Dehumanizing by Distance

A long time ago, I read an article (which I lament not bookmarking, because I can never find it now) that discussed a study regarding how drivers viewed other drivers as compared to how they viewed pedestrians. The findings of the study were basically that drivers viewed pedestrians as more human, and thus afforded them more forgiveness and lenience if the pedestrian made a decision that the driver viewed as stupid. Conversely, other drivers were viewed as less human, more likely to receive the driver’s anger and contempt. The thought process was that, when we’re locked away inside of metal vehicles, we have difficulty seeing each other as fellow human beings, and are more likely to become enraged and even violent with each other.

That study stayed with me, because I think that it’s onto something. It’s easy to feel hatred toward someone with whom we can’t relate or find common ground, and distance simply makes it psychologically more difficult to relate or find the common ground. When we have metal walls between each other, we become less than human in each others’ perspectives.

It turns out that it’s not just physical barriers that accomplish this dehumanization. The pandemic showed us this, I think, as we desperately turned to video screens to maintain some level of human contact, while realizing how poor a substitute it was for keeping in touch with our loved ones. The distance, the resolving of a person that we know into pixels, somehow alters our perspective of that person. If it’s someone that we don’t know, exponentially more so.

This is what I thought about when I read this article about the expansion of the use of drones in the war in Ukraine. This war, which, like most wars is completely senseless, has been the first wide-scale use of drone technology in full scale combat. Soldiers are taking other soldiers’ lives without ever being in shooting distance. They simply watch on a video screen as they pilot an airborne weapon from miles away, applying a video-game style of lethal force with real-world consequences.

Theologically and philosophically, I’m a pacifist. As all human beings are created in God’s image (even when they’re driving the other car), I don’t see God leaving open the option of taking another life. I see that principle as being as old as the Ten Commandments. This is why I see armed combat as wrong, because inherent in the action is the presupposition that the life of the person on the other side is somehow worth less than one’s own. The soldier from the other side is not another father, sister, or loved one. They are the other. They are the enemy.

We are currently seeing the largest war in Europe since World War II, and, like many wars, it’s simply about a dictator’s power grab. While I am forced to recognize the reality that armed conflict is necessary at times in order for a government to defend the citizens of its country, I think that a war fought by remote control is worse than the savagery of trench warfare. It is cold, and calculating, Human lives are eliminated with no opportunity to surrender or yield. Were a miracle like the Christmas Truce ever to be in the inclination of either side, it would be impossible to realize through a television monitor as one pressed the button that took more lives.

Lives that aren’t seen as lives. Just pieces being removed from the game board.

As I consider this through the lens of Advent, I ache for the time when our swords are beat into plowshares. Then, at least, we will be beyond the point of constantly trying to kill each other. In the meantime, let us pray that this war ends soon.

Priorities, Remixed

I had planned to go to a movie today, but I didn’t.

Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

The movie was Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. While about half of Marvel’s phase 4 has been underwhelming, I’m excited about this film. I was looking forward to seeing it tonight, but I didn’t, for a variety of reasons. I’ve travelled quite a bit in the last week. We had an annual Ikea run on Saturday (what used to be an annual event), and spent the night setting up new furniture. Our 6-year-old randomly decided to set an alarm clock, which went off at 0-dark-thirty after I’d been up really late anyway, and I was just wicked tired. I decided to help with dinner instead. All good reasons to skip a movie that I can easily catch later.

This film has already been in theatres for a week as a I write this. So the fact that a Marvel movie has been playing that long without me in an audience, and then I postponed it likely another week….well, if you know me at all, you’ll appreciate the paradigm shift.

There was a time when Marvel film releases were on my calendar and planned for weeks or months in advance. We were in the theatre on opening weekend. If there was a scheduling conflict, the other thing was shifted. Child care was booked and confirmed. Think of it as the Superbowl, but for geeks, often followed promptly by a review of the movie on this very blog. That really hasn’t been the case lately. It’s part of a post-Covid mental shift for me. As with many, I’ve just re-prioritized things. I still really want to see this movie, but I’m also really happy that I took the afternoon and had a relaxed dinner with my family.

When Black Widow opened in theatres during the pandemic, I was still very uneasy about venturing back into that environment. I waited three weeks to see that film, and only then during a sparsely attended matinee. This for one of my all-time favorite characters. I never saw Spider-Man: No Way Home in the theatre due to the virus…I (im)patiently awaited it’s Blu-Ray release. And now Wakanda Forever. Which, as much as I want to see, I’m honestly just questioning if I want to make it to a theatre, less now because of concerns over the virus, but more because there are just so many other priorities, things that would have been shifted three years ago in favor of the movie, but that are now reasons why the movie hasn’t happened.

I love the experience of going to a movie. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t call myself a movie lover, but the experience feels similar enough to attending live theatre that I’ve always enjoyed it. Now that I’m on the other side of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, however, I find myself thinking, can I just wait until this is streaming somewhere?

I fully intend to see Wakanda forever in the theatre (and wow, is it difficult to avoid spoilers for this long). I’ll probably post a review here when I do. I miss that buzz of seeing some of my favorite characters come to life on the big screen, the excitement of being there as soon as it is available, but other things have taken its place. I guess that, no matter how much I wanted…and I think that many of us did…the end of the pandemic to bring things full circle to exactly the way they were before, it’s simply not the case. Different things have changed for all of us, and won’t be the same. I question how much longer movie theatres will survive, and that is a thing that has shifted for me. My movie-going habits won’t be the same.

Interestingly, life still goes on, and I’m even the better for it.

Success in Education

The first time that someone asked me if I wanted to go to college, I was in middle school. That someone was a teacher. I thought for a moment and answered “yes,” then went home that afternoon and told my parents. I remember them taking a bit of a deep breath, and then encouraging me. No one that I knew in my family at the time had graduated from college.

