Friday, April 29, 2016

Just say, "Me".

      Last evening (4/28), one of our PBS stations ran an episode of the series NOVA: "Rise of the Robots". One of the main themes of the feature had to do with making robots who could negotiate disaster sites, especially those that were rubble-strewn. Given how they are constructed, robots have a difficult time "walking" on radically uneven surfaces. Solving this problem could speed up rescue operations in dangerous environments -- sending in robots means that humans aren't put at risk. As the scientists and engineers were discussing all of the practical implications, one posed the question, "Well, if something goes wrong with (or because of) the robots, who will we blame?"

      Before I started watching the PBS show last night, I was at a discussion on the DU campus focused on Dialoguing about Race and Religion. At one point during the presentation, one panelist, Harold Fields, talked a bit about the "Circle of Human Concern" -- one of the ways we think about WHO we perceive ourselves as a group (nation, society, sub-group, religion, etc.).  The "circle" about which we're concerned defines who is in , and who is out.  OR, put another way, those inside the circle push others out -- expelling, or excluding them. Those outside then become invisible to those inside.
       Exclude.        These two incidents/stories came on the heels of a news story I heard earlier this week that referred to "scapegoats." That story had me thinking about the "tradition" of scapegoats, and their role in human history. One of the earliest mentions of the idea that some figure (early on, an animal -- yes, a goat) would be invested with the sins/faults of a people is found in the Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus (Chapter 16). On the Day of Atonement, two goats were selected for a ceremony. By lot, one was selected to be a sin-offering (and is sacrificed); the sins of the people would be "transferred" by the priest onto the head of the other goat. That goat, the "scapegoat", would be led into the desert--to Azazel, bearing (or removing) the sins of the people. (Interesting to note that the goat was randomly chosen -- by lot, AND that it was pure/innocent prior to the ceremony, i.e., it didn't have "undesirable" qualities).
        Since that time, the term "scapegoat" has come to be applied to anyone (or any group) that we want to "blame" or to "exclude": they don't look like us; they don't talk like us; they don't eat like us; they don't dress like us. That was certainly the context in which the word was used in the news story I heard. Whether the word is mentioned, we hear the idea scattered throughout our political debates these days: someone is to blame for our problems; someone must be expelled or excluded, taking our bad fortune with them!
         I suppose it is human nature to want to deflect culpability. And I know that there is great power in rituals that "cleanse". Whether it is sending a goat to Azazel, or going to private confession, or even burning a list of "sins", there can result a sense of a clean slate, a new beginning. Yet, the tendency becomes evil when we seek simply to place responsibility outside ourselves: "It's THEIR fault!" Here is a situation where a concept ("scapegoat") takes a dark turn. By blithely placing our "sins" on the heads of others, we don't have to look within. We don't have address our policies as a nation; we don't have to address our own individual greed, lust, sloth (or any of the other seven dealdlies). It's easier that way, I suppose.
       But it's no way to health. Why, when we ask the question, "Who will we blame?", is it so hard to just say "Me."  To take responsibility, make amends, and move forward.



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