PLU: What we talk about when we talk about people

31 Dec

Dear reader,

Would you like to participate in a little thought experiment? If so, read on. Who do you spy in your mind’s eye when you think of “people”? I mean here the unmodified term — so not poor people, white people, people with disabilities, rich people, fat people, people who are homeless, black people, people in wheelchairs, those people, some people, most people — because when we use those terms, we’re making those folks different from plain old “people,” are we not? So when you think of plain old, unmodified “people” — who do you see?

Here’s what brought me to think about and ask the question of others: I was recently having an argument/discussion with someone about living in downtown Springfield, Mass (where I live). This fellow is the second-generation head of a large commercial and residential property management company that takes care of and owns many properties here in Springfield (mostly downtown). I asked him when he was going to be moving downtown. He said he lives in a rural community in CT because he loves having lots of acres and owns horses. Okay, fair enough (frankly the country scares me and I would never live out in that dark creepy woodland where monsters can get you and your horses at any time, but to each his own).

His company recently took over the management of two large apartment complexes here in downtown Springfield and he said he was trying to do things “to get more people to want to live downtown.” As a person who lives downtown, my first thought was — “plenty of people live downtown, what are you talking about?” and then I realized that in this conversation, “people” didn’t mean simply “human beings.” I asked him to define “people” and he got kind of bent out of shape and insisted that I knew what he meant. I did know what he meant — he meant people like him. I realized that if we use the term “people” to only mean people like us, we are not only making everyone else the Other, we dehumanizing them. If we think about “cats” or “dogs” we don’t usually eliminate breeds, do we? We have a composite idea that encompasses all of those animals (or at least I think we do).

This led me to consider what I think of when I think of “people” and it’s certainly “PLU”s — “people like us” — as I suspect it may be for most. Whatever condition we’re in — materially, socially, spiritually, what have you — we probably imagine others to be right there with us. Or maybe I just think we all do. So I’d love to hear from others what you think of when you think of people. And what you think of when you think of other mammals or reptiles or whatever. Ever since that conversation, I’ve been paying careful attention to my use of the word and the image in my mind, and have been tuning in to what I think other people mean when they use the term.

One way to get to the answer is to finish these sentences: “people like to….” or “people hate it when…” or “people like to live in….” or “people appreciate it when….” and see if you could replace “people” with “I” in all those sentences.

I’m having some friends over for a New Year’s Day meal tomorrow and hope to have this discussion with them. I’m very interested to hear what people have to say about “people.” I’d love to read your comments, too, reader-people.

Happy New Year and Peace to all the People on Earth.


2 Responses to “PLU: What we talk about when we talk about people”

  1. Alexis L., The Studioist January 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    This is a great post. I think it requires a real pushing of our moral imaginations to think broadly of ‘people’ when we talk about ‘people.’ And I’m not sure if we tend to think first and foremost about people like ourselves so much as the people who ‘count’ in our society. If you ask me to think of “a woman” or “a person”, my default is roughly a white-appearing, moderately attractive, middle aged, middleclass American, probably from the middle of the country with no visible marks of ‘difference’ or ‘disability’–even though I’m not one, something that is disturbing in how it exposes how deeply seated Euro-centric, ageist, classist thinking is, even for someone who tries to be as inclusive in her thinking as possible.

    Of course I reflexively push against it and when I think about it further “people” becomes people of all colors, nationalities, genders, abilities, ages, orientations, sizes, shapes, etc. but that is not what leaps immediately to my mind. It’s not that these people are people like
    me so much as on some level these are the people that I suspect count the most, the people who have the greatest degree of mean (average) personhood in the world. On some level, I think the world orbits around their interests–even though I don’t want to.

    • Erica Walch January 5, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

      We had a really interesting talk about this at our New Year’s Day dinner — everyone had a different idea of “people” and we all realized there were people we left out of our grouping.

      I’m really trying to be conscious of what I visualize when I use the term and hear others use it.

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