possible way that you can. There is absolutely a right way to use position for good — acknowledge when someone is doing just that, and do what you can do ensure that the good ones can keep doing those good things. The world needs more of those people.

It’s when we allow position to precede our acknowledgement of humanity that it becomes more of a crutch than a deed of integrity. Whether they merit that position or not, neglecting to respect position speaks more poorly of your own character than it does of the leader who’s position you’re criticizing. Take the high road, and seek understanding when those around you want to throw spears.

It sounds old-fashioned, but I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best of every person I meet. Because if someone else hadn’t done that for me, where would I be? We have all experienced this sort of thing — that one teacher who took you under her wing in high school; that boss who helped you learn the things that truly interested you at your job; that friend who relentlessly pursued you regardless of your lack of doing so back. We’re all the products of people choosing to see the best in us, and giving us opportunity and influence. The story of “rags to riches” is a fallacy — hard work is required to acquire accomplishment, but the good will of other human beings is a kind of fuel that you cannot generate on your own. We would truly flourish in this life if the good deeds and altruism of others inspired us to reciprocal action rather than cynicism.

So here’s the kicker: Those people that you’re amiable to find fault in? They’re exactly the same as you, you just don’t know them like that.

We’re biologically wired to choose community over facts, because it’s what’s gotten us to where we’re at as a civilization. No amount of truth-having and technological innovation ever took care of you in your time of need and provided care and love and trust. And we’re normally pretty alright with that… until we make enmity with people of position because they’re in conflict with our community bias. We don’t like what X leader says, even though it’s completely factual, because our deep familial and tribal ties come first. Effectually, this establishes in our heads that X leader is a person that we don’t like and we make all sorts of irrational and ridiculous assumptions to reason our way of thinking. And that’s just not right. Yes, it’s ingrained in us to care for people — but we cannot allow difference to be what excludes people from that which we should extend to everyone, people of position included.

There are only two ways to influence human behavior: You can manipulate it or you can inspire it.
— Simon Sinek

Now, back to my high-performing doctor interaction… after a bit of email correspondence, I had a phone call with him. He had the kindest voice, with loads of empathy and just the kind of demeanor that I would want in a doctor. He expressed willingness to do whatever it would take to make a really great video. No finagling of schedules and trying to squeeze out seventeen minutes of his precious time to shoot — he was more than willing to cancel things and make every arrangement to make my experience of working with him as efficient and effortless as possible.

The shoot happens, I meet his family in the process… they’re wonderful as well, and everything goes infinitely more smoothly than I anticipated. It was nearly the exact opposite scenario that I had fabricated in my head. Even though that’s a very minor example of this ideology, I would challenge you to assess your thoughts of the leaders and influencers around you to see if your mindset is healthy or not. Do what it takes to re-humanize the people of position around you, and seek understanding before letting your assumptions craft what you think of them. It’s easy to blend into the noise of criticism and negativity — take courage, and choose to believe the best about people, even if it’s not popular. It’s always worth it.