I cannot help but comment on the results of the recent American presidential election, in which Barack Obama became the first non-white to be elected president. As a jaded American, I recognize that America has its share of both wonders and problems. But I have never been more proud of America than I was on this past election night. To me, the election of Barack Obama is symbolically a major victory in America's war against racism. And were Obama the Republican candidate and McCain the Democratic one, I would be no less overjoyed. Some things in life are more important than what percent of a candidate's positions we agree with.
I want to stress that this election is a victory over racism, not slavery. Most cultures in pre-modern times practiced slavery, but it was enslavement of people from the same ethnic background. Slavery in America and the Caribbean isles differed from other forms in slavery in that the belief was also coupled with a sentiment of racial superiority. So even after the abolition of slavery in 1863, the underlying tone of racism permeated much of American life. In contrast, the Britain empire outlawed slavery in 1833, but their enslavement wasn't particularly racially biased, so their past two centuries haven't been filled with racial tension. Abraham Lincoln won the war on slavery in 1865, but completely decimating the southern American states couldn't change the racist opinions that much of the country still retained. The election of Barack Obama to the office of President is proof that a large percent of America is now racially blind-- the ethnic background of a candidate is not a reason to select against them.
Of course, not all of America feels that way. That's why this election is a sign of major progress on the issue of racial discrimination, but it doesn't represent the end of it. Looking at the final electoral vote distribution, this election was heavily slanted towards Barack Obama but unanimous. For example, Alabama and Mississippi again voted for the conservative candidate as they've done for decades. But Virginia and North Carolina both voted for Barack Obama, two states that split away from America during the American Civil War because they wanted the right to keep slavery legal (among other things).
This might seem like a trite point, but each major population center in America has its own local way of thinking. People in Los Angeles are more liberal than people in Salt Lake City, for example. The southern states tend to be more conservative than New England states. And the way they vote is a reflection of their local societal beliefs. If this were not the case, every city and state would vote exactly the same way. There's nothing magical about the geography that makes people think in certain ways. The social mentality is a purely contained in the minds of all people in that local society, and if you think about it, that is an incredible thing.
For North Carolina to vote for a black man 147 years after it tried to secede from the United States, the entire cultural mentality had to change. It does not change quickly either. It wasn't until all the adults of that generation died, along their children and grandchildren, that the majority of the state decided that maybe blacks and whites were equals. That should be a sign of how easy it is to believe the first thing you're told and how hard it is to consider outside opinions.
More often than not, people belong to the political party and religion of their parents, quite apart from the actual merits of those positions. Over 90% of America is Christian and well under 10% of India is Christian, despite extensive missionary work. Even if there were strong, logical reasons to believe in the Christian religion, it's clear that those reasons are not why America is a Christian nation. If those reasons were so logically compelling, then India would be a Christian nation too.
Like it or not, if your political and religious views closely match your family's and city's views, the odds are high that you haven't thought very hard about them. That doesn't mean your beliefs are wrong, but if they are right, you probably don't know why they are. It means you accept the basic beliefs of society's "hive mind", and you've ceded some of your thinking.
While this can be dangerous, accepting society's beliefs without too many questions can be really helpful. I'm not advocating, "question everything", but, "question everything important". You might be wondering why that is, and what this has to do with Artificial Intelligence. Next week I'll explain what I mean.