There is a problem in all of us. For every in-group, there is an out-group. We are each rejected by many people in some way and we likely reject others whether or not we know it, just by the nature of the identities we adhere to. Neuroscience shows that each of us subconsciously values some groups of people more and others less in some ways. The problem is, when we don’t learn about this and take real and regular action to fight against that tendency, it can lead us to dehumanize others. Unchecked it very often leads many of us to devalue some groups of humans so much that the moral laws we normally follow regarding how we treat other humans no longer apply. One key weapon that exacerbates this is propaganda. In this time of terrorism and racial divide, we all need to be vigilant. We need to examine ourselves every day with every news article, Facebook post, Tweet, comment from a friend or family member, political debate and media report. Each bit of information that comes in has the ability to shift the needle of our heart away from the humanity of a group that isn’t our own. When this goes unchecked long enough, we believe the lie that “they” aren’t as valuable as “us.” Then… death.
I’m going to ask you do something. Please, watch this video. It starts slow, but it is so good and relevant to the recent events that I’m willing to beg you to engage with these ideas. If it helps even one person realize that we’re all capable of dehumanizing and withholding normal morality towards other groups, and you and I are not exempt to this – I’ll gladly beg. Please, watch it.
That was just a clip that wasn’t very explanatory of the video. Please see the full episode called “Why Do I Need You?“ from David Eagleman’s series on PBS called The Brain.
I’m not writing about this solely because of the deep sorrow we now feel about what happened in Paris. A friend recently posted these links along with the statement, “It is estimated that around 100 people, many being innocent men, women, and children, die in Syria EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. What happened in France is tragic. So is the murder of ANY human.” Here’s the death toll count and a wikipedia article about the casualties. This is about human nature. And I don’t mean to universalize it. It’s about my nature. It’s about your nature. We each need to understand how you and I work and how to combat the things about us humans that lead to suffering – in us and those around us. I’m working on it as well. It’s about raising the bell curve, and we can only do that collectively – as a collective of individuals.
Compassion fatigue. That’s a term my wife used last night and I love it on so many levels. But for some groups, the phrase falls short of the deep bias that we don’t see because so many of our neighbors share it. I’ve heard about the “blue eyes–brown eyes experiment” from the video several times before and found it extremely useful for helping people visualize the injustice and irrationality of prejudice. In today’s racially divided world full of terrorism, I think we all need to consider what it means and find a way to convey that meaning to others.
Identifying with terrorists
I just saw an article saying “Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents.”
I, like many of you, am now seen by some others as a terrorist. It doesn’t matter that, in my case, my “atheism” isn’t a belief that no God exists. I much prefer weak agnostic weak atheist possibilian, with a big focus on the possibilian part. Technically, I’m as much of a theist as an atheist since much of the time I think some causal prior intelligence is as likely as no prior intelligence. Some moments I think it’s even more likely. Just owning the atheist label has marked many of us, as most labels do, with a misrepresentation of our actual views.
The last thing I want to do is write about events of suffering and pain and death. When I experience activation of the pain matrix (see the video for what the means), I’m not drawn to writing about it. I usually suffer in silence. If it’s about the loss or pain of another that I cannot affect, I want to hug my children and my wife. I want to hit the pavement, the trail, or the gym. I want to spend time in quiet contemplation, identifying and grieving with the families, those suffering in the hospital, and the families of those who caused such devastation, and yes I even offer up prayers. Where I’m drawn though, is to the terrorists themselves. Always to them. I don’t know if this is normal and I understand that many will disagree. I did not lose my child to the actions of a terrorist, so I cannot possible imagine how I would feel or judge those who default to hatred. I only know that my heart gravitates to those who are committing or have committed the atrocities. Christians may find themselves unconsciously whispering, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I identify with the notion I’ve repeated many times on this blog.
- We should be both humble and allow some uncertainty in our ideas about the universe and God because statistically some of our ideas must be false, especially some closely held ones since those are, on average, the least objectively examined ones.
- We cannot know for certain that – if we were born in someone else’s environment with their DNA (neither of which any of us have any control over) and shared their exact experiences – that we would be any different from them.
