November 2021

The Unseen Enemy

Using More Than Our Five Senses

By Jaq Greenspon

In my younger days, as a bit of self-improvement, I took a sign language class. First day, there were a bunch of us there in that room, all gathered around when the teacher came in. He walked right to the center of the room and started calling names from the roll book, looking around as he did, putting faces to names. Then it happened. He called a name and the student, who was behind the teacher, responded in the affirmative. They were indeed present.

The teacher called the name again, as if he hadn’t heard. Again, the student yelled out, “here.” Nothing. Third time the teacher called out the name and third time the student yelled “here,” this time waving their arm to get the teacher’s attention…which they finally did. The rest of the class was getting visibly uncomfortable and the teacher knew it. He milked it a moment before he looked around the room and smiled at all of us and said, in a very clear voice, “Sorry, I’m deaf. I can’t hear you. You need to do something to get my attention.”

This was an interesting lesson in a number of ways, especially when joined by a little talk the teacher gave later on. He explained that the problem with being deaf was that you can’t see it. “With a lot of other disabilities,” he pointed out, “the issue is readily apparent. Not so with deafness.” He went on to explain that this one fact caused a lot of trouble, particularly out in the world, when he didn’t respond to someone he couldn’t see requesting he do something. The general idea was like when he was taking roll that first day, that the people around him assumed he was ignoring them. Had they been able to tell he couldn’t hear, they would have made accommodations and moved on. We do it all the time with blind people or folks in wheelchairs. But since deafness is internal, it literally doesn’t exist for the rest of us.

Even our language is predicated on this general idea: “Out of sight, out of mind” becomes a mantra for dealing with almost anything. If you can’t see it, it’s not a problem you need to concern yourself with. We just shove everything into the metaphorical closet and slam the door, quickly, so it disappears from sight.

If we can’t see it, it’s not there.

We’ve seen this throughout history — It’s not that there’s more autistics these days, or members of the LGBTQA+ communities, or any additional marginalized othering, instead, we just didn’t have the language, inclination, or legal ability to identify or understand them. Since we didn’t see it, it wasn’t there. The same holds true for the other side of the coin. There have always been racists, sexists, homophobes…but if it wasn’t overt, or affecting us directly, we could choose not to see it. The revelations of these things shouldn’t come as a surprise, but they did and do, usually followed by some sort of denial, “oh not them, they would never…” And again, it just shows that we are not seeing something in front of our eyes, which severely impacts our ability to deal with it.

But it’s not just the bigger issues. When we pass judgement on someone based on what we see in a photograph rather than taking the time to understand the whole story, we are basing our condemnation on what we don’t see. When we watch someone park in a handicapped spot, then easily get out of their car and walk towards the shop, our first thought might be anger. Why are they taking up the spot of someone more deserving, more obviously and visually handicapped, than they are?

As a country and as a world, we have been dealing with this rather acutely since January of 2020, when it was understood that COVID-19 was not a typical seasonal affliction. As D. M. Shaw points out in “Invisible Enemies: Coronavirus and Other Hidden Threats,” his article in the December 2020 issue of the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, “Of course, if we could actually see the virus, it would be much easier to deal with it. If…the virus was basically just little red guys who jump between people making them sick, we could easily see who to cross the road to avoid and who not.” And this is the crux of everything. When the virus first hit, all of our scripts, all of the tell-tale signals we use to exist in the world, the responses we’ve cultivated to teach us how to react in specific situations, all went flying out the window.

The idea of having a cold or the flu, that we understood. Someone’s got a runny nose or a sore throat, you avoid them. But what if the only indication that something is wrong is that they can’t smell the morning coffee? How do we discover and react to that? I know that in our house, with every slight physical discomfort, my wife would ask me to eat something she knows I don’t like to see if I could still taste it. Sure, we treated it with a certain amount of humor, but that was only masking our anxiety. Furthermore, we were told that it was possible for some people to get the disease and never know they had it, to never show any symptoms whatsoever, and yet still be highly contagious. We heard, and paid attention, to all the horror stories. Even when we probably caught it, though, we didn’t check because, really, what good would that do? We would become statistics for the nightly news and we were already following all the safety protocols. Honestly, even if we were proven to have the virus, would difference would it make?

I mean, seeing is believing, right? Right?

Well, maybe.

Back in 1948, George Orwell published a book called Nineteen Eighty-Four, about a totalitarian and oppressive government controlling the will of the people. While it’s given us a number of memorable quotes, the one which sticks with me at the moment is “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Because, and here’s the kicker to all of this, even if we saw the virus, there’s a very good chance we wouldn’t believe it even then, because our natural inclination is to take the easy way out, to prejudge situations, even without all of the necessary context or information (as argued above), and that, in turn, can make us easy to control.

There’s a term, “gaslighting,” which has been around since the late 1930s, entered the popular lexicon in the late 1960s and more recently, in the late teens, has become a go-to term for describing relationships, be they with other people or with larger entities. In short, it’s a term for when one side of the relationship calls into question the sanity of the other side, in terms of making them question what they know to be fact. “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.”

This is nothing new, mind you. Lawyers have been doing it for years by reframing the argument, changing the narrative of the story being told. “Don’t you think it could have happened this way?” they ask and you know, often times it sounds entirely plausible. Maybe we don’t know everything, maybe there’s a context we’re missing. And when the people we’re supposed to trust, our political leaders and news media, gaslight us, then everything must get called into question. When the president, years before this pandemic happened, said “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” then we had to ask ourselves, “what is happening?” If the evidence of our eyes and ears is being rejected then it seems Orwell was, evidently, right all along.

Part of why this is has to do with something else we can’t see…fear. All of this gaslighting and manipulation is designed to keep us off balance and scared. Since we take in everything around us through our own personal lenses, if we don’t know which way to turn, then the logical response is to turn inwards and keep ourselves and our community safe.

Ted Anthony, in an AP article, explained it like this (emphasis added): “This is evident in the reactions to antivirus measures taken by authorities. Many comments echo this observation: We can’t see this getting worse where we are, so let’s fix the urgent problem we already can see — the collapse of life around us.” The article continues to point out that very few of us witness the tragedy firsthand. In the US, about 1 in 10 has gotten the disease and of those, fewer than 2% have died (slightly higher percentages worldwide). In terms of the general population, those numbers seem insignificant. Maybe we are willfully ignorant, ignoring what’s in front of us, or maybe we’re being gaslit by the powers that be. Either way, we’re just not seeing it.

And if we’re not seeing it, how do we know it’s really there at all? And if it is, what do we do about it? Why should we all freak out?

Ultimately, because we don’t know what we’re facing. We’re like that deaf teacher in class: Sure, we understand something is there, but we can’t acknowledge it if we can’t see it. Or maybe we’re like the student, out of our comfort zone and not understanding why we’re not being acknowledged.

Maybe we’re afraid of not being heard.

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