Alex Cosmescu

“How do I make them see?”

The anxiety—sometimes growing into despair—which can be expressed by this question becomes quite obvious when one reads, for example, the endless threads of comments below Facebook updates about vaccination, death counts, personal stories about the experience of illness. Or, basically, any time the topic of “what is to be done” is brought up. Even a statement like “X has done Y” can create this kind of attitude.

It is something I also see developing in myself—or intuit in others—while participating in, or listening to, conversations—with a taxi driver, this summer, for example, who was gently encouraging me to take off the mask, because he is fully vaccinated, he said, even if he does not believe in the reality of the coronavirus—out of his group of close acquaintances, about 300 people, he said, no one got it, and no one knew anyone who got it, he said, and people who died in the hospital died because of the doctors, he said.

“How do I make him see?”—a kind of inner movement of desire to show something to him, and some vague forming-of-something-I-would-say—a question, for example, “do you think it is reasonable for a doctor to intentionally kill their patients?”

“Do I even need to try to make him see? Do I have the energy for that?”—a kind of anticipation of failure—or of conflict—and a kind of fear and discomfort at the absurdity of a verbal confrontation with someone who is driving me home.

“How would I even start?”

This kind of anxiety—and this kind of desire, underlying it—shows, in a way, how adequate and relevant Heidegger’s simplest take on speech, in Sein und Zeit, still is—speech is about making available to the other what one sees. It is about first seeing something for oneself—and then making what was seen available for the other—who has not seen that for herself—using words and expressions and tone and pauses and silence to create the possibility that the other sees what you’ve seen.

That much is obvious to me. And it seems to be one of the default modes when we speak to each other. In talking to each other, we try to show each other something. To help each other see. Maybe not even help: making each other see sounds closer to what I experience most often in this kind of talk. As if taking the other by hand, consensually or not, and leading them to a place, or maybe even turning the other’s head towards something and keeping it, with our hands, in that position, as a kind of injunction to look.

“If they saw what I saw, from the angle I saw it, they would definitely agree with me”—the basic assumption of an intersubjective community.

But then—as Heidegger also points out—it’s not just about what we saw. When we listen to someone, and they are trying to make us see something, it is very easy to think we saw it.

Would it make sense to tell my taxi driver that the last person whose home I visited, last year, told me about how her grandmother died, and then all the people who attended the funeral got infected with the coronavirus, she said, and her mother died a couple of weeks later, she said, and her father, who was less gravely ill, has lost any desire to live and work afterwards, she said—would it make sense to tell this to my taxi driver? Maybe prefaced with a benign joke—“we seem to have different circles of friends”?

Would me telling him that count as a form of showing—or would it be just repeating someone else’s story, idle talk, telling what I heard without seeing for myself? What did I see for myself in listening to my friend, anyway? And do I have the right to share her story? Yes, I have the feeling of having seen something due to her speech, but can I do the same for him based on this impulse on telling him what she has told me? In listening to her, I was available to see what she was talking to me about—but is my taxi driver available to do that? With so much confidence, is there any place for availability?

Regardless of anything else, there is still this impulse, the impulse to make others see, underlying almost any attempt to argue for something. Grounded in the confidence that what we have seen was well seen, and that, given what we saw, we know how to act. And an expectation that others, after seeing what we saw, will think what we think and act how we think they should act.

Part of the anxiety to show the other something comes from a frustration that they don’t already see it. It seems obvious to us; why don’t they see it already? Are they duped by propaganda? Are they willingly closing their eyes? Is this a defense mechanism? But, at the same time, do we see what they see? How can we be sure? Is one seeing canceling the other? The type of arguments we read and hear so often seems to suppose that, in a way, both parties believe this: that either the other does not see at all (because they were duped, or bought into what they were told – Gerede again), or that what they have seen supersedes and should replace what the others saw (that the other is misled into believing what they believe on the basis of what they have seen, so yes, they saw something, but if they saw what we did, they would understand that what they have seen is just a Schein, a misleading appearance).

And then there’s the despair. The despair that, regardless of our attempts to make them see, they still don’t see. The feeling-like-a-failure. The unfriending (or even blocking) on Facebook. The avoiding of certain topics when you talk with others. The tiredness which comes from endless attempts to make what you have seen available for them—but failing each time.

And still, the impulse to make them see remains.

But maybe we can temporarily forget about it—or suspend it—and try to imagine how it is for the other. To become sensitive to the other. It seems to me that precisely this kind of empathy—imagining the real, Realphantasie, as Martin Buber would call it—is what we lack today. A culture of mutual embodied listening and sensing-into each other. It’s easy to think we saw something, and more difficult to make the effort to sense, in an embodied way, how it must be for the other, given that she speaks, acts, and responds the way she does.

Photo — “Magic Ink” by Gianni Motti (1989; source).