I saw a television commercial last year, only a few times before it disappeared from broadcast, that showed a series of people describing themselves by one word. A talking head appeared and the person said, “Mother”; then another talking head and the person said, “White.” Then “Gay.” Then, “Musician.” And on and on… Each word was so limiting—and often politically charged—that I hated the commercial from the first (I don’t remember what it was for!). In my mind I imagined additional descriptors for each person…after all, I never think of myself as one word. In fact, as I’ve gotten older, I think of myself as more and more words all the time: birthrights, physical attributes, mentality, experiences, interests, habits, knowledge, tastes, etc. I’ve even come to object to my own resumé: I don’t think I can be effectively summarized!
I say the same for people I know: I don’t think they can be effectively summarized. I’ve written in the past of how I see people as “types” just so I can manage all the possibilities, while in reality, I recognize that people one-on-one exhibit an infinite assortment of qualities and values: riches. Humans comprise riches we haven’t learned to understand yet.
- I have a friend who is artistic, academic, emotional, very politically conservative, intelligent, loyal, loving, shy, talkative, philosophical, pensive, literary, happy, and yet he can be angry, caustic, and melancholy. I’ve seen him on the verbal attack at all kinds of people.
- I have a friend who is an accountant, a rocker, pugnacious, funny, deeply loyal, conservative, professional, conspiratorial, sports-obsessed, quick-witted, and yet he can be judiciously liberal, ironic, and encouraging. I’ve seen him get emotional over little things.
- I have a friend who is a psychologist, truly liberal, patient, nonjudgmental, attentive, responsive, very smart, and yet I’ve known him to be foolish, fickle, and guilt-ridden. Once, he nearly cut off his own hand.
- I have a friend who is technically and interpersonally brilliant, inspiring, welcoming, self-deprecating, patient, very hard-working, dedicated, loving and open, friendly, and yet she can be incisive, demanding, unrelenting, while uninformed. I’ve known her to cut to the heart of a matter while making the offending party feel corrected, not rebuked.
Television shows easily create comedy by using characters who are one-dimensional—caricatures who can be defined by a single word—so that they aren’t really human characters at all. On Seinfeld, for instance, Kenny Bania (Steve Hytner), another comedian, aggravates Jerry over four seasons by his shallowness…it’s easy comedy to maintain Bania as one-dimensional. On Friends, Janice (Maggie Wheeler) is a self-absorbed drama-queen caricature throughout the 10 seasons; the friends are annoyed by her but the audience loves her because she is one-dimensional. If a character becomes more complex/more human, the audience begins to empathize and finds it more difficult to laugh at them.
Which is pretty much where the world is moving today: turn everyone—especially people who aren’t like us—into one-dimensional caricatures, often based on differences…and it’s easy to laugh at them! In the political world, it’s epidemic; in the social world, it’s epidemic; in the racial, religious, economic worlds, it’s epidemic. As if the 140 characters in a tweet can define a topic or a person! Like the commercial, “I’m white,” or “I’m old” or “I’m conservative.” Too many people want to lump me, lump each other into very limited categories. Then no one has to be a real, complicated human and no one has to empathize or sympathize. Except that I know we’re missing the riches that knowing each other brings.