I’m not really sure where I will go with this post. The 20th of each month looms large in my mind these days, ever since Yvonne and Lizzi set up the 1000 Voices for Compassion and I wondered what I would write about. Several things have been churning around this last month and I feel there is a link in there that I would like to divine.
To start, the title. Inbred. I have written a fair bit this past week or so about Dog and other dogs I have been privileged to live with. Ditto cats. One common feature of all of them has been their mixed breeding. Even that sounds too planned; they are happy coincidences of types that give them a robustness that is both appealing and satisfying. They certainly aren’t pedigrees. If once upon a time, when a particular trait was essential to a successful working dog, inbreeding was understandable I don’t see it today – or at least I’d like to see the evidence that this sort of inbreeding is justified.
No one argues (do they? that we should allow inbreeding within prohibited degrees in humans – even first cousins marrying seems mental to me (even if my cousins are delightful, of course) – yet we continue to tolerate it in dogs and cats and other domesticated animals.
And yet, and yet, if we humans generally chose out breeding partners more widely, and wisely, we still inbreed ideas. We condone narrow-minded thinking. Yet that leads to prejudice and bigotry.
But before you think I’m about to become holier than thou, I need to be honest. I can easily fall into narrow minded thinking and stereotyping. Indeed it is inherent in the human condition.
I follow a delightful blog – Autism Mom – where I learn an enormous amount about how AM aims to become the best parent she can be to her son, who is on the autism spectrum. I met her and her family when they visited London recently and it was delightful.
One post, preparing herself and her son for their trip to the UK caught my eye. The Navigator (her son) was concerned about the Brits laughing at his American accent. She went through this with him, using the analogy of walking their dog and someone wondering about whether they might clean up – check out the post here, it makes great reading. In the post she included this chart
Often, a lack of understanding based on a lack of knowledge leads to the last three categories. Often, it is easier to stereotype. Often we have to. The world is a confusing place, full of new experiences or at least new versions of similar experiences. Our brain has to process an enormous amount of information and make decisions that impact our behaviour. It has to make a whole range of assumptions, just to allow us to cope. It has to stereotype. Someone walks towards us. It’s night. The road is empty. We don’t know them. We need to be aware. We need to make a few assumptions. The same person, in day time in a crowd and we make different assumptions.
It doesn’t take too long to realise where this is going; how this can easily lead to prejudice and bigotry. It is at the crossover point where we need to train our conscious minds to step in. I am pretty certain we all know of occasions where we have allowed our minds to wander into stage four. That is entirely natural even if we might feel rather annoyed, maybe even disgusted by our thinking.
The important point is that, having thought the thought we dismiss it. We consign it to junk. Because we need to be aware of how our minds will work if left unchecked. And if we, as adults, need to do that consciously we need to help those in our charge to think and see clearly when such traps present themselves.
Small children explore, test and learn. They are utterly plastic, able to pick up new languages and behaviours in extraordinary ways. But we all know that, soon enough, learning is not so instinctual – we develop habits, we begin to understand codes of behaviour. We needed to, as animals, to stay safe. We had to read warning signs.
But now? We are the dominant species; there are no natural predators we cannot effectively control other than ourselves. And yet those hard-wired reactions are still there, and if we are not aware, we allow the brain to misuse them.
We do that by closing our minds to differences, to alternative ways of being, of thinking, of loving and living.
Reading Autism Mom, meeting the family and I begin to understand and accept the differences that follow. I understand what is stimming and how it has nothing to do with inappropriate behaviour and everything to do with the processing of information and emotions in ways I would not have realised but for reading the blog. It has been a privilege to learn from their experiences.
There’s a rather good new TV series just started on Channel 4 (sorry if you are reading this outside the UK; it will come your way soon enough – if you are in the UK, catch it). It’s called ‘Human’ and it is about Artificial Intelligence. There was a debate on the radio about the conceit in the show – the theoretical danger that we will create such a sophisticated AI that it will no longer need us and will take over. One commentator referenced the Turing Test
The Turing test is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.
In the test, the machine passes if it can fool the human that is it human, by answering the human’s questions. But a more sophisticated test, it has been suggested is when the AI, itself believes it is indistinguishable from humans. When it has learnt to look and act as a human. That is a real challenge for AI and it is in the ability to assess and react to situations we have never encountered before that human brains are different from programmed machines. It is a great challenge for robotic science to overcome and it remains a challenge for all of us. The good news is that we have the tools to help us. We need to be open-minded.
If we fail to be open-minded; if we shut off the possibilities and fail to remain accepting of all interpretations of a given situation, we are no better than a narrowly programmed robot. We are unique. We are all different. Enjoy that fact and allow others to enjoy it too.