Choosing Humanity

2020: Amidst alarm, heartbreak, TV binging and AI manipulation, a sense of agency rediscovered.
choosing humanity and to help each other

During this pandemic, I have had unprecedented time alone. My first weeks were primarily filled with fear and horror, first overwhelmed by the mysterious, global and deadly nature of the virus and then awash with anguish and nausea after seeing the video of George Floyd’s murder; suddenly becoming aware of my 50-plus years of obliviousness to the systemic racism in our country and the pernicious consequences of it. No matter that Black family members had told me personally of experiences they’d had. No matter that I knew something was off with the numbers of incarcerated men and women of color. No matter, no matter, I was busy, I was financially secure, I was caught up in my own good life and not looking much beyond it. I held dear the concept of community, working together with my extended family to create a warm, meaningful, practically sound and pretty place to live, but hadn’t paid much attention to the larger, harder, messier, more far-reaching and fundamental nature of the concept. 

So, in this unusual space of time alone, after the 24/7 horror and fear subsided and a more sobered assessment of the state of the world ascended, aside from doing the work that I am able to do from a laptop, and aside from binging some incredibly entertaining and entirely shallow series (ahem, thank you British Baking Show), I have also tried to feed my mind more substantive fare; documentaries, books, interviews, information on the peoples and parts of the world I had heretofore neglected. One of these was The Social Dilemma directed by Jeff Orlwoski, a surprisingly fast-paced and eye-opening film documenting the people who actually created the first AI algorithms, and how their exceptional success in this endeavor has basically created a monster they were not looking to create.

Seeing this film in the midst of feeling helplessly mired in the emotional turmoil of this past year jarred me into remembering something: I have agency. I have personal power, personal choices to be made, every day.


In this way I can contribute: I can remember my point of view, that all people are human beings worthy of consideration.


That the way I choose to respond to others is a reflection of my character, not theirs. That I do not need to play into the divisiveness that has inflamed our country, fueled by AI-curated social media algorithms that feed us more and more exaggerated versions of what our biases are, until we have no room in our minds or hearts for anything else — the sick flame ignited further by the kerosene of the corrupt few who are determined to manipulate our entire nation into a frenzy of ‘us versus them.’

I refuse to play into that anymore. I will treat and talk about each human being as a human being. I may not agree with them. I may hate what they believe. But I will not fan the flames, I will not be taken from my own standard, my own place, where I feel most myself, which is recognizing the humanness in each person I come across and endeavoring to treat them accordingly. I can honestly, with my integrity intact, scream and march in protest against what someone else stands for. But I cannot denigrate anyone and keep my integrity intact.


As Martin Luther King said, “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”

 

For far too long I have taken the easier path of summing certain groups of people up into a hateful, frightening mass in my mind, forgetting that most people are not corrupt, not hurtful on purpose, not spiteful by nature. I have let my fear make me forget my strengths. This myopic way of viewing other human beings serves no constructive purpose, and, in fact, clouds my thinking and dulls my heart, leaving me barely able to know my own feelings, let alone empathize with others.

You just have to listen to any news program, left or right leaning, to know that I am not alone in this. It is now customary for supposedly “unbiased” news organizations to basically assign evil motives to entire groups of people simply because they do not share a particular political ideology, for example. This fueling of fear and distrust is aided and abetted by omnipresent social media platforms entirely informed by an AI brilliantly designed to cater more and more pointedly to only one side of an issue. Artificial Intelligence has unwittingly normalized the absence of a sense of common humanity. We humans are in a crisis of fellowship.

How can we extricate ourselves, our country, the world, from this human relationship crisis if we forget the humanness of people who do not think like us? If we forget what it is empathize? To try and understand another’s point of view? To show kindness to another before knowing their political preference, for instance, and then to continue to show kindness even when you do know? How long will we allow ourselves to remain in the daze of the AI haze that tells us what to think and that those who think differently are dangerous and morally inferior to us? How long will we allow ourselves to be duped by this?

The truth is, most people just want to live in peace. They want to say a friendly hello to their neighbors and assume that their kids will be safe in their schools and communities. They want to have meaningful work and enough money to house and feed their families and to go to the occasional movie and on an occasional vacation. They want to have their own point of view about politics and religion and how they want to live their lives and not worry about scorn from their neighbors or intimidation from others.

I think we all need to take a big step back and look at what we have all bought into. Collectively, we have let our fear make us forget our strengths: Unity as a country – regardless of political party, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity. Unity as members of the human race –whether you believe we were created by God, or merely evolved as a purely biological function, or some variation or combination of these – which of these beliefs sets one human as superior to another? Which would have us forget about the humanity in each of us?

Artificial Intelligence cannot allow for the nuances that make up the human experience because it is not human. We cannot allow expert “knowledge engineering” aided by a few wrong-minded, manipulative people, to suppress the underlying truth that we are, all of us, vulnerable creatures longing for friendship and community and love. Mortal beings clambering around on this earth, next to each other, able to support and help each other in the simplest of ways – warmth, humor, a moment of listening, a held hand. Let us take back our minds! Our hearts! Our agency! Our sense of unity! Our sense of shared humanity! Our neighborliness! Our shared struggles and coffees and burgers and fries! Or tofu and yoga!

The whole of humanity is stronger when each of us rejects the bitterness toward and false narratives about one another that were first fed to us subtly in threads from some mainframe to our personal screens, adapting us to more and more of it until now it is dumped wholesale into our minds and hearts without our recognition or consent. The threat of Artificial Intelligence paired with a few manipulative people is more dangerous than any virus; it threatens our soul.

 

The remedy is awareness.

 

Speaking with each other, especially with the people you disagree with. Finding out about their lives, what brings them to the place they are now. Being open-hearted and vulnerable as you let them know about your life and motivations. Seeking the common humanity that does exist. Resting there. There is no reason to poke or prod or coerce or rankle. Just sit with another person. Exercise your personal agency. Beware the ease with which it can be given up. Remember the nature of being human.

About the Author

Jo Barrington Born in Washington D.C., Jo Barrington now lives in Santa Barbara, California.  She has been interested in psychological ideas and theory from early in her life and for the last 26 years she has edited psychological books and videos, with a little creative writing on the side!

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