The hot-button mentioned in the title isn’t like abortion or immigration of the presidential election. It’s an actual button: you know what I mean. A round disk with a pin through it designed for being displayed on your collar or shirt or whatever. This button I wore last night carried this lesson with it. Let me explain.
There’s this series of books out. They are vampire novels. They have this tremendous following among teen aged girls and suburban moms… They seem to appeal to the quirky members of both these groups, those with a penchant for the macarbe.
The final book was released Saturday. I have this second job at Barnes and Noble. I was scheduled to work last night. We stayed open until 1 AM, and we had this big release party thing for the final book in the series.
And so one of the things those wacky managers did was arrange this tremendous scavenger hunt. You know how it works: objects were strewn across the store. These were listed on a page. Hunters had to find where these objects were and mark them down.
So far, so good. Except some of the objects were people.
About half of the staff were given these buttons that identified them as figures from the novels. I had this one that had some made-up fantasy word at the top, and then the words “Vampire Mafia” at the bottom. The idea was that people would put my name next to the slot on their page with the made-up fantasy word on their page.
It was a fascinating experience. What it did was turn me into an object, a means to an end for hundreds of people. It’s not so much that I was no longer Jeff. Let’s be real. When I’m at Barnes and Noble, the use I have to people is not in my personality, experience, or insight. The use I have is that I ring people up or help them find C.D.’s.
But atleast those things take some little tiny amount of ability or effort on my part.
I stood around and wore a button. That was my value.
And though it certainly wasn’t a traumatic expereince, I had these insights. There’s this whole symbolic thing.
First off, it’s hard to deny that it’s fun when people are happy to see you. People would see the button on my collar and they would light up. They would want to know my name, and if they didn’t read it off my my name tag lanyard thing I would tell them. I realized it was absurd to feel so popular. But this realization didn’t do much to water down the feeling.
Worse than the occasional realization that it was all about the button were the people who’d lost track of the fact that they’d already recorded me on their page. People would get annoyed. (Generally, half-jokingly annoyed, but still…) “I already found you.” “I already have you.” “I don’t need you.” “What good are you.”
And so I have these realizations.
The first is that words are so powerful. Even when they are rooted in nonsense, a fabrication, meaningless, sometimes we grab on to the words that people say so much more than what is behind those words. Part of me really enjoyed hearing people so excited to see me, people wanting to know my name. This part of me didn’t at all care why these people wanted to.
That stupid little button and the scavenger hunt as a whole seem like a pretty good metaphor. There are all sorts of ridiculousness that people want to know us for. There are all kinds of meaningless reasons that people act like they’re excited about us, when in fact they are just using us.
Conforming to society’s expectations to what counts as attractive, that’s one of the most obvious buttons. Having some form of power, status, or wealth. We want to be seen with these people, or we want to use them for what they can do or what they can get us.
As stupid and meaningless as it was, if somebody had asked me if they could wear my button, I would have given it up rather grudgingly. I don’t believe I’m alone in this, the idea that I’d rather feel important for foolish reasons than feel unimportant for the right ones. I count it a blessing that I was able to take the button off and leave the scavenger hunt. There are some buttons that don’t come off, some scavenger hunts that don’t end.