Anonymity Freaks Me Out

The first and only time I voted was in the 1988 presidential election.  I clearly remember walking in that little private wank booth and looking at this strange paper on which I was to mark my selection for this or that candidate.  I remember feeling so small, so irrelevant, the process so dehumanizing. I was a nick on a prepopulated page, the same as every other: a nick in a series of identical nicks. 

In an effort to overcome my reduction to a number, to reclaim my sense of humanity, I wrote in my choice for president: my grandather, Isidore Englander.  It was reassuring to see my handwritten scrawl on this institutional document and to see a name so close to me, so absolutely idiosyncratic.  I was confident that this would be Gramps' sole vote. This paper would not be one among many; it would be singular. 

I never voted again.  More than the irrelevance of the act, it's the demand for anonymity that turns me off.  Give me a chance to stand up and voice my opinion, declare my decisions before the masses, and I'd consider voting.  But walking into a beaded room bereft of the should-be carnal candy? Eeesh.

I have the same experience when buying things. The exchange of money for goods is prescribed in such a way that seller and consumer need not exchange anything else. This coldness, this reduction of ourselves to mere function, freaks me out. I just can't do it. I need to have some kind of personal contact — a quick joke, a non-consumer query, a smile, something that acknowledges our respective selves.

Mind you, this is not noble of me. On the contrary, it's often obnoxious and certainly narcissistic. Some checkout dude at Walgreens shouldn't have to suffer through my idiotic banter just to help me alleviate my angst. 

Breaking personal boundaries is more difficult in the anonymous super stores. These places breed anonymity.  Once inside, we become consumers, shopping to some prescribed algorithm. And the employees have no investment whatsoever; they barely acknowledge you. Their only desire is to get the fuck out of there as quickly as possible.  What do they need, not to mention want, with my anxious interpersonal invasion?

Perhaps there is a freedom to such anonymity. By agreeing that we're just numbers to each other, we are left alone to do as we will— no need to pass moral, religious, or aesthetic judgement on others. You do your thing; I do my thing. And so it goes.  There's no need for things to get personal. 

This is one thing I enjoy about politeness — it allows strangers to be strangers with the least amount of friction.  Sometimes, we need things from each other or, in this crowded world, we bump into one another — a simple "excuse me," "thanks," or "please" makes the interaction run smoothly.

Still, I have this deep seated desire to break through these barriers, to risk judgement in order to enjoy a whiff of intimacy, however slight. In that moment, there is the possibility of wonder, of the heartfelt and the hilarious, the witty and the surprising.

But that's not why I do it. My need cannot be justified by anything other than itself: anonymity freaks me out.  It's as though I need the world to recognize me, not just this body, but me. Perhaps if those around me see me as an individual — not as just another customer, consumer, or constituent — then I'll be better tethered to the earth, less likely to slip into the ether unnoticed.

Ah, yes, this is it: anonymity smacks of death. And, egomaniac narcissist that I am, I believe my individuality will be enough to keep me alive.  But only if everyone notices. 


leelahp said...

Sounds like you'd be right at home voting in a caucus setting. And I am thinking caucuses would be pretty interesting with a rhetor in the midst. I have never caucused but a friend has and says it makes voting personal. So as not to bludgeon you with anonymity: I found your Rhetoric 10 lectures on itunes and am enjoying making my way through them. And added your blog to my reader for another dose of fresh thinking.

drwatson said...

Loved this - I gave a lecture - hell I give this lecture every semester.

I vote because you people ask me if I do and you think it's a big deal and it takes 12 minutes.

But - let's talk about stickers.

Why do you get a sticker for voting? A well-behaved 10 year old in a dentist chair and a voter are the only people who end up stickered. That sort of speaks for itself in my book.

I mean it's a ritual and you are rewarded for participation in the ritual much like a 10 year old - who at least is in the dentist chair for good, solid reasons.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Leelahp: Oh, man, while the idea of a caucus sounds right, the reality sounds nothing less than dreadful. Thanks for reading and commenting...

@ Dr: As WS Burroughs says, politics are the red flag that we bulls charge...voting and its charade are a red flag, making us think we're doing something. But my rants about voting are another topic all together.

Pierre said...


I understand your feelings about elections very well.

May be Rousseau may help again at this point. Or about the scale of the elections (is it an election on a small community ? or at the scale of a country ?).

I have always fell something veru similar, which drived me nuts often. But I think to really egalitarian societies (europe nordish countries for instance : Danmark, Sweeden, etc..). Historically, it was countries whith little communities, few big cities I guess, where the position of the woman was very important.

It is interesting to note that in these societes, waht europe call 'social democracy' and 'liberalism', always managed to deal together.