Most of us have often heard the metaphoric saying "don't judge a book by its cover." It cautions us against forming presumptions about a person or thing's value. It warns us that there might be more than what meets the naked eye when it comes to the significance or worth of an object. It tells us that we cannot determine what someone has to offer by being attentive to their outward appearance alone.
What marvelous food for thought. However, while I embrace the intended message of this insightful saying, I think that it is not one fitting for all realities.
What I mean by this is that, for our reality, our real lived experience, our "cover" does matter. Even when it should not matter, for example, as in the cases of racism, sexism and heterosexism, it, unfortunately, still does. However, our "covers," those over which we have control, also matter in a more literal sense. How we present ourselves, from our outward appearance to the way in which we speak, matters.
Whether we admit it or not, we form opinions about others in the very initial moments of encountering them and, whether we like it or not, people do make judgments about us based on very little context. Although I think it is unfortunate when we jump to conclusions about "who" a person is based on little more than what meets the eye, I think it is worth a discussion about how what we see informs such conclusions.
Each of us has ideas about what is an acceptable image or way of being based on cultural and societal prescriptions. We have ideas about what sets of outer patterns of descriptions are afforded the labels: intelligent, poor, stupid, promiscuous, wealthy, snob, ghetto, junkie, thug, or crazy and so on. These are our descriptions, which, as Dr. Bradford Keeney would suggest, has more to do with us, than the people we are describing.
This means that our descriptions about others always refer back to our own way of seeing. He notes, though, that giving things labels and/or descriptions is how we come to make sense of the world around us-through distinguishing one thing from another, one set of patterns from another. Imagine going through the world and not being able to distinguish a table from an automobile.
So, in essence, I am suggesting that we also make sense of the patterns of images we see when we encounter others. Those patterns of images help us to arrive at some opinion about the person we encounter. This sort of "judging" can be useful to us in a number of ways. It is how employers make decisions about which interviewee to hire, and it is how people get clues about a romantic interest. It is how we judge what company we keep and even what mechanic shop or restaurant to which to give our business based on our judgments of the folks we encounter there.
While we should not etch our presumptions in stone and be inflexible about our interactions with those who don't fit our "ideal," our presumptions or judgments can be useful guides to help us make important and everyday decisions. My thoughts are that this is not a license to discriminate and mistreat people that look, act, talk, walk and live differently than what we think is "acceptable," but rather a way to become more mindful about where our judgments come from and the benefits and limitations of "judging a book by its cover."
Contact columnist LaTonya Dunn at firstname.lastname@example.org.