The new HBO series Westworld is an apt metaphor for our society today, but also provokes a moral dilemma.
First, some background on the TV show. The premise of the series is that guests pay big dollars to attend an 1800’s era western theme park where they are encouraged to live out their fantasies. The theme park is populated with life-like androids whose sole purpose is to provide pleasure for the paying guests. The implicit understanding in the park is that it is acceptable for the guests to have sex with or to rape, abuse, torture or kill the androids because – after all – the androids are not human.
I must admit that I was originally seduced by this show. I found myself rooting for the androids, especially when it appeared they were showing signs of increased consciousness. But as I thought more deeply about what was on the screen, I became increasingly concerned over the show’s promotion of the ethic that abuse can be tolerated if the object of the abuse isn’t considered human.
And that is where the show and reality begin to merge uncomfortably. The presidential election has born its fair share of intolerance against religious beliefs, minorities, people with disabilities, and women. I wrote previously about the plot to kill Muslims in Kansas, a poignant example of what can happen when we routinely treat others as less than human. Social media is rife with derogatory and demeaning posts, especially during this election season.
Given all of these examples, it becomes pretty easy to see how intolerance appears pervasive and how one can become numb to it. And it is that numbness against which we need to be vigilant. It is relatively easy for us to stand up against obvious abuse; to lend our voice to whatever is the cause of the day. But it is that oozing, seeping, cultural creep in which our values of inclusion can erode without our knowledge. For me, the Westworld show provided an “ah-ha” moment. I’m not on a crusade against the series. I enjoyed the show and thought it was clever until I woke up to the broader implications of what I was watching. And I guess that is the point. We absorb the culture around us and if that culture is permeated with examples of obvious and implicit intolerance, then we run the risk of becoming immune to it.
The subtle culture of intolerance that I’m describing is similar to the idea of white privilege. Until it is pointed out to you; until you ponder and acknowledge it; you have no real understanding of how it impacts your day to day encounters.
One solution is to just become aware of how caustic the environment can get around us and to guard against allowing that to creep into our value system. The tougher job is to pledge to point out intolerance speech and behavior whenever you see it. This can be done in a way that is – itself - not intolerant. For example, one could say: “I understand that may be how you feel, but it can be seen as hurtful to others. Is there another way you can express your concerns?”
The real solution is this: The Quakers believe that there is “that of God” in each of us. Our job is to treat each person with that tender regard.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.