Monday, September 13, 2010

Racism, Fear and Extraterrestrials

We’re a pretty tough bunch. Humans can beat up on each other over differences in skin pigmentation, language and tribal affiliation. Imagine what the reaction would be like for a truly alien visitor? So, what happens to our racist tendencies After First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization? Do we suddenly realize that our racist and ethnophobic feelings for humans seem trivial in comparison? Do humans become closer to each other as a result? Do we turn all that hostile energy towards hating the extraterrestrials?

It seems that in American history some racism and cultural intolerance has been eroded with time. The Irish can be portrayed as evil thugs in one generation and 50 years later be an accepted and even unremarkable aspect of society. And by unremarkable there is no disrespect intended. It’s just that for most Americans being Irish is an interesting part of who a person is, and yet not a reason to deny employment or chase them out of your neighborhood. Of course that just causes us to move on to target new groups, including Hispanics. And there is plenty of room for racism that goes back for generations. African-Americans still face it every day. Whatever process helped the Italians and Irish to overcome cultural barriers, it has not been as easy for African-Americans to find acceptance. History may be a part of this, and certainly the legacy of slavery opens up all sorts of social wounds that have proven to be much harder to heal.

Extraterrestrials are bound to look different than humans. They are likely to behave much differently than us. They are likely to think much differently than us. Those differences may be so profound that they will have a severe impact on any new extraterrestrial relationship.

So, what should humans do? Perhaps extraterrestrial cultural diversity sessions would have to be held for the entire planet? Imagine a massive seminar for billions of humans (and many of them falling asleep in the back of the room.) The diplomatic process would have to take this issue into account. Like it or not the majority of humans will have to agree on how the relationship with an extraterrestrial civilization progresses. That will be tough to achieve if people are freaked out by appearances and behavior.

Hollywood solves the problem by creating extraterrestrials that fit the needs of the plot line. They are portrayed as vicious killers or all-knowing angels. The reality may actually be more troubling. Even in Hollywood there is a tendency to create humanoid creatures that mimic human behavior. How would we react to creatures that are not even vaguely humanoid? You can just see the hate groups lining up.

Luckily, extraterrestrials will not have to worry about employment discrimination or have a hard time hailing taxi cabs. There would be a significant power difference that would in a sense turn the usual racism relationship on its ear. In many respects it would be our problem and our obstacle to overcome. Fear is a strong motivator and if humans can’t get over the differences we may be the ones paying the price.

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