This article was first published on LinkedIn on April 13, 2019
It is generally accepted that we, as individuals, don’t know everything and that we must depend on others to ensure that the world works the way intended. Human survival is reliant on the co-operation between our human family with its diverse set of opinions, feelings and talents. Therefore, one would think that this alone would ensure that freedom of speech ranks high among virtues and rights.
We have witnessed too many regimes that suppressed freedom of speech while also curbing other human rights and treating their citizens in wholly unacceptable ways. These experiences must surely remind us that those who wish to suppress our ideas are also intent on the destruction of our human dignity. It could, therefore, be assumed that those who are now free to articulate their opinions would defend these rights at every opportunity. In these days of the internet and social media it is not necessarily so.
It would now seem that diverse views are no longer acceptable. There are many examples of people who have been demonized for their opinions, actions or ideas. They have often been mistreated by those who haven’t even read the article or listened to the story and by those who haven’t tried to understand the context or motivation behind the act or opinion. This is shameful in the extreme.
One such recent example is Google’s cancellation of its AI ethics board (see link to article below). Apparently, some Google employees found the appointment of Kay Coles James unacceptable and 2,400 of them signed a petition demanding her removal. Her sin, it seems, is that she holds conservative views and “she has previously made some anti-trans comments, including calling transgender women biological males’”. The group further wrote that the appointment of Ms James to the board “elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision-making.” They further said that her addition “significantly undermines Google’s position on AI ethics and fairness.”
Without judging Google or its employees the issues raised pose some very serious questions including:
· Is it acceptable to exclude people from all forums and decision-making bodies simply because they hold conservative, liberal or other views?
· Does having a particular view, or expressing a particular opinion, prevent a person from having a “valid perspective” on other matters that affect their, and other people’s, lives?
· Does the inclusion of a person in a forum “elevate and endorse” their views on matters completely alien to the subject matter of the forum?
· Can an ethics committee determine and promote “fairness” when it excludes the representation of views from a significant portion of our society?
Subsequently I found out that Kay Cole James is a 70 year-old American woman who, in 1961, at age 12, was one of two dozen black children integrated into an all-white junior high school in Richmond, Virginia. She was jeered by white parents outside of school and inside, she says, their kids stuck her with pins, shoved her in the halls and pushed her down stairs. She is a wife and mother of three children, including an unconditionally loved gay son, and has a perspective, unfortunately not as unique as it should be, on intolerance and hatred that should be cherished and respected. Therefore, excluding her from an ethics committee is a sin without reason.
Who among us hasn’t done or said something stupid at some point in their lives and, having done so, are prepared to be held accountable for it for the whole of our lives? Who among us could withstand detailed scrutiny and still come up without blemish? I would suggest that no one is without imperfection and, therefore, should not be prepared to judge and ostracize others for the scars of their existence.
Bitterness and exclusion create distance between us and the greater the distance the more pronounced our differences will seem. It is these perceived differences that cause conflict and war. Best practices in mediation and negotiation involve listening to others, empathizing and discussing. Best practices in humanity involve inclusion rather than exclusion, talking instead of fighting, understanding instead of mistrust and love instead of hate. Could we employ these best practices in our acceptance of differences in opinion?
Freedom to speak is as sacred a right as any right could be. Instead of hiding among the numbers to attack others for their opinions let us first examine our own deficiencies. Having done so let us be at our best by employing understanding, reasoning, empathy and tolerance. Let us accept differences in belief and opinion and discuss, debate and together find the best way forward. We are better together than apart.
See “After an employee backlash, Google has cancelled its AI ethics board a little more than a week after announcing it”https://www.businessinsider.com.au/google-cancels-ai-ethics-board-2019-4?r=US&IR=T