One of my all-time favorite science fiction stories centers around a dystopian future in the San Francisco of 2021. In Phillip K. Dick’s 1968 classic “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” Earth is suffering from the remnant radiation of a global nuclear war. All remaining life is cherished. Due to scarcity in the marketplace, possessing something like a house pet is prohibitively expensive while, at the same time, encouraged in a society that values life above all else.
Thus, bending to the empathetic tendencies of humans, the free market created solutions for those who wanted animals in their lives via synthetic genetic engineering. Such technologies were eventually transferred from animal to human forms to assist in the difficult circumstances involved with terraforming and recolonizing the planet Mars.
To avoid some of the moral complications tied to genetically engineered human beings, these “androids” were not allowed on Earth. Like most well-intended but near-sighted laws, this created a black market for androids, which in turn required a special police force to “retire” rogue androids.
The concept of empathy is almost religious to this future society. With all life in jeopardy, it is now fashionable to be sensitive toward life other than your own. Paradoxically, the synthetic humans are programmed to have no capacity for experiencing emotion where it pertains to the inconvenience or suffering of another. The further irony woven into this tale is that the human bounty hunter that stalks and murders these androids proves to be less empathetic than the very synthetics that he is “retiring.”
I believe that science fiction is a grand genre because its fantastical nature allows authors to address societal trends and problems without triggering programmed emotional responses. In the case of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” I believe Dick’s underlying premise is to explore the definition of what it is to be “human.” Dick’s classic implies that humanity is unique because of its capacity to be empathetic. Our problem, however, stems from our animalistic instinct to be innately selfish. It takes conscious work and effort to put away those natural tendencies and embrace the one thing that defines and separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom: empathy.
When a difficult scenario arises, and you have an opposing opinion from your neighbor, how do you handle it? Are you able to separate from your innate primal, emotional or self-focused response and entertain the idea from another’s viewpoint?
Contrary to the programming provided in mainstream media outlets: I believe that a cultured citizen must not only entertain but also respect someone else’s belief for what it is. Doing so does not require you to change your own core beliefs, and there is no physical harm incurred by hearing an opposing viewpoint. Gleaning from another’s experience is how we learn – and learning can break down fear, stereotypes and prejudice. Being able to listen to a neighbor and consider his or her viewpoint is both empathetic and definitively human.
There is an unprecedented amount of growth happening in the Heber Valley. As our community grows, there are, and will continue to be, changes that we as citizens will have differing opinions over. I propose that being able to attend a public forum and civilly discuss and question the difficult issues that face our community is not only acceptable but also essential to maintaining our civil liberties.
Politely listening to another’s viewpoint has historically been a standard of culture and civilization. Going back to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, it would seem that the virtue of empathetic debate amongst citizens has left the U.S. culture and has been replaced by reactionary, emotional and uncompromising rhetoric. I believe that Phillip K. Dick saw this happening and forecasted the status quo of selfishness in today’s society.
I believe we can do better than the country’s current societal trend within the mountainous confines of the Heber Valley. It all starts with a proactive, individual decision to be willing to think outside of yourself and listen to your neighbor. Give it a try and see how it goes!
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