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Othering: The Ultimate Challenge of Sentient Life – Article by Pavel Ilin

Othering: The Ultimate Challenge of Sentient Life – Article by Pavel Ilin

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Pavel Ilin


We come to the point in history when compassion and belonging become not only a necessary part of building inclusive culture, but the practices which determine the survival of sentient life as we know it. 

Most of us are locked in our local tribes – national, ideological, corporate, and so on. Living in different tribes is a way to establish one’s own subjectivity and identity. Most of the time we are part of the different tribes at the same time. The problem comes when we are not engaged in cross-tribal dialog and consider members of other tribes as “Other”. That’s how othering happens.

Most commonly, othering expresses the boundaries between “we” and “them”. “We” belong; “they” are Other and cannot belong. Those who are “them” can be described in the negative language of disgust.

When people say “they are barbarians”, they deny the right of the other to belong. When Ancient Greeks called slaves “speaking tools”, or they allowed only males to vote, they denied the others’ humanity and right to belong. When Romans expand their empire, they called other nations they conquered barbarians, unless they adapted the Romans’ culture – and by doing so the Romans othered these peoples. We can go on and on. The history of sentient life as we know it is full of othering.

When we deny the opportunity for the other to belong, then the other is not a person anymore in our eyes. You are allowed to do things to an “Other”, which would be unthinkable to do to one of “Us”. It’s very easy to deny access to resources, deny rights, deny compassion, and deny life to the “Other”. Taking away life is an extreme form of othering.

Personal-Level Othering

On the personal level othering happens very often. Susan Fiske from Princeton University shows in her “Stereotype content model” how othering works on neurological level. Studies show that when we see other people, there is a part of our brain that lights up when we see another human being. It’s an interesting authentication mechanism which allows us to identify our own species. But when we see, for example, homeless people, or undocumented immigrants and refugees, this part of the brain doesn’t light up. Instead, there lights up a part of the brain responsible for fear and disgust. 

Studies also show that if we put different people in situations when they have to work together to achieve a common goal, othering tends to diminish. When people engage in dialog, when people communicate and coordinate, people start to see each other, and neural activity gets changed. The person who previously provoked a fear response becomes a human again.

The moral here is that in order to overcome othering on a personal level, we should collaborate with as many people as we can.

Structural-Level Othering

But it’s not enough to deal with othering on a personal level. We live in social structures which determine our behavior and our identity. 

For example, the US government calls all immigrants “Alien”. And by doing that on a structural level, the government said to the immigrants that “you do not belong”. 

When police profile people based on how they look, it’s othering on a structural level.

When we allow such a huge level of income inequality, it’s a structural problem. The whole system of resource distribution is organized in a way that it others the poor and favors the rich.

What to do with structural othering? Create an inclusive structure which allows people to belong. It sounds easier than it is, but this way we can upgrade our culture.

Implementing basic income, removing immigration barriers, providing access to educational resources to all are all important steps. It is also vital to create organizations within which belonging is cultivated. The USTP is a great example of such an organization. Everyone is welcome to participate regardless of residence, income level, and a variety of other circumstances or attributes. You are welcome in the USTP even if you are not human or not an organic-based form of sentient life.

The Future

Why is it important to talk about othering in the context of the building of transhumanists’ future?

In context of the COVID-19 situation, it’s become very clear that we can’t hide inside our small narratives. It’s impossible to stay away from the pandemic situation. In order to get over this pandemic with minimal loss of human lives, we have to work together. It’s not going to be the last pandemic, and in order to prepare for future threats, we have to cooperate more closely. A virus is only one of the potential existential threats. What about climate change, bio-terrorism, asteroids, and destructive AI? We have to work together to survive!

As transhumanists we should prepare ourselves to face the “other” and to become “other” in certain situations as well. I think we need to create structures which can be inclusive not only for humans but for all sentient beings.

Other Modified Beings

There are millions of people around the world with artificial body parts and this number will keep growing. How will the culture react when organization goes from regaining physical ability to enhancing ability? We can face creating a new other and potentially new discrimination. 

Uplifted Animals

Recognizing that animals are living beings with feelings and thoughts is pretty new phenomenon. And mostly right now animals are considered commodities. We will have to have a very difficult dialog about humans behavior with animals uplifted to human-level intelligence.  

Other AI Entities

While we create Artificial Intelligence, we should remember that creating tech slaves is not going to end anywhere good. We should create colleagues with whom we are going to work to build a transhumanist future. We might even become artificially intelligent forms of life ourselves. 

Conclusion

But race is the child of racism, not the father. – Ta-Nehisi Coates

I believe that othering is an existential issue. If we keep dividing people and other beings into “us” and “them”, then we will keep facing discrimination, conflicts, and wars. This is extremely concerning for me because we have now a lot of technological power at our disposal, and it keeps growing – and with great power comes great responsibility. What I mean is that we can easily destroy our planet by just pressing the nuclear button. And if we consider people in other countries or in other social groups as Others, if they are outside the circle of our concern, then it’s very easy to deny help and start wars.

We have built virtual walls between us, and I think it’s time to tear them down by reclaiming and living and practicing belonging where no beings and lives are outside of the circle of concern.

Pavel Ilin is the Secretary of the U.S. Transhumanist Party.