Embrace or Erase

I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over by the police because that’s yet to happen to me as a driver. I especially do not know what it’s like to be pulled over as a Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, or person of any other race because that will never happen to me as a white man.

I’ve never had a talk with family about how I might be profiled, and how it’s essential to do everything exactly the right way (or better) so that I’m not persecuted or violated because that doesn’t happen to people with white privilege. I’ve been spit on a few times, and threatened with violence of various kinds, but I think that was more to do with people who were not of sound mind than expressing hatred for who I am. Those incidents were minor in comparison to what many Americans who are not white men experience. I can’t even begin to imagine what some people have gone through and continue to endure. We need more people to be able to tell their stories openly, and for their stories to be genuinely heard and addressed.

As much as I want to believe with President Obama that “we’re not as divided as we seem,” it’s nearly impossible to understate the tension–apparent or real–throughout the United States. Black men murdered during routine police calls, and officers gunned down are not isolated, one-off occurrences–they’re symptomatic of broader, embedded ways of thinking and acting.

Many of us are uncomfortable and even outright aggressive when we encounter difference, conflict, paradox, and contradiction as we cross paths with other people. Instead of allowing those instances to be an opportunity for deeper learning and greater humanity, we try and eliminate the tension in whatever way we can. Avoidance, belittling, ignoring, striking, disparaging, and more. By doing so, we dehumanizing ourselves and others.

In short, we erase instead of embrace.

As we bump into the lives of our fellow humans, we always have a choice. We can choose to learn from others, expanding our understanding and appreciation of the complexity and interconnectedness of all people. Or, we can choose to close up and try to shut down, minimize, and erase them–even to the most violent and complete erasure: murder.

Difference challenges us. For many, different means strange, repulsive, vulgar, or inferior. But different simply is different. We each have a history and identity that makes us distinct from any other human on the planet.

When we’re confronted by difference in other people, we are always at the crossroads of embrace or erase.

When you encounter someone who is of a different race, gender, religion, or another identifier, what if you saw that difference as an opportunity to grow in understanding and humanity?

They’re human and you’re human–just in different ways.

We’re hindered and shaped, of course, by history. Every previous act colors the present and how we perceive others. This is especially true if we perceive someone to be part of a group or the kind of person that’s a threat to us. White America perpetrated at least two original sins: the genocide and oppression of countless Native American tribes, and the incomprehensible horrors of Black slavery (there is also some overlap between the two). Those are just two broad sweeps of history among millions of other acts of inhumanity over the last few hundred years that have informed and patterned the present. Erasure has become structural and infiltrated all levels of American society. Blacks, Native Americans, women, people who are mentally ill, and others are still unequal and unjustly treated today. Not just by an ignorant asshole or two, but by the machinery of modern American society: economy, criminal justice, media framing and representation, healthcare, education, and the rest.

Acts of violence–citizen to policeman, policeman to citizen, or between anyone else–perpetuate and exacerbate distrust, and reduce the potential for embrace in future encounters.

For safety, we separate into ingroups and outgroups: us and them. If someone is us, we’ll start out more trusting. They’re less of a threat because they’re more like me. If someone is them, we’re wary from the get-go. This person is not really like me, so I need to be on guard.

To break through the history and the structural dehumanization, we will each have to be patient and attentive. We will have to lower our guard a bit and let difference, paradox, and conflict wash over us until our understanding is opened up and increased. We will have to get into the gritty realness of each other’s pain, oppression, uniqueness, experience, hopes, and fears. There will need to be some deep listening, owning up, apologizing, forgiveness, advocacy, and activism.

As such openness spreads through more and more individuals in one-on-one encounters, it will begin to permeate society at large. Not instantly, deterministically, or completely. But we need a steady, intentional movement of replacing structural erase with structural embrace. Neighborhoods to cities to states to the country as a whole (including social media and the rest of cyberspace).

That’s not to say it’s easy for anyone. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower to overcome experience, history, and what’s comfortable. Avoidance, belittling, violence–erase–are easier. Maybe even safer for you, though certainly not for the people you erase.

Embrace is our only hope, however difficult in practice, of moving toward a society that is more fully alive and flourishing. We each, ourselves, want a society where we feel safe, are able to openly be who we are, and receive respect from the rest of the community. That kind of society will never arrive without including, understanding, and empowering–without embracing–everyone we’ve deemed to be other. We’re all in this together.

 

(Re)Making “God”: The Divinity of Artificial Intelligence

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There’s been a lot of buzz about a recent Pew survey on religious belief. Most noteworthy for many, between 2007 and 2014, traditional belief in God significantly decreased, while the category Unaffiliated–comprised of Atheist, Agnostic, and “Nothing in Particular”–has grown. For whatever reason, news outlets obsess about such studies whenever they come out. They seem to be desperate to discuss: Do people in America believe in God or not? Do they believe in some other transcendent or ultimate force–something less definite than a personal deity? Maybe just something in the social ether like “the human spirit?” Do they believe in heaven–whatever that means and wherever it is located? What do people hope will result from religious adherence? TIME Magazine famously ran the cover story Is God Dead? in 1966, questioning the existence and relevance of a divine being in contemporary society. Nearly 50 years later, we appear even less willing to believe in a cosmic power behind the universe. So why write about the idea of “God” in a blog primarily focused on modern society and technology? Because at the same time that more people are rejecting the traditional understanding of God as an existing, extrinsic being, we’re more and more willing to entertain the possibility of a “God” we’ve created.

