Why Do We Choose To Make Other People Invisible?

If given the option, which super power would you choose? The very notion of super powers comes with an implicit goodness – the “super” creating an innate acceptance that the chance for this fantastical acquisition is not one to be passed up.

There is the risk, however, as there is with any power, that it will become corrupted, misused, consuming. Power is a gift, but only if it is controlled as such. Power, after all, in its magnificence and magnitude, has been known to overtake those who possess it – to infiltrate their conscience and rearrange their intentions from the inside out, emanating out of its owner’s pores, ulterior motives on display at last, unstoppable and so, no longer in need of discretion or disguise.

It seems that humanity itself has crafted a power, which, lo and behold, it has lost control of and therefore exerts with questionable integrity. The power is invisibility.

It’s not quite invisibility as you might imagine it, though. It’s not so obvious and impossible as the ability to become utterly unseen for any number of a myriad of reasons. Such as extraction from awkward situations, escape from horribly boring meetings, casual ex-lover stalking, bank robbing, or a really cool party trick. It’s not camouflage as a means of stealth or protection from constant imminent danger. No, this invisibility is endowed differently – it is not possessed, but rather imposed. Somewhere along the path of its corruption, it transformed from a choice to a condemnation. It is not a power to be used by its owner as he or she sees fit, but a punishment cast upon him or her by others for their own benefit.

It is the result of years of painstaking prejudice, fermented hatred, generational ingraining of quick-trigger stereotypes. After planting deep roots of injustice tended to by many a toxic gardener, the byproduct is that we have honed and perfected an ability to make people invisible, to erase the “other.”

We make people invisible all the time because we have become conditioned to pretend they are less human than us or because their existence makes us uncomfortable. It frays the edges of our plush lives. It pulls back the curtain to a view we’d rather ignore. Close the blinds – it’s a mess outside and we’re trying to have an elegant dinner party here. We make people invisible all the time and don’t even realize because we’re THAT damn good at what we do. It’s one of the saddest skills humanity’s acquired, a skill that speaks to the conversations we’d rather not have about issues whose uprooting requires abundant mess before any glimmer of progress.

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of this power-turned-weapon forged in the pits of humans’ most rusted sense of accountability, most dissipating moral fiber, and casual affinity for injustice, is that not all who draw this weapon do so with malice, hate, bigotry, or even ignorance. I know because I do it, and I do so daily. I know that I wield this weapon with a truly saddening irony: I impose invisibility upon others precisely because I am made so uneasy and disgusted by our species’ capacity for prejudice, hatred, and apathy.

I am so infuriated by the casual compliance with society’s rampant injustice, so sickened by the ways in which we all become accomplices to egregious inequality that I cannot bear to see the manifestation of the constant, ghastly injustice that scorches through the veins of our world.

Take the overwhelming number of people who live in homelessness, for example – people who live in a constant state of survival, void of the very basic necessities that any person needs, deserves, takes for granted. I see homeless people every day. I should clarify, I see a homeless person sometimes. More often than not I have tunnel vision. While I remain appalled at the shocking number of people who are homeless, and saddened by our inability to address this issue in a way that seems to make a difference, I know I harden a little bit. I am less shocked in each individual circumstance, because I see it so often. I stop sometimes, but most of the time I walk briskly by, unseeing – avoiding – imposing invisibility.

Nothing speaks to the state of the world’s gravest issues more clearly than the epidemic of indifference; there are certain things you should never be able to become jaded to. That is why invisibility is dangerous – it blurs the view, putting a layer between us and truth, giving just the distance needed to not quite care.

But who’s to say my tearing down the walls built at the peripherals of my vision would even make any difference? Now ask this question a million times more, in a million scenarios, and you leave a multitude of problems shadow-drenched on the fringes of everyone’s apathetic gaze.

A homeless person is one of many; and homelessness is one of many issues. The spectrum of invisibility imposed ranges from individual to global. We are made uncomfortable by circumstances that, by way of stark contrast, brandish our own privilege in our face. Privilege is part of a dichotomous relationship – it’s the world’s favorite seesaw – privilege ever skyward, and on the other end – oppression. You cannot acknowledge one side without acknowledging the other, and, similarly, you cannot erase one side without erasing the other; to ignore the presence of privilege is to ignore the even more unpleasant truth on the other end. Think of oppression as a disease – now imagine the danger in ignoring it. It’s an abuse of inherited advantage, and an abuse we casually and consistently and subconsciously employ.

But these are not fun things to acknowledge. They are so easily confused for guilt, and guilt is its own verdict. It’s uncomfortable because any decent person knows that the disparity in quality of lives in this world is profoundly unfair. They know that the gap is wide and the problems plentiful – the solution daunting, elusive, and overwhelming – the world is a hell of a fixer-upper. We sweep souls under the rug, so burdened are we by their presence, agitated by their compromising of our otherwise pristine surroundings. We make people invisible. The roots of our world’s endless issues grow from dangerous soil, one in which even those with good intentions and integrity do the bidding of villains, perhaps without even realizing it, and that is a terrifying way to wreak havoc: watering a garden in which we do not know what seeds have been planted, and would rather not check.

Seeing things as they are, even when the image is painful, or rather, especially when the image is painful, is a (super) strength not possessed by many. Sight ultimately is a choice, and where and when we choose to avert our eyes we may unknowingly become complicit in the act of making others invisible. We are far less likely to address issues we become accustomed to not seeing, and, since truth in picture is a composite of all its pieces, when we erase people from this picture, we entrench ourselves in a limited reality; we look at the world through skewed, hand-crafted, fuzzy-edged lenses, that coddle our vision, compromise our integrity, and curtail our ability to take action. It turns out the most super of powers is showing restraint in power. It is maintaining control over a restless beast, eager to expand and envelop all in its wake. It is in the unglamorous decisions, the daily ways in which we carry ourselves, not for recognition, but because of what we stand for. The quiet heroes are super in a subtle sense; they forgo easy power for something far more significant and difficult to choose. TC mark

featured image – Rich Jensen

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