TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves

Witnessing humanity


About Ann

Award-winning Journalist and Photojournalist Ann Curry, a former NBC News Network anchor and international correspondent, has reported on conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Darfur, Congo, the Central African Republic, Serbia, Lebanon, and Israel; on nuclear tensions from North Korea and Iran and on numerous humanitarian disasters, including the tsunamis in Southeast Asia and Japan, and the massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where her appeal via Twitter (@AnnCurry) is credited for helping to speed the arrival of humanitarian planes.


When you report from conflict zones all over the world, over time you begin to see a pattern.

People who can seem just like you and me in person can be absolutely convinced by a narrative they tell themselves that blinds them to the humanity in others.

You hear the president of Sudan, accused in the genocide in Darfur, react with great offense when you ask him the “how could you?” question. But then he utters a disparaging remark about the black African tribespeople he’s accused of killing that leaves no doubt that he views them as less human than he.

You hear a Serb talk about how many times his country has been invaded throughout history and then hear him vowed to grab his guns again if called, just as he did during the genocide in Kosovo, to raid homes again and quote, “get rid of the people who don’t belong there once and for all.”

You witness this anger and disgust separating us from them in a lot of places: in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, North Korea, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Congo. We now see it in Europe, in Israel, in Myanmar were people known as the Rohingya are being targeted.

And you see it here in America, where all it can take is one tweet for people across the political spectrum to express not just disagreement but intense hate for people they have never even met.

These narratives spread like viruses: fast-moving, infecting people you might least expect, attacking empathy and the capacity of people to even hear those who don’t think or look the same.

Maybe an idea worth spreading is that these narratives are delusions. There is no them. No others. There is only us.

When I was a child, like a lot of kids, I just wanted to be like all the other kids in school. That wish died after a boy stood up in third grade and started chanting, “Ann is a Jap! Ann is a Jap!”

I looked up from my schoolwork and I notice the teacher wasn’t in the room. But the boy was still chanting, and he was looking at me, and he was moving toward my desk. He said it louder. “Ann is a Jap! Ann is a Jap!”

The other kids were watching. I couldn’t move. I froze. I couldn’t speak. But suddenly, somehow, I was up and socking him right in the face!

I hit him so hard he was on the ground. Well, he stopped. But now he was crying. A little boy with blood spilling out of his mouth. And I was ashamed.

And everything that happened next — his screaming, the teacher rushing back into the room, the other kids explaining what had happened — all was absorbed into my brain in slow motion, the sounds distorted and muffled by an overwhelming realization as the only one who was half-Asian and half-Caucasian and so not technically one or the other.

I was not like any of the other kids in school. And I was never going to be.

And so though neither my teacher nor my parents ever punished me for that punch, I was punished having to learn early a hard lesson about just how very different people can be. And this, in my mind, was as true as the sky is blue.

We humans excel at categorizing each other. Asian, white, black, Hispanic, male, female, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, fat, thin, tall, short, old, young, good, bad, left, right, gay, straight, both, neither, none of the above.

Categories are useful. But boy can they be misleading. They easily give us the impression that we actually know so much more about each other than we actually do.

And when we have a place for everyone, it can keep everyone in their place and make some of us feel a lot more comfortable with the people in our own categories than with those in others.

And yet, contrary to this way of thinking, some 2000 years ago in ancient Rome there lived a former slave turned celebrated playwright known as Terence who wrote this: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” which means “I am human, and I think nothing of which is human is alien to me.”

Well now.

The astonishing writer and thinker Dr. Maya Angelou once told me in an interview, “If you can admit that — that nothing human is alien to you — then you can face everybody because you are a human being. And so you can’t possibly meet anyone who could think anything that you can’t possibly think.”

And no, Dr. Maya Angelou insisted, we are not different, saying in her marvelous way, “One person eats potatoes, another eats rice, another eats pasta, and another dances the hula, and another dances the hora, and another dances hip-hop. But the truth is every human being in the world who wants children wants healthy children. Everybody in the world wants to be loved and has the unmitigated gall to want love in return.” Everybody.

As a journalist, you see the exact same intensity of love and hope, the same deep theory over injustice, the same qualities of hate and anger, no matter the culture, race, language, politics, or geography.

And more often it’s under the worst of circumstances: a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan, a group of Darfurians on the run after being attacked by Janjaweed militias, in a hospital on the edge of a long war in Congo where you can also witness some of the greatest of human qualities that we all might want to see in ourselves. Courage. Compassion. Heroism. Resilience.

In that hospital in Congo, my news team found Sifa, a teenager who told us that she had watched a rebel unit kill her parents one by one before they then kidnapped her and took her wherever they went: chaining her to a tree, moving then chaining her to another tree. And after many months of abuse they left her for dead, she said, because they told her she wasn’t worth anything to them anymore.

