Fringe groups are major players in human social debates. A fringe group could be described as a smaller, organized contingent of people with beliefs that fall closer to the absolute pole than they do the middle ground. If we look at human social reaction to a big issue, such as abortion, you see two opposite poles and a continuum of opinion in between. The one pole believes that there should be absolutely no abortions under any circumstances. The other pole considers abortion to be the right of a woman to control her own body, allowable under whatever circumstances the woman decides. Most of us would probably fall in between these two extremes. Surveys show that to be the case. Clearly, it’s a complicated issue that involves much more than simply these two poles. But viewing the debate in this way allows us to see forces at work.
It seems to me that the middle ground of any human debate is often the quietest position. There seem to be less advocacy organizations representing the middle ground. Institutions and larger, more broad-based, organizations often occupy the middle.
Fringe groups, operating near the poles of the debate, are usually much smaller in actual numbers of followers. Either because of this, or due to the inherent passions of those in these positions, fringe groups tend to be quite vocal. It’s important to note that in any large debate there are likely to be many fringe groups operating at each pole. They sometimes work together, and at other times they disagree and fight with each other. This can be due to philosophical differences or simply the human problems of ego and control. A fringe group at either pole seeks to influence the debate and convince people in the middle. They do this via protests and other events designed to garner media coverage. However, some members will view these methods as unproductive and engage in civil unrest. Even smaller groups may choose violence.
This type of human reaction can be seen again and again, throughout human history. In the 1960’s war protestors held marches and rallies. Some groups thought that rallies were not enough and provoked riots. Still others resorted to bombings.
This may all sound negative at first blush. But we need to understand the importance of fringe groups. They often represent a way of thinking that is at odds with the current actions of society. An example is the abolitionist movement well before the Civil War in America. Many regarded abolitionists as radicals in the early days. As the debate became more widespread, the larger group of abolitionists spoke publicly and changed minds, leading to greater support. A smaller group helped to build the Underground Railroad. Even smaller groups participated in violent revolt. Would America have rejected slavery if not for the abolitionist fringe groups? It’s much easier to stay in stasis than to participate in change. Fringe groups provoke debate and often action. They may help us to see things in terms we could not before. It’s occurring today with the animal rights movement. The push to protect animals in the food chain is operating at a pole. Some groups believe in public education. Other groups take more radical action.
It’s important to note that fringe groups can also make existing situations much worse. That seems to be occurring in the Islamic and Christian communities. The groups at the poles of radical Islam and radical Christianity are engaging in all-out war. Extremist Islamic groups are attacking the larger human society and that provokes radical Christians to promote separatism. Those of us in the middle have to endure the violence and also struggle to keep Muslims and Christians together in a common society. Groups are struggling for power and control in the world of Muslim and Christian extremists. Even more dangerous- there is an apocalyptic/religious reward element involved on both sides. That means the parties often do not act rationally.
So, let’s bring this back to extraterrestrial First Contact.
The human reaction to intelligent alien First Contact will probably correspond to the degree of tension involved in the situation. If we are communicating with a far-off civilization, and our messages take years or decades to travel, that will be a low level of tension. The second degree of tension would be fast communication with a far-off extraterrestrial civilization. This would assume that the extraterrestrials have communication technology to do such, because we are still stuck at the speed of light for transmission and most stars are many light years away. The third level of tension would be representatives of an extraterrestrial civilization arriving in our solar system. The tension in this scenario comes from the threat of close proximity and the prospect of dramatic change in our perspective, if the aliens are willing to share information.
First Contact would lead to a big debate over what we should do next: welcome aliens with open arms or tell them to go away. These would be the poles. The continuum of reaction would fall between these two extremes. However, it seems inevitable that there would be extremist fringe groups operating at these poles. Fear would likely drive the isolationists. Hope would be important for the open arms contingent. Power will be a big factor in a Direct First Contact scenario. Some groups may also find apocalyptic connections to First Contact. The results could be chaotic and challenging. Some extremist groups could turn to civil unrest and violence, especially on the isolationist side. Fear appeals will be common. Rumors and misinformation will run rampant.
How can we predict such things for First Contact? Just look at the current debates in our world. Fear based appeals; power grabs and apocalyptic thinking are part of many fringe groups embroiled in a wide variety of issues.
Despite the negative aspects of fringe groups, they need to be heard and their ideas considered. As I mentioned before, human society sometimes needs a push that only fringe groups can provide. The AIDS medical research debate in the 1980s and 90s was a heated battle between activists and health institutions. In the end, the work of the fringe groups, often nasty and confrontational, pushed the government to take action. Without the vehemence of AIDS research fringe groups, the tremendous progress that has been made in AIDS treatment might not have happened. It certainly sped up the process.
What do we do then, in the wake of First Contact?
We need to listen to fringe groups and carefully consider their arguments. We need to separate the facts and legitimate concerns from the fear and misinformation. We need to put it all in context and then begin to make decisions. The real problem may be the media. The media loves fringe groups, because they are confrontational and controversial. That makes for dramatic pictures and enticing headlines. There will have to be a massive effort to get voices from the middle of the debate heard. Perhaps it would be time for radical moderation? Moderate thinking could be expressed in the ways normally used by fringe groups- protests and public demonstrations. Moderates, having considered all sides, will need to be heard in order for us to proceed in a positive way after First Contact. Violence and civil unrest need to be rejected and dialogue promoted. It won’t be easy, but in the end decisions will have to made and action taken by humans. We can’t let debate devolve into a long-standing feud and inaction.
Can we respond to alien First Contact without the violence and acrimony that has marked so many human disagreements? Hopefully. But it is clear to me that there can be no bystanders in such a debate. Once all ideas have been considered, the sensible majority, the rational middle, will need to speak up and be heard.
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