One of my favourite radio shows is This American Life, which I listen to online. Recently I listened to this episode, called Mapping. In five acts, it tells stories about mapping the world through each of the five senses.
In act two (sound), Atlantic Monthly editor Toby Lester tells his story. While sitting at work one day he became aware of the musical hum of the heating system and the fainter hum of his computer. He brought in a pitch pipe to figure out what the two notes were, and discovered that the interval they created together was a major third—traditionally considered a happy interval. But once he added the note of his telephone’s dial tone, which he heard a lot throughout the day, the three-note chord produced was an augmented fourth—a decidedly grating chord.
The segment producer/narrator said at the beginning of the story that once you begin to pay attention to all of the sounds around you, you will be unable to not hear them. And he was right. I don’t have the musical knowledge to determine the notes that surround me, but I am suddenly hyper-aware of the hum of my heating system and computer, along with the drone of traffic outside my window. And even the clacking of my keyboard provides a certain rhythm to it all.
I desperately want to know what chord I’m listening to all day (when not listening to podcasts, that is). Is it a minor chord (known to sound sad), or a major (known to sound happier)?
Now I cannot not “map” the world around me according to sound. Riding down the street I hear the voices of people, the sound of cars whooshing by, the screeching of street cars on their tracks.
This led me to think of something else.
One of my university Literature professors used to talk about how we were going to “create a reading” of a book. That term struck me as odd. Create a reading. What did that mean? You read a book; you didn’t create a reading of a book.
But I soon realized. If you read a book keeping an eye out for religious imagery, homoeroticism, or the treatment of women, then those are the things you will notice, mostly to the exclusion of other things. You are creating a reading of the book.
It’s like scanning a column of words looking for ones that begin with a certain letter; your eyes graze the other words while instantly spotting the ones you’re looking for. Same thing if you’re looking down a column of phone numbers for a particular one.
(Have you seen the count-the-basketball-passes awareness test? There is a new one now, too, and you can see them both here. I’ll say no more so as not to ruin it, but you’ll get the analogy after you watch them.)
The “mapping the world through sound” story on This American Life in conjunction with this memory of my university Lit course made me realize that we create a reading of the world every moment of every day.
As a queer woman, I view the world through my particular lens. I see injustices and inequality every day in the ways in which women and queers are treated versus men and straight people. From the seemingly harmless focus on female politicians’ physical appearance and dress, to the blatantly harmful taking away of civil rights, I see it.
As a rationalist and critical thinker, I see the myriad ways people are fooled—or fool themselves—constantly.
As a cyclist I tend to miss seeing the little details on the streets of my city.
As a person living in a big city, I take for granted my access to art and culture, but probably don’t notice so much the lack of nature until I’m in nature.
Black people, disabled people, Jewish people, religious people, non-religious people, beautiful people, obese people—each of these “groups” constructs a reading of their world based on their own worldview, their own particular lens. And their reading restricts them from seeing the world as others may.
How often do you notice the presence or lack of wheelchair ramps?
Before I listened to this radio show it never occurred to me to pay attention to the mundane sounds that surround me every day, and certainly not to hear them as musical. And before reading this blog post, it probably never occurred to you take note of whether or not there is a wheelchair ramp on the building you are entering.
But now I can’t not hear the chords produced by the world around me. And, for a while at least, we will be unable to not notice whether there are wheelchair ramps.
Which means that we can create empathy!
Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand someone else’s experience or feelings. If we focus on creating a reading of the world using a lens that is not our own—skin colour, sex, sexuality, ability, aesthetic, etc.—we can at least momentarily empathize with people of that ilk.
Imagine for even one day that you have a physical disability. Of course you won’t be able to fully know what it’s like, but truly try to imagine that you are in a wheelchair for example. As you move through your day remind yourself, “I’m in a wheelchair.” Take note of how often you don’t have access to a building, or have to go around to the back to use a ramp, or take the elevator to another floor to use a wheelchair-accessible washroom (as in my workplace!). Very soon you will at least somewhat understand what it means to be a disabled person in this world.
Or imagine that you’re queer. Walk down the street thinking, “I’m gay.” Note all of the heterocentricity in the world—every single ad, the couples walking down the street, most of the music and television and film. Note how everyone just assumes that you, and everyone else, are straight. Try to understand how it must feel to not be represented by the society in which you live. Listen for and take to heart homophobic comments and looks (though they won’t be directed at you). Try to understand how it must feel to be hated for who you are by people who don’t even know you.
If we pay attention to how we create our own readings of the world by viewing it through our own lenses, be they social, political, physical, or whatever, then we may come to understand our biases and prejudices better.
And if we really try, even for a day once in a while, to construct a reading of the world via others’ lenses, we can become more empathetic, compassionate, tolerant, accepting, and open-minded.