These are both relevant to everything I write on this blog as they are central to my philosophy and why I respect those who disagree. Part of my goal is to illuminate the first point (1) so that all cultures can exercise some caution and expand their understanding of the flawed reasoning that plagues us all (cognitive biases and logical fallacies).
The second point (2) is an explanation for why I respect all people, even when I do not share their conclusions or opinions. They are me. I am you. I’m not saying that things are completely deterministic. Quantum uncertainty affects some percentage of our decisions in some ways, but we are still bound up in our DNA and experiences. Everyone’s beliefs are rational and justified to them at the time. There’s another level at we each judge another’s beliefs or actions, and we form groups and collectively judge them. That is necessary for societies to function and we all understand it. The point in this post is to explain that I, personally, may disagree with you but I don’t judge your beliefs too harshly, because I can see myself in your actions and in your beliefs. I did not choose to be me and not to be you when I was born. Can you offer me the same courtesy and recognize that you could have been me? Can you do the same for the victims? My father once said that there is a fine line between being willing to die for a belief and being willing to kill for one. Can you see yourself in the beliefs and actions of terrorists, were your birth in accordance with theirs? Can you love them? And not because you feel God commands it, but because you identify with them as a human. Not a sub-human. A person… just like you.
I am certainly not advocating that we justify their actions. Because I understand someone does not mean I lay down my objections to the consequences of the beliefs and actions they impose on others. Nor would I want you do allow me to trample another. But we all already know how to hate, and rage, and seek death, and prosecute, and yearn for revenge. I know of few who will benefit from a post encourage such a response to the perpetrators of violence. That’s built into being human. I do believe we need to fight against the ideology that leads to terrorism, but terrorism is just one example of those on the other side of the bell curve. The best way to do it may not be involve being completely devoid of understanding and compassion for those engaged in the extremist beliefs (potential terrorist are one example). This post isn’t about how to hate jihadists (if you aren’t one) because that’s natural. It’s about the part we don’t often see through the rage – the subtly shifting compass needle of compassion that eventually prevents us from caring about those whose views we see as extreme.
I’ll be picking up Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism to help me understand the culture that creates beliefs that would lead to terrorism. I think if we’re serious about loving others who disagree with us then beginning to identify with the hardest-to-relate-to will move us a long way in that direction. Things like – certainty that God calls you to some beliefs and actions towards other groups, witnessing genocide of your people caused by these “other” groups, belief of a reward in the afterlife for certain faith and actions, continual “anti-other-group” propaganda poured into you from your in-group throughout life – these things and more continually reinforce that belief that the “other” group is sub-human. We could be them. I hope they can look at you and see the same of you. They may hate you, but if they only knew they could be you, and that you have reasons for you beliefs that make sense to you, if only they’d take the time to get to know you.
I disagree with terrorists, but I respect them as people just like I respect you. I don’t want them to dehumanize me, and I want to be careful not to dehumanize them. For the sake of our shared existence, and our shared humanity, I pray for them. If there’s a God listening, perhaps it may help on some level. But ultimately, I pray because it helps me synchronize my heart with theirs. Wars, and the fear of them, will rob us of our humanity as we blow past compassion fatigue and into red hatred. Our only hope is to actively and intellectually carve off the calluses that our nature secretly encases around our heart. Cling to the message of Jesus, or Buddha or the scientific rationality that our similarities outnumber or differences. Let us build on those similarities. Maybe, in time, as we try to understand one another, our similarities will diffuse the power of the ideologies that lead to human-human suffering and death.
As we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves, but we also dehumanize a version of us that we could have easily been (and in some real sense, a version of you that is). We are all biased against other groups in our subconscious. We can only prevent that bias from growing and resulting in dehumanization by consciously fighting against it through attempting to understand those with whom with differ. That’s the point of 1 and 2 above and the recent posts on raising the bell curve. David Eagleman’s video is immensely useful in understanding the complexities we’re talking about.
As a final effort to let this resound, I want to share a story with you that, if it were believe to be true by a society, would lead to the most moral behavior of any society I can imagine. It’s like the Veil of Ignorance but with narrative and a compelling call that echoes for long after the end of the story. It was written by Andy Weir who wrote the very excellent book that just became a blockbuster movie, The Martian…
Please read The Egg and let me know if it moves you. I may put the full contents of that story in a future post.
Gentleness and respect,