24 November 2016

Hierarchy of Otherness

In Orson Scott Card's novel Speaker for the Dead, the author invents a hierarchy of otherness, or as he calls it, a hierarchy of exclusion, based on words from Nordic languages. The levels are similar in come respects to the community limits discussed by Robin Dunbar in his work on human evolution, particularly on group sizes (see Dunbar's book Human Evolution)

Card Anglicises the words for the different categories and leaves off the diacritics that would accompany them in the original. Briefly the levels, with restored Swedish diacritics, are:
  • Utlänning  (Swedish 'foreigner'), literally an out-lander is someone who is recognisably human but from a different country. 
  • Främling (Swedish 'stranger') is also human, but from a different world. In the novel there are 100 human colonies out amongst the stars. 
  • Råmän (Probably from Swedish 'crude' + män 'person'; sounds like raw-men) are not Homo sapiens, but are recognised as 'human' and can be communicated with. 
  • Varelse (Swedish 'creature') are true aliens, not human, possibly sentient, but so different that communication is impossible. In the novels, this category also includes animals. 
  • Djur (Swedish 'beast') are beings so alien that we cannot guess what their minds are like. All we can do is fight them. 
Arguably some primates are more råmän than varelse because we can communicate with them to some extent. Also in observing primate behaviour it is not, in fact, that difficult to understand that their minds are much like our own. They are more different from us than any other human, except perhaps a psychopath, but they are more similar to us than has been popularly conceived. Watching them it is relatively easy to recognise emotions and motivations for example. However, a recent attempt to have chimpanzees granted human rights in the USA failed. I don't know, but it was presumably because though chimps do need the protection that such rights might afford them (mainly protection from humans), they certainly would not be able respect those rights in others, nor the obligations entailed in the declaration of human rights. They have their own kind of morality, but it is almost entirely in-group focussed. Killing an out-group person would not trouble their conscience for a second. Nor would infanticide.

OSC's books explore the råmän/varelse distinction following, in the book, Ender's Game, the apparently completely destruction (the xenocide) of the "buggers", an alien species by earth's military with child-soldier Andrew "Ender" Wiggin as commander. The buggers were considered varelse, with no possibility of a political or negotiated settlement to the dispute between them and earth. To earth's leaders, killing them all seemed to only possible approach, so they took the brightest children and gave them intensive training in strategy before getting them to play war-game "simulations", which turn out to control real fleets of spaceships in real battles with the buggers. Ender's subsequent discovery of an egg containing the germ of a hive queen of the buggers and her consciousness is the starting point for a number of sequels. In making psychic contact with the Hive Queen, Ender realises that the buggers are not varelse, but råmän and that the xenocide is in fact a mistake, a crime of unprecedented proportions. And of course he feels responsible.

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