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David Bouchier: As Others See Us

Image by febrian eka saputra from Pixabay

I have always been intrigued by the notion of seeing the world through the eyes of another person, or even another animal. I know it’s not possible, physically or metaphysically, but sometimes I dream that it is.

This fantasy of mine began with a bad-tempered black cat called Peter. I grew up with this cat and I never understood him, although he understood me perfectly. No matter how long you live with a cat his or her opinions of you will remain a mystery. When my cat decides to sit on my desk, nose to nose, staring at me with great intensity for long minutes, what does he see? A love object? A large ungainly animal that should be a cat but isn’t? A slow and inefficient automatic can opener? Or is he thinking something so profound that I couldn’t possibly understand it? Dogs are easier to read, at least on the surface. But underneath all that hail-fellow-well-met tail-wagging enthusiasm their real thoughts are still mysterious. Your typical dog is a salesman, whereas your typical cat is an eastern mystic. Either way, you lose.

It’s exactly the same with human beings. What we call shyness is really an acute uncertainty about how other people see us and how accurately we see and understand them. When we encounter new people or cats their outward appearance is all important, and we know or hope that the surface will give at least some clue to the character of that individual. We may decide that: “He looks friendly enough,” or “That Pusskins has a clever face.” But we don’t know, and we know that we don’t know. Other creatures are intensely interesting precisely because every one of them is a puzzle with no solution. But what happens when we can’t see them clearly, but only on small screens or around the edges of masks? Then we can scarcely even guess about the real character underneath.

What we must now I suppose call the COVID Era has added a new spin to our anxiety about images and self-images. Half the time we don’t see each other at all behind our anonymous and unflattering masks. At other times we are seen on video. The face that looks out at us from a Zoom or Skype screen is not the same face that we see in the mirror, or that other people see in real life. The movie and television industries depend entirely on the illusion that a two-dimensional screen image is real, and this illusion has carried over into the world of remote meetings, remote social life, remote learning and even remote dating.

As young people have discovered through services like Tik Tok and Instagram, the screen is not a place to be — it’s a place to pretend to be. It gives us the seductive power to decide if, when and how others see us, sometimes with electronic enhancements. To paraphrase Shakespeare: all’s the world’s a screen, and all the men and women merely pixels. That’s why so many people are so anxious to get back to real, physical social life, and why even risky "face time" is so much treasured. If we get thoroughly accustomed to living on our screens and behind our masks, the whole question of how others see us may become irrelevant, because they won’t really see us at all.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.