I went to bed that night and thought nothing else of it until somewhere around my sophomore year in high school, when things like advanced placement and honors classes began. Then the adventure was underway.

As I said in a recent podcast episode, I’m a case study in not knowing what you want to be when you grow up. My freshman year in college I was a music major. Then I dropped out altogether for a semester and went back to a different school as a communications major, eventually declaring theatre as a second major, and graduating with a psychology minor. Then I went to grad school for religious studies, and ended up working as a programmer, and eventually a manager of programmers. So, my higher education was a circuitous route through the humanities that eventually ended up with the acquisition of some hard technical skills much later (and which, incidentally, I acquired at an arts school). The thing is, though, that I could never have gotten where I’ve been professionally without that humanities education. The things that I learned in communication studies (being required, for example, to take two courses in listening), the things that I learned in theatre as a director, the leadership theory that I learned in grad school….have all served as a foundation beneath the technical skills that I’ve acquired later. Without them, I couldn’t have made sense of where in the world those technical skills fit in, to say nothing of being able to relate and communicate with the people (much smarter than I) that I lead every day.

Which sort of brings me to my point.

I read this column a few days ago about the most regretted and lowest paying degrees. As you might guess, the data that this report cites indicates that most people surveyed regret degrees in the humanities, because, as a rule, they pay less. I think the data is likely skewed, as the purpose of the column is clearly to focus on “return on investment,” approaching higher education as a business proposition. I’m not without sympathy to that, given the cost of a university degree. I believe, though, that we’re doing ourselves a dis-service to let the conversation end there.

If you read to the end of the column, you’ll see two words that really summarize the issue for me: “critical thinking.” The author reports, to his credit, opinions from “humanities specialists” that degrees in the humanities foster the critical thinking skills necessary to adapt to a wide variety of vocations, instead of being narrowly focused on a single field.

I can say without hesitation that the critical thinking skills that I learned in my humanities education, both undergrad and graduate, have been more important in my life than the technical skills that comprised a small sliver of my education. I can also say without hesitation that I would not grasp the technical skills at as meaningful a level without those critical thinking skills.

I also think that it only takes a casual look around our everyday lives, even a cursory glance at the headlines or a social media feed, to see a void of critical thinking skills. I would argue that the rampant conspiracy theories and hatred we feel toward each other as our nation collapses in on itself is the direct result of a lack of critical thinking skills. This deficiency, in turn, is the result of education being treated as a business model, in which the prioritized outcome of a degree is the income that it will allow you to earn. Higher education, however, is so much more than that. The academy is where people learn who they are, what their views on art, on religion, on politics, on relationships, on…everything…are. Without those fundamental belief structures in place, we’re just doing things. Rushing but getting nowhere. We’re just busy. We’re just making stuff up as we go.

Make stuff, earn money, repeat.

The end result is using those technical skills to make things without stopping to consider whether or not we should. Not all progress is progress. If we use income as our only barometer for success, and if that continues to lead to a decline in studying the humanities, our collective humanity may well be a casualty.

Toward Not Raging Against the Machine

I was introduced to the band Rage Against the Machine by a co-worker with whom I shared an office many, many years ago. They weren’t my kind of music, but I recognized why she would be into them. She was angry, and had reason to be. I remember thinking that there was much against which she felt rage.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about culture wars, although that’s become a bit of a cliche term. I imagine that you have, as well, because it’s sort of difficult not to. The one constant that I seem to find around me, from extended family conversations to (anti)-social media, to interactions with colleagues, is that everyone is angry. And, like my co-worker from so many years ago, they have reason to be. A lot of people have died over the last two years. A virus revealed just how much we all seem to only care about ourselves. Politics have thrown any sort of economic stability into question. An autocrat has launched a war of attrition.

Perhaps I’m guilty of rose-colored glasses, but when I was in seminary I spent a lot of time thinking that these are the sorts of events…and confluences of events…into the occasions of which the Church should rise. Regardless of denomination or disagreement in minutiae, we are presented with an opportunity to care for the sick, the bereaved, the wounded. Instead, we seem to be doing what everyone else is doing: screaming louder than the next person in order to be heard, defining ourselves by what we stand against instead of what we stand for, trying to force others into our mindset, and refusing to interact with them if they do not comply.

The Church is currently just as, and likely more, guilty than anyone else of not exercising basic common sense, not taking time to analyze statements to determine if they are truth or lies. Many in the Church have chosen allegiance to leaders over allegiance to God, channeling rage instead of attempting to walk in the light.

Instead of choosing to be confrontational, instead of fighting culture wars, the Church needs to choose a much more basic, yet profound, way of existing. A Biblical way of existing that’s explicitly laid out for us:

“He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah 6:8, NKJV

I’m thinking through this because I’m just as guilty as anyone else of anger. I too find myself raging: against the loss of what could have been, against a broken system, against all of things at which one can be angry. I’m just as guilty of letting that rage drive my decisions, and poison my interactions.

If I were to spend more time acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, how would that impact those around me?

What if all of the Church were to do this?

Imagine how much better this could be.

Life After Grad School – My Episode of “The Work Seminar”

A few months ago, I connected via a colleague with Jesse Butts, who hosts a podcast called The Work Seminar. His interviews are with people who achieved graduate degrees in liberal arts fields, and then ended up working in a field or discipline completely different from what they studied academically.

Sound familiar….?

Anyway, Jesse asked me to be a guest on the show, and you can find my episode here. I had a lot of fun recording this, and hey….now I can say that I’ve been on a podcast.

Let me know if you enjoy the episode! You can grab it anywhere you listen to podcasts.