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Living with prosopagnosia.

Politics and Race from a Prosopagnosia Perspective

It's nice when I don't have to work so hard to figure out who the president is.

United Sates presidential politics is a fascinating sport. It seems like every detail of every aspect of a candidate’s life, from the color and style of their clothing on the campaign trail to their opinions regarding any number of social, political, and economic issues, to aspects of their private lives becomes fodder for both the media and the public, neither of which are experts on such matters in the first place. For me, as a person with prosopagnosia, there is one other very important challenge. Who are these people?

As the candidates stump from place to place, they often change their appearance to meet the expectations of the people they are hoping will support them. A candidate looking to impress potential donors into giving their campaign a lot of money will most likely dress up in their fanciest formal clothing. Chances are that, at such events, they will not be the only one dressed up in a suit and tie, and it is these suits and ties I want to talk more about.

All of them appear to look identical to me. There is nothing more frustrating for me to try to figure out who people are when there are absolutely no distinguishing features between people in a group. It’s like living in a macabre Twilight Zone episode where all of the characters are identical.

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On the other hand, a candidate looking to win votes from factory workers will be more likely to dress up in a casual shirt and blue jeans, just like the people they are looking to hang out with. Political candidates become master chameleons, and blend right in with the people they surround themselves with, almost to the point that if you could not see their face and didn’t notice the news media or secret service agents trailing closely behind them as I failed to do on one occasion, you wouldn’t know there was a politician there.

Since politicians and most other people don’t intentionally try to wear clothing which looks different from other people, I don’t tend to use clothing as a primary recognition clue. Even when I do, it often fails.  Most of the time, people in my life have not had a “signature-style” look which they wish to maintain every day, or if they do, that that signature-style would be unique enough from others in my life that I would be able to notice. On rare occasions, however, I have found it useful to be able to identify certain specific people by their clothing.

Sometimes, it is not so much a signature style as a signature detail. For example, most people with prosopagnosia are generally able to identify former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Like other more-easily identifiable people, he had one detail about him which made him easier to recognize. In his case, that was a scar on his face. Unfortunately, such details tend to be rather unflattering. As a result, when asked, I am always reluctant to tell people how I have identified them because I don’t wish to potentially offend them.

Since most people lack a signature clothing style or physical feature, I am often stuck trying to figure out how to identify people by other means. Nonetheless, how people present themselves is critical to giving me clues that will help me identify them. Sometimes, I really don’t have to work too hard to figure out who people are. For example, I’m now going to say something that even the news media seems afraid to say even though it is quite obvious: Barack Obama is black.

The other day, somebody on Facebook posted on their Facebook wall one of those silly little quizzes asking if you are able to tell which of three people pictured is the US president.

The caption,
Who is the U.S. President?
A portion of a banner ad which somebody posted on facebook. http://tinyurl.com/8f83bss
 For one of very few times when pictures are posted without captions of who the people are, I could identify the president because he is black and the other two people pictured are white. (I still have no idea who they are.)

It is my perception that Barack Obama has tried very hard throughout his presidency not to make race an issue. It’s the pink elephant standing in the room that nobody seems willing or comfortable to talk about, but it is there, and many people do notice, and even more people pass judgment upon everything they witness.

Politically, does it matter that Barack Obama is black? For the first time in US history, in 2008, we the people elected a black president. That is significant from a social standpoint. Does it matter to me that our president is black? Not at all, but here is where things get a little more interesting.

When I look at Caucasian faces, something I actually try not to do if I can get away with it, it is an overwhelmingly intense feeling for me. When I look at faces of people with darker skin tones, whether they are Asian, African, Latina, Native American, or any other similar group of people, the feeling I get by looking at those faces is one of serenity. If it was not socially inappropriate for me to do so, I would probably stare at the faces of darker skinned people for long periods of time trying to notice every single detail I could, like an exercise in mindfulness. However, being stared at tends to make people very uncomfortable, and as a white person staring at black people, undoubtedly, I would draw suspicions as well.

Even more fascinating, I am not immune to what many researchers have discovered about white people. Although I am comforted by looking at darker-skinned faces, I actually find it much harder to recognize and differentiate between darker skinned people than white people. Somebody once expressed to me that there is a different “visual vocabulary” which is displayed in those with darker skin, and because white people are less accustomed to looking at black faces, they tend to make more errors when trying to identify black people. However, this is not a unique problem for white people. Further information about this phenomenon can be found here.

In my life, race is an irrelevant factor in how I choose to decide with whom I wish to be sociable, or who might be a better person or political candidate for president. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “I have a dream” speech, noted his vision for America included the idea that a “man should be judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.” I’ve tried to live my life the same way. As a person with prosopagnosia, the visual hardly matters to me because that is rarely what I take away from the social encounters I have. Nonetheless, I am keenly interested in politics.

As I watch presidential candidates crisscross the country in an effort to woo supporters and undecided voters to go to the polls on election day to vote for them, and I listen to discussions about who looks “more presidential,” I know that there is still a portion of the population who will not vote for Obama, as they did not in 2008, simply because of the color of his skin. I am deeply saddened by that. As a country, we have come a long way since the days of slavery, but we still have a long way to go.

As a person with prosopagnosia, I don’t judge people based upon their appearance. I judge people based upon their personality traits, their intellect, and their emotional qualities. I also judge people based upon their opinions and political ideologies, when that is relevant, but I also try to be civil with people in such discussions. Like many people, I have very strong political opinions, and I am often upset when an election deteriorates into a question of why I “shouldn’t vote for the other candidate.” That is not intellectually stimulating to me. In fact, I tend to accumulate negative mental votes any time I hear of such discussions or ads. I suspect I am not alone in being turned off by such tactics. I would much rather talk about why I should vote “for” a candidate than why I should vote “against” a candidate.

At the end of the day, for me, neither the face nor the visual presentation matters. I will vote for the person who, I believe, will be best for the job, and who seems to have beliefs most closely with my own. Those who know me personally know that I am deeply troubled by my choices this year. I have a lot to say about my political beliefs, but those have rather little to do with prosopagnosia. Seek me out on Facebook for those discussions, and I will be more than willing to engage you on such topics. If you decide to add me as a “friend” on Facebook, please also send me a personal message so that I will have some idea of who you are and how I should know you as I tend to add only people I know personally or have met elsewhere online.

In the mean time, I wish everybody eligible to vote in the US election for president this year luck in making your decision, and I sincerely hope you are able to vote for a candidate without any misgivings. On Election Day, I will try to do the same, and I hope that collectively, we are all wise enough to make the best decision for our country.

 

©2012 Glenn Alperin

Teaser image "US Election 2012" by Petr Kratochvil 

"Who is the US President" image (modified by Glenn Alperin) courtesy of a banner ad captured and posted by Alice Forehand, a facebook user.

If this blog entry interests you, and you would like to be notified of future blog entries I publish as I publish them, you may join the announcement-only Glenn Alperin Blog Yahoo group.

 

Glenn Alperin is a writer who has prosopagnosia.

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