The Eyes Of Others
If you could live out one of these alter egos for two weeks, experiencing the world through their eyes, which do you think would bring you the most useful new understanding of the world:
- the opposite sex
- a different race
- someone from a non-WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) country [or, for my readers who live in a non-WEIRD country, a WEIRD one]?
Explain your choice.
As a white American man, I think all of those would be useful in some way. The standout choice is to say “a different race,” given the tenor and troubles of our time. I would really like to know what it feels like to be black in this society, or at least non-white. I think it would give me a valuable experience of empathy to inform my thinking and my writing. Given the kind of work that I do, it seems kind of a no-brainer. It would be hard to pass that up.
But if I weren’t a writer about current events, then my guess is that living with a woman’s consciousness would probably be something that would do me the most good, as someone who lives in a household with a wife and a daughter. That’s what I thought at first before dismissing it as too narrow, but then I thought about something that has been on my mind all summer. A (white) female friend who used to live in the same Minneapolis neighborhood as George Floyd told me that it was men like Floyd was on the day he was arrested — drunk (or high), and belligerent — who made her life, and the lives of all women or all races who lived there, so fearful. She said that something as simple as taking the bus often required dealing with men like that, who would tell them, “I’m gonna rape you.” Not just every so often, but all the time.
When I got my hair cut recently (while wearing a mask, as my hair cutter was doing too), we were talking about crime, and I mentioned that. She said, “Oh YES, welcome to the experience of every woman who lives in a city.” She said it so emphatically that it really stuck with me. So it would probably be useful for me to know in my bones what that is like.
On the foreign choice, that would probably be the one that would shake up most people more than they can anticipate. I didn’t consider it seriously because even though my traveling has been almost exclusively in WEIRD countries, I’ve had enough travel to know how much it unsettles your view of the world as an American. Things you thought about your country and the world around you that were just The Way Things Are turn out to be contingent. This has been one of the great blessings of travel to me: learning how to see the world, at least somewhat, through the lives of people who aren’t American. I’m certainly grateful to be an American, but I’m also grateful to learn the limits of the American way of seeing the world. If I were to choose that category, I would probably wish to be someone from the People’s Republic of China, which is and is likely to grow as America’s great rival in this century. In fact, the 21st century is likely to be the Asian Century. Deep down, I have the most curiosity about the world through Chinese eyes in specific, and East Asian eyes in general — especially their concepts of religion.
So, which would I choose? My gut tells me race, but my mind tells me that choosing to live inside the head of a Mainland Chinese person would be the most important thing for me as a writer trying to understand the world as it is coming to be, and in which my children and grandchildren will grow old.
What about you? Of these three, which one would you choose? Why?