In his book, “Better Than Well,” which is really a treatise on transhumanism in the 21st century (the title comes from early descriptions of people with mild chronic depression who were prescribed Prozac, and found themselves operating at above-previous levels, emotionally and intellectually), author Carl Elliott describes a unique situation that we’re all somewhat familiar with: Stephen Hawking’s voice. As most of us know, Hawking had a lower-motor neuron disease that progressed (he’s now dead) and robbed him of more and more of his abilities, eventually ending his (Hawking’s) ability to speak. Which is a tragedy; where Elliott’s book comes in (full disclosure; I haven’t finished reading it, because my “To Read” stack keeps piling up, and my father expressed an interest, so, I did send it to him) is after Hawking’s verbal abilities had actually been replaced by an artificial voice box which he controlled with eye movements (We’ve all heard it, it’s that weird speak-and-spell voice), and Hawking had adapted to it, readily, with the caveat that it had an unfortunate American twang that Hawking’s British biological voice didn’t have. Many years after the technology was developed enough to replace the original device, researchers developed an upgrade that would have given Hawking his original accent back, but Hawking resisted, saying that he’d come to think of the artificial voice as his voice, and that changing it would change him. Elliott’s questions on the subject were, “When did that change in thinking happen? How did it happen? How far would that sense of “self” that Hawking applied to his artificial voice box go for people? For instance, would a blind man’s sense of self extend to their cane?”

I can actually address some of these issues, because I rely on entirely artificial devices, myself (I can only see more than 3 meters away with any acuity thanks to corrective lenses; I can only go on long walks with a walking stick or cane, etc.). Even though I need some form of corrective lenses to see and function, I don’t think of them as a part of me; even though being able to see is kind of a necessary part of living in society. Same goes for my walking sticks; they’re a critical part of my life, but I don’t think of them as part of my body. I guess the critical aspect here is that I’ve known — for all of my life — that, God forbid, my glasses be crushed or my canes burned or something (I have no idea what set of circumstances would lead to all of that, but everyone who knows me knows that weirdly-unpredictable-yet-specific disasters follow me like a tail); whereas, for most of his life, Hawking’s voice box replacement would have been a scientific novelty that was irreplaceable and precious (challenge of the day: go a day without talking). Maybe the word to hang on to that Elliott overlooked is “irreplaceable.”

On a more “irreplaceable” note, and expanding Elliott’s initial line of questioning, maybe, instead of technology blurring the lines of body and prosthetics, and, subsequently, self; we should reframe the question as “a critical part of my life that can’t be replaced, and therefore, is of critical value.” In that sense; let’s talk pets. I’ve owned a few horses and dogs. Losing them was beyond painful in a way that most people don’t tend to appreciate (I’ve since learned that some therapists — accurately, in my opinion — gauge the grief we experience at losing pets as similar to losing a close family friend). I’ll admit that I’m not an unbiased person here; I tend to like animals far more than most people (their personalities and temperaments are far more reliable and consistent, anyway), but it’s not hard for most people to understand that there is some sort of connection between animals and their owners that’s not entirely unlike the bonds between people. Certainly, if my dog died tomorrow, I’d be beyond grief, and, even though there are other goldendoodles out there, they aren’t my dog. He’s not a part of my body, but my dog is certainly an integral part of my life, and, probably, a little piece of my sense of self.

The flip side of all of this is that, if someone I’ve never heard of, or never met in, say, Nepal dies; it’s not likely to impact me in the same way that even the hypothetical death of my sister’s dog would (don’t worry; he’s fine last time I checked in). However, if it was my friend, Saurav, the Nepali exchange student I went to school with, well, it’s a slightly different story. We need that sort of interpersonal connection for empathy to work (I wish we didn’t; but our brains don’t seem wired to do that). I’m bringing this up in connection with the philosophical question of “Where do I end, and someone else begins?” because that’s a critical question that we’re currently struggling with as a society. And I’m seeing a helluva lot of “othering” coming from majority members (if I were feeling especially uncharitable, I’d call it pseudospeciation, which is the clinically-described process soldiers use in psychological preparation to kill other people). Here’s the tip-off; you use the pronouns, “they,” and “them” when referring to black people. You don’t want to be thought of as racist, so you adopt the media-preferred dogwhistle terms “looters” and “rioters” rather than, “People who have endured 400 years of overt and covert oppression, and can’t take it any more.”

The one and only good thing about COVID is that it’s going to strip a ton of white people of their able-bodied privileges. Which, don’t get me wrong, it’s not going to create equality and justice (unless you’re in for the rather horrific, Old Testament, stone-adulterers kind of thing), but, once you realize how precarious and fragile your privilege is, it very much makes you appreciate it when someone else, says, “The cards are stacked against me.” I’m not going to claim I’m any more or less empathetic and caring than anyone else; but, based on the language and politics I’m seeing, a lot of people claiming to be nice and empathetic are barely either, and I’d caution them (and everyone, really), not to judge any other person in the middle of an existential threat. I’d encourage everyone to expand their sense of self to include every person on the front lines of prejudice today; they just might be the ones hauling your butt out of the flames tomorrow.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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