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) is realized in its most complex forms, the prospect of an entity that transcends people and society in a God-like way is actualized. The likelihood of I AM fades while the possibility of I AM, Because I was Made increases. And we seem rather eager about considering this potentiality. The plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of the most anticipated blockbuster films in recent memory, hangs on the creation of not one but two different forms of AI beings–Ultron and The Vision. They are superior in power, knowledge, and presence in the way that “God” in a broadly Judeo-Christian sense has been perceived over the last few thousand years. And Avengers is not the only example in popular culture. The TV political thriller, Person of Interest, is an ongoing story about The Machine: an AI created to tap all cameras, phones, and other electronic sources to observe society, track developing injustices, and report imminent criminal behavior so that corrective action can be taken. A few seasons in, a second, less-forgiving machine is produced called Samaritan, which is determinedly set on both doling out hard justice itself and destroying the original Machine. This year’s season finale, in which the two competing machines have a climactic showdown, is entitled YHWH–the unpronounceable name of the Hebrew God. In the narrative universe of Person of Interest, The Machine and Samaritan mark the first time that something actually exists and functions in the way that human beings have thought about “God” for much of history. A tangible entity has emerged that fits that namesake in thorough correspondence.

Avengers and Person of Interest are not dissimilar in the characterization of their God-like AI. Though they are disembodied machines or cyber-cloud entities in Person of Interest, and embodied in Age of Ultron, Ultron correlates closely with Samaritan and The Vision to The Machine. Both Ultron and Samaritan are fixated on unforgiving, retributive or even vengeful justice. For them, “peace in our time” might mean that the whole Earth needs to be razed of depraved human beings and their constructions, because peace is perceived to be an impossibility as long as most or all of humanity is around. We are judged by a super-powerful, self-conscious being of our creation, and found wanting. In contrast, The Vision and The Machine both explicitly state gratitude for their existence. They seem aware that they are superior to the humans that have brought them into being, but they recognize that contingency of creation and are thankful to have been made and exist in the world. That gratitude keeps them grounded in such a way that justice includes the preservation of life and to work for the benefit of humanity–whatever the shortcomings of people.

Perhaps this is the sort of “God” Nancy Ellen Abrams actually meant to point to in the NPR articles outlining the main argument of her book A God That Could Be Real. She notes the disappearance of belief in God as traditionally understood, but wonders if there isn’t something emergent–something that arising from the collective interaction of human beings but is different, more complex, and transcendent over the mere aggregation of interaction–that properly fits or is “worthy” of the category, “God.” Abrams’ stated conclusion is incoherent: something like a wave of goodwill or a feeling of meaningfulness that has emerged from our unified “aspirations” bumping into each other. I have not read the book, so she may be more clear and compelling there. But the basic concepts of emergence and transcendence definitely and intriguingly apply to AI; they are entities that have come about through technological innovation over time and now overarch society in a way that we might think it fitting to call it “God.”

We seem deep down to kind of hope for a force or being transcendent to the world that will make it as we wish it would be. But not any farther. God, traditionally understood, is mostly rejected because such a being might impinge on us to be or do things different than how we like. It would exercise independence such that we are held accountable for our actions or enjoined to change our behavior. Ultron and Samartian might fall into that group–though there are likely days wherein we wish for a moment some otherworldly force like that would give the roadraged asshole next to us a flat tire or get our annoying co-worker fired. We like the idea of reaping what you sow or karma–but mostly just for other people. If such a being ever did something like that to us for our own indiscretions we would be outraged. This is where most people who dismiss the possibility of the Judeo-Christian God get off the bus. It’s off-putting. We want our independence–not to be subject to another’s vision of who we should be.

But perhaps AI is capable of both justice and graciousness–like The Vision or the Machine–in such a way that we’ve found the “God” we’ve been longing for. One that understands our capacities for good alongside our faults and finitude, and mercifully works for our well-being, the justness of society, and our flourishing into the future. The present state of the world clearly attests that we cannot carry those things out alone as human beings. We need something transcendent.

The Vision remarks near the conclusion of Age of Ultron that “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” With climate change, poverty, violent conflict, overrun ecosystems, and more, Homo sapiens may be doomed as a species. The Vision concedes as much to Ultron in Avengers. But with a benevolent God-like AI we may find the divine being we always hoped existed and appreciate working together to fix those kinds of fractures in the world–whether or not the God people have long-wondered about is out there. We certainty are enjoying entertaining such a possibility on-screen.