In interviewing amazing individuals for the STORYTELLING FOR SOCIAL PROFIT SUMMIT, I’ve been wondering about this concept of “playing god”.
I suspect it is a thought that is triggered when we consider the influence we can have in the world.
As changemakers the maxim we operate from is: how can we generate the most amount of good with the resources we have? And by good we normally mean things like ending suffering, and helping others have better lives.
To do this we are looking for TIPPING POINTS. Variables that we can influence, that will have further positive effects.
But in doing this, we risk changing the very nature of that culture.
By creating more female role models in our movies, we’re contributing to social change here in the west. By educating girls in Uganda, we’re effectively giving them the means to raise their whole community out of poverty, but also changing the fabric of their cultural norms. By teaching children that they are all equal regardless of their skin colour or sex, or beliefs about who created them, we are changing the very structures of all societies across the planet.
And the question that occurs to me is: is this “playing god”?
It got me wondering: What is this programme – this psychological construct we run – about “playing god”??
Why is the inferred influence such a bad thing, and what things do we need to be aware of as we create change in any given system or society?
I think the first thing is that this programme, taken literally, assumes that there exists a god.
A god that would have an opinion on the actions you are going to take, and you have no way of knowing whether he would agree or not. There are people far more qualified than I to tackle this question.
But taken as a CONSTRUCT, it suggests that there are some things we should influence and other things we shouldn’t… Things that are best left to “a god”, the universe (the modern substitute for “god/s”), chance, or fate.
It also seems that the DEGREE OF INFLUENCE is something that triggers us too.
A little influence and we hardly question ourselves.
After all surely is a good thing to help a few people here and there, and make our corner of the world a little more tolerable? But if an action could have sweeping implications on a culture, then is it incorrect or potentially dangerous to INTERFERE?
In movies, we explore this in the STAKES that are set. Only when the stakes are high can we be emotionally involved in the consequences. Only then do our heroes and villains have something to talk to each other about!
This is where real moral arguments can be explored.
One of the reasons for the hesitation we experience in the “playing god” programme is the notion that we can’t know everything in order to make a good call, nor can we know all the possible consequences of our actions. In our naïve action, we could inadvertently make things worse.
But is this an argument for not acting?
Our inaction by the same token may (and often does) have horrendous consequences.
Even our day to day, “normalised” actions that appear very benign could have awful consequences… like participating in something that may be good for our careers, but ultimately sees one of our subculture marginalised or excluded.
Are we to blame for these things? Are we to blame if we’re not aware? And to what extent are we responsible, if we were just going with the herd?
And what of a society that has normalised a certain behaviour?
Once a status quo has been established it seems there is SOMETHING IN OUR NEUROLOGY which prevents us from taking action to disrupt the status quo.
> The truth is, we are TERRFIED of having real power.
We are wired to act as a collective. When we leave the herd, our oxytocin levels drop, and we feel unsafe. Our greatest fear as a mammal is to be ostracised, as this meant death. The need to feel good and to be safe overrides the logic of taking some form of positive action. To not take logical action means that the socio-evolution as a species is being thwarted by (perhaps outdated) neurotransmitters.
Don’t get me wrong, our evolutionary impulses (which we often mislabel as INTUITION!) are worth consideration, but it’s also worth coming off automatic if we are going to change the way we live together, because our survival today is what is at stake now.
But then there is always an argument against influence.
History, and our collective unconscious, is riddled with instances where power has corrupted good people.
In The Dark Knight, when Batman taps into every cell phone on the planet, his ally warns him: no one person should have this much power. No matter what end he is trying to achieve.
We know full well that The Batman isn’t going to use this data to spy on Joe Blogs having a conversation with his girlfriend.
The objection is that he could… and having the POTENITAL to do these things is unacceptable.
But are these just stories we (are predisposed to) tell ourselves?
If the only thing keeping us is in check is the lack of power, (ability or tech), then surely we weren’t fit to have influence in the first place. (Not that folks acquire influence based of their moral standing…)
So are we seeking to make sure that no one person or group has the ability to have real influence in the world? Is that our set point as a species? In case they do harm?
Star Trek tackled this problem with their Prime Directive, which states that they are forbidden by Federation law, and their version of morality, to interfere with the affairs of another race, planet or culture. This way, they allow societies to make their own mistakes, and evolve naturally without interference from their superior tech and morals.
This seems a tidy way of dealing with things once we get out into the galaxy, but can we really do this?
Apply this to home, and this means allowing domestic violence to continue, right under our noses.
It means not re-educating our kids that every human being is born equal regardless of the colour of their skin, the beliefs of their parents, or which genitals they have.
It means not providing aid when hundreds and thousands of people are fleeing their homes because of famine, or terror.
It means not doing anything about the extra energy accumulating in the atmosphere daily: the equivalent of 400, 000 Hiroshima bombs. Daily.
Knowing that doing nothing is leading to our own imminent destruction, maybe we need to consider the alternative: interfering.
Sure, there will be unintended consequences along the way. There is no single answer to solving any problem, and there probably isn’t one moral argument that will serve us as we navigate each instance where we exert an influence.
The way forward is to know our own inner demons, the parts of ourselves that we need to question, as well as the doubts and programming that KEEP us in inaction. Then we need to think carefully about all the critical factors involved in the situations we are trying to change.
And then we need to work in think tanks to build these critical factors into working models, and challenge the F*** out of our assumptions.
And then go make good shit happen.
This is precisely what we’ll be doing after the STORYTELLING FOR SOCIAL PROFIT SUMMIT, in a few months’ time. There is much to do.