Some men from a nearby village heard her cries and found her. They broke her chain and they carried her to the hospital where we found her.

I took these photos there with her permission as she recovered from surgery, and I asked her. “Do you want revenge?” And she paused and she said, “No. I want to rise from this bed and thank the men who rescued me. I want to work for God. And maybe if I’m lucky. I want to feel a mother’s love again.”

The night Sifa’s story aired on the evening news, the network’s phone lines lit up. People were expressing deep worry for a girl whose language and culture they did not know, who was caught in a conflict they didn’t understand in a country they may not even have easily found on a map. And some were furious at me, demanding to know whether our reporting had put her in even more danger.

Strangers saw Sifa as a human being who needed protection. She was not alien to them at all.

Indeed, under the scrutiny of the known science about our species, the narrative about us and them doesn’t seem to stand a chance. Geneticists are not only saying the ancestors of all of us emerge from eastern Africa some hundred thousand years ago. They have now linked the DNA of all homo sapiens to one man and one woman who Dr. Spencer Wells has called our genetic Adam and Eve.

Now wait a minute: if it’s true that we all share the same ancestors… dude! I’m your long-lost relative! Can I come over for dinner? I mean I’ll bring the wine, you like red? Cool. But if you want to talk politics, I’m bringing more than one bottle.

According to the research so far, homo sapiens have biological differences but we are still more than 99 percent genetically identical and share vast foundational similarities, not all of them good.

We have evolved to lie. And we can alter our memories, which can help us overcome trauma but can also cause us to remember what never actually happened. We can continually adapt our personalities so that, over time, even core parts of ourselves can change.

We all seem capable of harming one another. One study claims we can within days under certain circumstances become psychologically abusive to other people. Another study suggests that if someone in authority tells us to do so, we can be willing to cause others physical pain even if it’s against our personal beliefs. See? More evidence dogs are better than people.

But science also tells us our strongest human instinct — even stronger, according to Darwin, than our self-interest — is our ability to feel sympathy with others. This is why we can choose to risk our lives even for people we don’t know, as did Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Gandhi, Witold Pilecki, Raoul Wallenberg, Ruth Gruber, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela among many others, countless others, known and unknown.

Brain scans reveal the regions involved with the positive emotions and empathy light up like a Christmas tree when we do good for others. Some researchers describe empathy as being like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets. And study after study, when taken together, suggest that helping our fellow human beings can help us breathe deeper, feel happier, be healthier, and maybe even live longer. And here’s where it gets really crazy: it may even make us more attractive to a potential mate. So put that on next time with your cologne.

We can all find our shared complexities, both our darkness and our light, in the violent ancient story of The Iliad which you likely know well. Even this tale about the epic battle between mortal enemies in which Achilles, seething with anger, disfigures Hector, a son of Troy, making him barely recognizable as human, is woven with a level of compassion so deep for both sides that, upon hearing it, perhaps even a Spartan could have felt empathy for a Trojan and vice versa.

Perhaps it is time to consider that what may most separate us are not our categories at all but the very narratives, true and false, that we have been led to believe about each other.

The power of narratives on human behavior should not be underestimated. On one hand, our capacity to communicate and believe the same story allows us to work together, which is the very reason historian Yuval Harari points out in his book “Sapiens” that we have risen from the middle of the food chain, at one time staying close to the fire afraid of being eaten, to the top.

And now here we are, on the cusp of deciding not only what species live or die but even how we ourselves will evolve from this point onward. It would be so nice if our brains would evolve a little bit faster so at least we could stop eating all those French fries on the plate.

But this same capacity to get collectively swept up in a powerful narrative also makes us highly vulnerable to delusions that can lead human beings to do terrible things. We’ve only to think of Hitler and the people who agreed to follow him to be reminded of an extreme example of that.

Both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela help teach the world outside of South Africa an ancient word of the Khosa and Zulu people. The word is “ubuntu” which is variously translated as meaning “I am because we are,” or “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Indeed, what are any one of us truly without the rest of us?

My work, as well as my curiosity about science and what science and history and even literature tells us about what it means to be human, have opened my mind to this idea of ubuntu so diametrically opposed to the narrative of us and them.

When looking at the faces of people in a crowd as I’m doing right now, looking at you, I see human dignity. Not in categories, but in individual members of one species, the only one that still survives and will likely need all of us to survive what is still to come.

It is possible for me to see in you my mother. My father. My sister. My brother. My daughter, and my son.

Look closely with empathy at who we really are and what we mean to each other. It will give you a glimpse of a future when human beings can finally love more and fear less. And no, none of us is truly alone.

Of course to get there, we need at least to be well-informed with truth and not lies, which means we need good journalism. But hey that’s another TED talk. Thank you.