“While Mr. Kim, by virtue of his youth and naiveté, has fallen prey to the inexplicable need for human contact, let me step in and assure you that my research will go on uninterrupted, and that social relationships will continue to baffle and repulse me.”
— Dr. Sheldon Cooper, “The Jerusalem Duality,” The Big Bang Theory
“If I had a mind to,
I wouldn’t want to be like you.
And, if I had time to,
I wouldn’t want to talk to you.”
— Alan Parsons Project, “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”
I spent a significant portion of my teens and early twenties devouring copious amounts of Isaac Asimov’s fiction. Thankfully, his decades of prolific output meant it was an enjoyable Herculean task. However, the short stories and novels that focused on his Three Laws of Robotics, and the way those laws interacted and clashed with each another, proved to be more than a source of great entertainment. In addition to being logic puzzles, they provided great insight into humanity and how we as species interact with each other.
In particular, stories structured upon The Three Laws can be seen as an analogous examination of American rights and liberties. Much like those rules governing robotic interaction, various individual rights come into conflict with those of other individuals and with society as a whole. That’s one of the primary drivers for our laws and legal system: peacefully resolving and codifying the solutions to conflicts that inevitably result from differing sets of rights and liberties. Unfortunately, people often vehemently assert their personal rights, staking an absolutist stance for them and implying that everyone else’s rights, as well as society’s as a whole, are irrelevant.
Near religious fervor for certain rights demonstrates how easily such rigidity tramples upon the rights of others. First Amendment absolutists turn a blind eye to the fact that proponents of extreme hate speech take advantage of that freedom in ways that purposefully and deliberately undermine civil public discourse. Second Amendment absolutists refuse to acknowledge that obnoxiously embracing open carry laws creates fear amongst law-abiding citizens who understandably view anyone openly carrying a gun as a lethal threat. Fourth Amendment absolutists think that police brutally take liberties with the leeway our court system has provided them in regards to warrantless searches, thus trampling over legal protections supposedly guaranteed to Americans in other parts of the Constitution.
Actually, they have a point. We need more Fourth Amendment absolutists.
The refusal to acknowledge or even care that mindlessly asserting one’s own rights delegitimizes the rights of others is a symptom of the fact that our species is selfish, shortsighted, tribal, and disconcerting adept at dehumanizing others. Yes, we are capable of creating breathtaking beauty and overcoming our worst base instincts. However, it’s far too easy to wax rhapsodically about the long arc of history bending towards justice. Despite 6,000 years of work on improving civilization, far too many of those negative traits continue to plague us, as shown by the inauguration of Trump and the subsequent behavior of both his administration and supporters. Emboldened religious rights extremists currently claim the right to legally treat others, specifically the LGBTQ community, as subhuman. Similarly, events in Charlottesville in 2017 made it blindingly obvious that racism never really went away. It simply changed its clothes, devised new dog whistles, created new secret handshakes, and hid in the dark alleys until it felt safe to come out again.
This kind of thinking and behavior bewilders me. All those hours spent reading stories about The Three Laws, as well as countless works by other authors, greatly shaped an empathetic, humanist worldview. It instilled an innate sense of understanding that there needs to balance — nothing is absolute. As Asimov showed in many of those stories, erroneous interpretation of and emphasis in regards to the interpretation of those laws can cause great harm. In fact, over three decades after he formulated them, Asimov realized the need for a Zeroeth Law, one that stated that all the other laws relied first and foremost upon what was best for humanity. In other words, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.
As much those stories helped to nurture a sense of empathy, the odd thing is that it also helped me realize how much I feel like an outsider amongst my own kind. One of my favorite self-descriptors is “misanthropic secular humanist.” I acknowledge the long arc of history and am awed by what humanity is like when at its best. However, the tribalism, selfish, short-sightedness continues to appall and repulse. It almost seems like those who embrace those traits are robotically eschewing empathy and care for the common good.
I don’t want to be anything like them.
Yet, Asimov wrote plenty about making robots more human. Not surprising given that pop culture is filled with the robots who yearn to be human — Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation being a notable example. But, does this necessarily follow? The Alan Parsons Project’s second album, I Robot, loosely based on Asimov’s first collection of robot stories, I, Robot, suggests otherwise. “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You,” the album’s second track, displays the disdain that one robot feels towards human beings. Any rational being wouldn’t want to be around those who are antagonist and/or hurtfully indifferent towards others, much less become them. I don’t blame it one bit.
The Alan Parsons Project
“I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”
Hall of Songs: under consideration for 2019 inclusion