It's been a rough few months for American culture. Hell, it's been a rough several years! But the last several months have been particularly eye-opening for many people, myself included.
What do I mean? Come on, you know!
Yup, I'm talking about how significantly alive racism and xenophobia are in America in 2017. The embarrassing part of recognizing that these last few months have been eye-opening to me and others like me is that this only serves to illuminate that I'm in a position of comfort and privilege as a white middle-class male. For many others, the last few months have just been merely confirmation of what they have known and experienced all along: that America is still a very long way from being a post-racial nation and that hate and bigotry are all too real.
I'll admit right up front that I'm incredibly timid about writing a blog post on such a topic. I recognize how it might come across to have a white guy living in a liberal state, sipping his craft beer or fair trade coffee, writing about racial relations. Let me just be clear: I've got no answers to offer in this blog post, nor do I have any excuses. What I do have is a multicultural life as a Brazilian-born-and-raised missionary's kid who moved to Indiana at 14 and then to Massachusetts at 27. While I cannot claim to know everything about racial tensions in our culture, which run deep and back through generations, I have experienced what if feels like to be a perpetual outsider in various settings (too much to get into right now), and I have experienced profound friendships across many social and racial (artificial) barriers.
These life experiences have given me a keen eye for how stories help or hurt our ability to deal with xenophobia (or to use a broader definition: our fear of the other.)
Sci-fi and Politics
"Science fiction often reflects the tone and politics of its era, alternating optimism and pessimism."
- Craig Detweiler, Into the Dark, pg 230.
Last year I got to write an article about the unintentionally perfect timing of Arrival's release on the same week of the presidential election--the result of which has contributed to recent national events. What does a movie like Arrival have to say on the topic of xenophobia?
Arrival's themes are actually some of the staple themes of great science fiction: fear of the unknown, fear of the other, fear of each other. The film portrays the fears of humanity at being confronted with intelligent alien life with far more advanced technology. But it gets worse. Not only do the aliens have far different and more advanced tech, they have a whole different way of seeing reality--you don't get a bigger worldview clash than this.
But what Arrival does so masterfully is that it juxtaposes these fears against the far smaller, but arguably more personally meaningful, struggles of being in relationship with other human beings. The main character's choice in the film is one of vulnerability and valuing life and love even in the face of loss and pain. This is a theme close to my heart as my one of my recent short films displays.
In Arrival, characters make natural, human assumptions. Surely the aliens must be plotting our demise? They're here to divide us and make us fight among ourselves so that we'll destroyer ourselves and they can just deal with whoever's left. When the main character challenges this exact notion, the response by the white man working for the US government who has just made this claim is to suggest that she pick up a history book.
It's a telling moment--a fitting moment--where someone in such a position of privilege and power should cite historical precedent as a reason to fear these aliens. The logic goes something like this: my ancestors behaved in this manner when they had the upper hand, so we must assume these aliens will do likewise now.
But of course, the flaw in this logic is that the aliens are not our ancestors. They are not governed by the same values and objectives.
Who Are the Aliens?
In science fiction, the aliens we encounter often stand in for very real groups of people. One of my favorite films growing up was the 80s sci-fi movie, Enemy Mine. In the movie, the fear and hatred of the other were brought down to a personal level and then slowly broken apart as a human and alien are forced to join forces to survive on a desolate planet. These once warring enemies learn about each other and grow to love each other.
It strikes me a no accident that the alien in Enemy Mine was played by Louis Gossett Jr., who is black, and the human by Dennis Quaid, who's white. The film re-contextualizes real racial divisions and tensions, and in so doing, forces the audience to consider these things from a new angle. I think a similar goal drove the choices made in District 9.
Meanwhile, the novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been made into a movie and remade several times, each time allowing an outlet for social fears. The various film versions have spanned the Cold War to the so-called "War or Terror." We're due for a new version any day here now that we're more than ready to be terrified of our neighbors: is he a white supremacist? Is she an anti-Semite? But then, I'm not entirely sure a new version right now would be all that helpful. We're paranoid enough as is. But go figure, a quick search of IMDb reveals that there is a new version currently in development.
My point here is that when sci-fi gets this right, such movies can provide a cathartic means of dealing with these difficult realities. By re-contextualizing these struggles to take place in a "galaxy far, far away," such stories beg for us to carefully consider what really divides me from those I think of as "other"?
Scratching the Surface
A full exploration of this topic would take a lengthy book and would be quite fascinating. After all, I haven't even touched Star Trek, or on the many novels out there, including two I've just read this year, Saturn Run and New Earth, both of which deal with xenophobia head-on, though with differing degrees of hopefulness for the choices humanity might make in the future.
Why do I turn to these stories? Because they challenge me. They make it personal. And the many of the characters offer up examples I admire and aspire to emulate as best I can.
"Could virtuous, on screen heroism revive our standards and restore our hope? Might fictional characters inspire us to choose wisely and to behave beautifully?" - Craig Detweiler, Into the Dark, pg 161