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Don't tread on me: I'm worth more than that

Divisive symbols like this one evoke strong emotions about deeply held cultural values. In this post I am trusting the ability of (most of?) my readers to suppress knee-jerk reactions to the symbol long enough to reflect on the cultural value beneath it, a value shared by those who flaunt the symbol and those who despise it.

Groups as disparate as the Tea Party, the advocates of Critical Race Theory, striking Hollywood actors, and Gen Z all agree on this underlying value-- the inalienable right of one group to strike back against any other group that is trampling on its worth. This is a free country, after all, but there is still no excuse for that kind of trampling.

In 250 years those who felt trampled have used the “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan and the rattlesnake image (a.k.a., the Gadsden Flag) to send a dire warning to a variety of “treaders” or tramplers. The Revolutionary War army used it against the British government, the South used it against the Union during the Civil War, and more recently the Tea Party used it against the federal government.

Where does Gen Z come in? As the most pro-union generation, the one least confident that its worth will be recognized and fairly paid, Gen Z is the one most expecting to be trodden on. The Gadsden Flag would make the perfect Gen Z symbol, sending the message, “We would rather not get involved with you at all, but we will strike if we have to. And if you get hurt, it is your fault for not backing off when we warned you.”

The Hollywood writers are in a similar position, not using the symbol but demonstrating the value it represents. They raise a new question, “Is AI the new treader?” How much is a writer worth when AI can “write”?

Ironically, the writers, usually seen as the leftist, leading edge of popular culture, are in this case acting like the archconservatives, digging in their heels to stop or at least slow down change. How have they lost their avant-garde credentials so suddenly? They saw that their own worth is under threat from AI change, and they made a difficult but clear choice—they would rather be conservative than downtrodden.

But perhaps the writers’ strike really is a sign of things to come as AI affects other kinds of jobs. If writers are fearing replacement or at least devaluation because of AI (fewer jobs and lower paying ones), what about government bureaucrats who do repetitive tasks in fixed ways? If AI can do those tasks and save the taxpayers some money, who will go to bat to save the jobs? Or in the field of education, how much is a teacher or professor worth in an AI world, and how many live “teachers” will our schools need? If even 10% of our current educational force were facing possible layoff, imagine the teachers’ strikes.

A century of automation has shown us that a human worker who can be replaced by a machine will bereplaced by a machine, and usually sooner rather than later if the change increases profits. Adjusting to the downside of automation has always been difficult, even at the old, slow pace. Now that AI has put automation on steroids, what steroid might society use to keep up with it?

The steroid, if it existed, would have to be an idea, value, or philosophy that affirms the worth of individuals when the type of job that used to give them worth is made obsolete by AI. It would have to reduce people’s anxiety, anger, and violence in that situation. If we don’t find that worth-enhancing steroid, we are in for some rocky years.

Fortunately, there is a group of people around the world who already have this steroid, but unfortunately you wouldn’t know they have it because so many of them don’t take it regularly enough to exhibit its benefits. In fact, some of them in wealthy countries don’t seem to be able to swallow this “pill” at all.

On the surface the effects of the steroid seem to be the direct opposite of “Don’t Tread on Me”. This steroid neutralizes self-assertion and retaliation, yet not in a way that says, “Go ahead and tread on me.” It is a paradoxical way of countering attacks on our worth-- profound, and not easy to believe.

It is an affirmation of human worth that can survive whatever AI may do to diminish our worth, and it is found in a most unlikely place—the biblical story of Jesus carrying his cross to his place of execution. Can you picture Jesus saying in those agonizing moments, “Don’t tread on me”?

Neither can I. But what was Jesus showing us and what does it mean? That’s what I am trying to unpack during SYNC’s “Worth Season” (Sept. 26 – Nov. 25). Tools for digging into this truth and expanding your worth are on the Worth Tool Kit page at Have a look. You’re worth it.

Happy digging. People are so much more fun to be around when they know what they are worth and why their worth is indestructible.

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