When “attention” is a disease you don’t want to catch

The people and things that get the most attention are rarely the people and things most deserving of attention. Why are some people’s voices heard more than others? Why is some news heard more than other news that is equally or more important? And what makes one hero more deserving of attention than another?

When we think about calling attention to something, especially in societies with strong freedom-of-speech cultures, we think in the positive: this is something that needs attention; it will help improve something, solve some problem, clarify something. But attention is also very often associated with negative things – we just don’t often “pay attention” to that side of the deal.

On the dark side of things, attention is often involuntary and uncontrollable. This is a big deal – most people don’t like to lose control of their identities or their lives. Out-of-control attention can cause stuff like that to happen!

The case of the proverbial lottery winner

By now you’ve probably heard all sorts of horror stories about lottery winners that went bad – people who struck it lucky and instantly got rich, only to find a few years down the line that they became worse off, felt less fulfilled, and often have lost all their winnings; even if they have kept hold on their wealth, still – these winners often end up changing their tune and running away from their status as winners. Often, it changes them forever.

There are debates about the ability of uneducated people who suddenly come into millions of dollars to manage their money well. But even excluding such debates, the first thing that comes to mind for me is not that the wealth itself has the biggest effect, but rather, the attention generated as a result. Winning the lottery is a very public affair; everyone knows you won. The word quickly spreads far and wide. No longer do you have a semblance of control as to how you present to other people; now, you are “the person with the millions.”

This thought is extremely unsettling to me. I mean, you might as well put a big bullseye on your head saying “I’m filthy rich!”

Privacy and autonomy of identity

One of the reasons people keep things private is so that this doesn’t happen – so that people can be known as they want to be known, in a balanced way, rather than having some feature about them always sticking up. Indeed, even if it isn’t having lots of money, there are plenty of other things that a person might try to hide about themself in order not to attract unwanted attention. This is where the concept of privacy gets its value.

Something that has caught my eye recently is the paradox that many people in disadvantaged positions in life face with regard to attention. Often, these disadvantages desperately need attention, in a sense: gross injustice and inequality of opportunity is constantly happening, and in a perfect world, it would get the attention necessary to be corrected. But very often, getting this attention runs up against this wall where the discrepancy that needs attention turns into a backlash, victim pity party, or even fetish for other people – very unwanted kinds of attention indeed!

Another thing to remember: attention changes everything. It changes who your are. It changes your situation in ways you might not expect, even if the attention is desired. Once something significant about you is out there that wasn’t before, there’s no turning back. Enough attention can intimately affect one’s reputation, and reputation is one of the most valuable things we can build in a society in which we basically depend on each other to live and thrive, when all is said and done. Very often, we don’t have control over our reputation, especially if we step out and do something that attracts attention. Some doors may open – but many may also shut, as well.

I don’t want to give the impression here that attention-getting is all bad; I would be the last person to say that, given that I am a habitual attention-grabber by nature. But I do think it’s important to have some perspective as to why, for example, some people remain quiet in meetings or get-togethers even when they have very important things to say, or why some people go along for months and years in situations they don’t like without saying a word, or why battered partners don’t always blow the whistle on their batterers, or why victims of racism, sexism, homophobia and other discriminations don’t always speak up about their experiences, and so on …

We must recognize the way that such people may feel further disempowered by the wave of attention they might create if they spoke up. Only once we can understand and empathize with that do we have any hope of earning these people’s trust, so that maybe they will come out and share their thoughts. Earning this trust means that we show ourselves able to hear what they need to say without disrespecting their autonomy of control over what they reveal to others – you know, keeping something private. “Keeping secrets” may feel like a burden sometimes, but it’s a whole lot easier to do when you know it’s for a good cause. :-)

Why else would we have a culture in which dishonesty and manipulation win out so much more of the time than they should? I’ve found that understanding the darker dynamics of attention help quite a bit in cutting through bullshit, too. Not everybody will tell you the truth – but if you take away the reasons people might have to lie to you, it becomes a lot easier to distinguish trustworthy people that dodge revealing things that might affect them adversely from people who simply live a manipulative lifestyle.

This stuff is complex and perhaps merits more in-depth discussion than I’m giving it here, but I just found it important to mention as another of those little things that positive people learn and come to know that helps put the world around them at ease, and helps foster a better sense of inclusion and goodwill overall.Related article: The wonderful, liberating power of dispassionateness.

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