Common Decency: The Voight-Kampff Test

I once stayed up all night reading a book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip Dick.  The book was made into the movie Blade Runner.  The main character in the book, Rick Deckard, has to figure out something that seems like quite a challenge: is he a human being, or is he a “replicant”?

Replicants are artificial beings so similar to human beings that it’s very difficult to tell us and them apart – especially for them.  In the book (and the movie), the only reliable way to do so is called the Voight-Kampff test.  It’s a psychological test, not a physical test.  It measures empathy, because replicants lack empathy.

Here is a scene from the movie, where Agent Holden is testing Leon to see whether Leon is a replicant:

Holden: You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand when . . . .

Leon: Is this the test now?

Holden: Yes. You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of a sudden you look down and see a . . . .

Leon: What one?

Holden: What?

Leon: What desert?

Holden: Doesn’t make any difference what desert . . . .  It’s completely hypothetical.

Leon: But how come I’d be there?

Holden: Maybe you’re fed up, maybe you want to be by yourself . . . who knows? So you look down and see a tortoise. It’s crawling toward you . . . .

Leon: A tortoise. What’s that?

Holden: Know what a turtle is?

Leon: Of course.

Holden: Same thing.

Leon: I’ve never seen a turtle.  But I understand what you mean.

Holden: You reach down and flip the tortoise over on its back, Leon.

Leon: Do you make up these questions, Mr. Holden, or do they write them down for you?

Holden: The tortoise lies on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over. But it can’t. Not without your help. But you’re not helping.

Leon: What do you mean, I’m not helping?

Holden: I mean you’re not helping! Why is that, Leon?

[Leon is angry, but he won’t answer.]

Holden: They’re just questions, Leon. In answer to your query, they’re written down for me. It’s a test designed to provoke an emotional response.  Shall we continue?

[Leon nods, still unhappy.]

Holden: Describe, in single words, only the good things that come to your mind, about your mother.

Leon: My mother? I’ll tell you about my mother!

[Leon shoots Holden.]

Philip Dick’s point is that it’s neither our neat opposable thumbs, nor our bulbous cerebrums, nor our relative hairlessness, nor the vertical pitch of our spines that makes us human.  It’s our empathy.  Our common decency.  Our there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I-ism.

United Airlines and its CEO, Oscar Munoz, just failed the Voight-Kampff Test.

In case you haven’t seen the lather-rinse-repeat loop playing and replaying on CNN, on an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville, United Airlines arbitrarily picked out a passenger who had already boarded — a doctor who told them that he needed to return to his duties at his hospital at home — and sent in its security staff to beat him and drag him, unconscious, down the aisle and off the plane.  The doctor then found his way back on the plane, blood streaming down his face, mumbling over and over again, “just kill me, just kill me.”

Then he collapsed.  United then took everyone off the plane (the doctor on a stretcher), apparently to clean up the blood.  A correct number of designated passengers re-boarded, and the plane departed, sans doctor, two hours late.

When the assault occurred, another passenger – a total stranger — said, “No! This is wrong!  Oh my God!  Look at what you did to him!  Oh my God!”

She passes the Voight-Kampff Test.

Another passenger shouted “this is horrible!”

She passes the Voight-Kampff Test.

Another passenger derisively told the security staff, “Good work.  Way to go.”

He passes the Voight-Kampff Test, assuming that he was being sarcastic.

But United Airlines’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, blamed the doctor, because “he raised his voice and refused to comply.”

Munoz fails the Voight-Kampff Test.

How would you feel, Mr. Munoz, if you were the one who had been beaten, knocked unconscious, and dragged down the aisle?  Not so good?  I didn’t think so.

Whatever the fine print may say, there is only one reason I can think of that would justify using that kind of violence to remove someone properly seated from a plane: (1) when he or she poses an actual danger to the passengers or the crew.  Otherwise, no.  And definitely not because there is someone the airline deems more worthy, waiting in the boarding lounge.

On an issue like this, I’m really not interested in the details of the contract of carriage.  You simply can’t treat people that way.  We’re not cattle, we’re not sheep, and airports are not slaughterhouses.

That’s not to say that things like this don’t happen.  When I was in Mali once, I was denied boarding because someone bribed the ticket agent to give him my seat.  But that’s Mali.  That’s not the way we do things here.

It’s the sheer callousness of United that chaps my chaps.  OK, United owns the aircraft, it wanted to put someone else in the doctor’s seat, and he felt that he couldn’t give it up.  I get it.  But you don’t give someone a concussion over that.  That would be like deliberately running over a jaywalker.  Or the firing squad for someone who runs a red light.

Or like smashing anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko’s head into the wall over and over again, until he dies.  A decidedly non-hypothetical example of extreme and senseless violence by the people in charge.

Obviously, in this case, it’s the people in charge at United who need to remove those bulbous cerebrums from their posteriors.  They’re the ones to blame.

But if any one of the 500,000 people who receive this email happens to work in the security field, I want to make this special plea to you.  If you’re ever in a situation like this, don’t do it.  As Nike says, just don’t do it.  Keep the blood off your hands, even if it means losing your job.  To me, you’ll be a hero.

And you’ll pass the Voight-Kampff Test.

“Think of your fellow man.

Give him a helping hand.

Put a little love in your heart. . . .

And the world will be a better place.

And the world will be a better place,

For you, and me.

You just wait, and see.”

–         Myers, Holiday & DeShannon, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” (1968).


Alan Grayson

Alan Mark Grayson
is an American politician who was the United States Representative for Florida’s 9th congressional district and a member of the Democratic Party. Wikipedia


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