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Lamps: Humans’ unique ability to access others’ thoughts

Joseph Lamps, Columnist

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Considering how far humans have come since our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we are clearly a unique species. We believe in gender equality, we think people with different skin colors are equals and we think it is barbaric to kill our personal enemies. Much of this progress has occurred over the past few centuries. To see how far we’ve come, one only needs to take a glance at Andrew Jackson’s face on the $20 bill and compare his views to ours today. The progress is truly remarkable.

We have the ability to think the thoughts and feel the feelings of others. We do this when we read a book, watch a video or listen to the radio because the thoughts conveyed within these media originated in the mind of the writer or speaker. Reading books is the way we can most intimately experience the thoughts of another person, giving us unprecedented access to others’ minds.

Our ability to communicate thoughts and feelings combined with the fact that we have strong emotional reactions simply watching or reading about the suffering of others give us the capacity to stand in other people’s shoes. This ability to connect our perspectives, unique among species on Earth, is the main driver of social progress. Every time a majority recognizes a marginalized minority as fundamentally equal to themselves, the ability to see others’ perspectives is behind the progress.
As just one example, last summer I read “I am Malala,” a memoir by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb. You’re probably familiar with the story of Yousafzai, one of the joint winners of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for championing girls’ rights to education.
I will never be female, I will probably never be Muslim, I have never been to the Middle East and I have never had to fight to get an education. However, while reading, my heart started palpitating when Yousafzai was shot and hospitalized. This was not because of suspense; I already knew what happens later in the story. It was because I was, in a sense, experiencing Yousafzai’s plight.

As a result of reading this book, I am aware of and feel strongly about the necessity for girls’ education rights in developing countries. I shudder to think about how if I had lived a few hundred years ago and was illiterate, I may not have believed that because Yousafzai has a different skin tone or belongs to a different gender, she did not deserve the same type of education I do. However, having experienced the thoughts she has made available through her book and through other books I have read, it is impossible for me to subscribe to this primitive viewpoint. This is why humans have come so far as a civilization.

Over the last few decades, information has become increasingly accessible. Nowadays, most of us carry nearly the entirety of human knowledge on a 150-gram device in our pockets. The thoughts and feelings of others are more accessible than ever before, and this new accessibility offers an opportunity to accelerate our social progress still further. It is also easy to uncover the ways that we oversimplify complex issues, and if the last century has shown us anything, it is that when people have a simple and short-sighted worldview, they have the capacity to do great harm.

The conceivable future of humankind encompasses a staggering variety of possibilities: Our descendants could live in a world of dangerous wars and runaway economic stratification, where the rich exploit exploit the poor. They could also live in an almost utopian world where war, starvation, disease and environmental destruction are eradicated worldwide. The decision between these possibilities comes down to the actions and beliefs of individuals today. Because we have the amazing ability to educate ourselves on what it is like inside the minds of other people, there is absolutely no excuse not to spend a lot of time doing so.

Joseph Lamps is a McCormick freshman. He can be reached at josephlamps2019@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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