It happened in seventh grade, but I remember it vividly. It was music class. I’ve always enjoyed music but have never been able to make it without the assistance of a device that plays recordings. This particular day, however, Mr. Butler gave us the assignment to write down whatever we heard for about ten minutes. He told us to start and I began listening. Hard. I didn’t want to miss a thing. When time was up he asked some people for their answers. The first person said the sound of Mr. Butler’s footsteps as he walked to his desk after saying “start.” I was utterly shocked. How had I missed that? More answers emerged and my sense grew that I was completely inept at hearing things—well nigh deaf—since I had only heard the sounds that I was listening for. Hidden in Plain Sight: The Social Structure of Irrelevance, by Eviatar Zerubavel, makes me feel a little better.
A lot has happened since seventh grade. I have now realized that I’ve missed most of it. We filter out stimuli constantly. What is really interesting about a sociologist’s look at what we fail to notice is that we often miss important things in life by assuming that figure is more important than background. Or that space between things is less important than the objects themselves. Or that we can indeed listen for silence instead of sounds. It is a matter of how we perceive things. There are millions of stimuli bombarding you right now. I’m flattered that you’re even bothering to pay attention to my musings here. Are you also feeling the clothes you’re wearing? The shoes on your feet? The taste of either your last meal or the toothpaste that might have followed it? We shove things into the “background” all the time, including other people. We can’t pay attention to everything.
Interestingly, Zerubavel raises the issue of moral inattention. We do sometimes consider things outside the realm of moral consideration. But should we? What are morals if not an indication of what society has taught us to value? Indeed, social attention, or inattention, teaches us from our earliest days what is safe to ignore and to what we must pay attention. It helps us survive. Reading this little book, however, has left me wondering about all the things I have habitually missed through the years. Some of them may have been important. Sitting in a silent room, after all, I failed to notice the sounds of my own pencil scratching on paper, writing down all the sounds I was hearing.