Seeing without Seeing

Your name is big brother
You say that you’re watching me on the tele
Seeing me go nowhere
Your name is big brother
You say that you’re tired of me protesting
Children dying everyday
My name is nobody
But I can’t wait to see your face inside my door

~ Stevie Wonder, “Big Brother” (Talking Book, 1972)

To see and judge “the other” through the lens of a TV screen. Or the breathless rants of talk radio and cable TV hosts. Or any other medium of diversion and self-enclosure that keeps me well beyond arm’s length from the object of my social fears, mistrust, and derision.

How often such media obfuscate more than illuminate, helping me to forget that the “object” of my fear isn’t an object at all but a subject, no less than me, a human being with a name and story, with hopes and fears, failures and successes, joys and unrequited desires. To see another person–who after all is a mystery even to themselves– through the constricted lens of a screen and a sound byte: surely this is one of the gravest habits feeding the malaise of our media-captive and polarized political culture. And I am just as guilty as the rest: letting the politics of self-enclosure reinforce my biases without a second thought, without the labor or risk of critical thinking and personal encounter.

In the song “Big Brother,” Steve Wonder turns the lens around, disarming the objectifying gaze of the (white) listener. He does so with just enough restraint and smoldering (or comic?) sass to suggest that he, and the objectified (black) community of his intimate devotion—we live in a house the size of a matchbox / roaches live with us wall to wall—may yet have the last word. You’ve killed all my leaders / I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you / You’ll cause your own country to fall.

The alternative plea, pulsing implicitly in Wonder’s pitch-perfect embodiment of the song, is to refrain from judgment about “who you think I am” and what makes me tick, smile, or explode, not until you’ve come to know me face to face. Tell me something, anything, about who I am (my name is not “nobody”), my history, my people’s hopes and fears, our victories and defeats, our joys and longings.

What if we were to walk a few miles together in some shared task or journey or act of solidarity and protest—or, imagine this, to risk shared worship—letting our speech, our families and faith commitments, and our unspoken silences, bump up against each other? Might we then begin to see each other a little more clearly?

We may like each other. We may not. But each of us would surely think twice about not thinking twice about one another and our respective communities. Maybe we’d even dare to speak of “we,” from hearts that have risked true encounter, empathy, and therefore, love.

Until then, I’ll expect we’ll see each other again, without really seeing each other, “round election time.”

Your name is I’ll see ya / I’ll change if you vote me in as the pres /
The President of your soul


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