Remember when book covers were boring? Tooled leather with gold lettering. Elegant, I suppose would be a better description. But you certainly couldn't tell anything about what was inside. You had to read the book, or at least some of it, to find out. Despite a whole industry focused on "Buy-Me!" covers, you still can't know what's inside until you read a book. Some would say that modern covers can't be trusted to be honest about the story, as opposed to what the marketing department thinks you want the story to be. All the more reason not to judge a book by its cover.
We don't expect to have an opinion about a book until we read it. Not so with people. We take one look at someone and instantly size them up. Portly white guy at the country club in lime-green pants. Black man in a hoodie on a dark street. Woman in a short dress and platform heels. When it comes to people, we're better than Cliff's Notes, and faster. Take one look and sit down and discuss the character. Instead of book clubs, we could have photo clubs where everyone gets together, has a glass of wine and gossips about the person in the photo. No more oppressive reading lists. And more fun, too. Why bother with the author's imagination when you've got your own?
I know why we do it. We all know why. Nature taught us. Instant assessment is a survival skill. And we still need it often enough that it hasn't atrophied. Trouble is, its overkill. Like blowing up a city to kill a terrorist. Well, I guess we still do that too, but most of us realize that it's not such a good idea. Innocent people are harmed.
We're engaging in another kind of overkill every day on our streets and in our malls, and innocent people are bing harmed. We make a snap judgement about someones character, and Boom!, there go all the other possibilities, all the inner life, all the back story, all the hopes and dreams, the family at home, the sick mother. Everything else is vaporized in that moment of judgment. And then we walk right past the rubble of that life that we will never know as if we've done nothing wrong.
True, we didn't actually hurt the person. I suppose you could say it's just ourselves we hurt. Closing ourselves off to the rich diversity of human experience. In the moment of that walking by, that may be all the harm that's done. The damage to that person's life comes later. We have seen him. We have judged him. He now falls into a classification system we have created for our own intellectual and emotional convenience. And later, when we act on the basis of those classifications, whether by voting for some anti-immigrant politician or railing against the taxes that support poverty programs, that's when the damage is done. The bomb goes off inside our brains and explodes into our actions. And keeps exploding. And keeps exploding.
We know we can't understand a book without reading it. Wouldn't it be nice if we gave the people around us the same benefit?