I remember reading Frank Herbert’s Dune as a child and being at once excited and awed by some of the concepts. One of the big ones, one of the ones that stuck with me, was what I remember as the “Human” test. Basically, you stick your hand in the box and the box gives you excruciating pain… while someone has a poison needle against your neck. The test was simple: pull your hand out of the box because of fear and pain and you get a needle in the neck and die.
The whole point of this test was to find who could overcome fear and pain, to rise above their animal natures. It sort of fit with a lot of the metaphysical ideas that went around during the time, the mind over matter mentality. What bothers me, I suppose, is the underlying assumption that you have to prove yourself to be human.
It is an uncomfortable thought, when you dig into it. How does one prove something like that, after all? Even in Dune, the test is shown to be subjective as the Bene Gesserit who gives it to Paul Atreides admits to herself that she tested him far more harshly than she planned.
The worst part, I think, is that if you accept this test in concept, you then create people who, strictly speaking, aren’t “people.” If you have some arbitrary test that separates them, then you dehumanize everyone who doesn’t pass your test. They become human-shaped animals… and whenever someone does that in history, bad things tend to happen.
When you draw lines in the sand, when you go beyond separation of “us” and “them” and into “human” and “subhuman” you start creating some very dangerous circumstances. Humanity, as a survival mechanism, tends to think in social groups as “us” and “them.” It is a mechanic of social trust and community. To an extent, you can’t break us of our tribalism, we all feel the need to identify with something. We all feel the need to fit in, to conform (even if you identify with the ‘counter culture’ you’re still conforming, just with a different social group).
This, by nature, causes rivalries. These rivalries can be as healthy as athletic competition or as unhealthy as genocide. They are driven as much by a need to conform as they are to succeed. The darker side of this success and conformity is, as I said, when “they” cease to be considered human by “us.”
In these circumstances, any method of success is considered justifiable. Normal people don’t consider a mouse as “owning” land or property, nor, when they have allowed themselves to consider “them” as human-shaped animals, do they bother to value “them” as having a claim on life, liberty, or property.
So why the lengthy explanation and what does this mean? I look out on the interwebz, and I see a lot of fear. I see a lot of anger. I see people in their social groups rationalizing why their opponents aren’t logical, because they disagree. This is, I’m afraid, human nature. We’ll continue to argue and disagree as long as we exist.
What I also see, however, is the denigration of “them.” It comes from that anger and fear, the uncertainty over the times. When people begin to tell themselves that they know better, that they know what is right, their next step is to believe they are right because they are superior… because those who disagree with them are less than human. The ugliest part of this is that it robs us of our humanity on both sides of these kinds of divides. To treat our opponents as human-shaped animals is to open a door to unspeakable horror.
What’s the solution? I can’t say. I’m almost afraid that we are past the point of a solution. Anger, fear, and divisiveness are the tools of those who already think themselves “superior.” They’ll cheerfully put us at one another’s throats, because in their minds, they already know that we’re all just human-shaped animals who can be pitted against each other for their own benefit.
Take some time, talk, listen. Put down the cell phone and get out from behind your computer. Talk to people. That’s the big thing, people don’t talk, they’re afraid to be grouped as “them” and cast out of their social group. Tear down the walls, discuss the things that you’ve been afraid to talk about and don’t be afraid to argue your point. Above all, treat everyone with dignity and respect, even if they don’t agree with you.
Most of all: don’t be afraid. Fear is the mindkiller.