Bear with me, please. If you're not sciencey or science-fictiony inclined, the first part of this post is not the eventual point, so give it a moment. If you are sciencey or science-fictiony, you may also have to give me a pass and just accept my premise in the introduction...'cause I'm much better grounded in the fiction aspect than the science.
Like I said, bear with me, please.
One theme that shows up rarely, if ever, in science fiction is when humans encounter an alien species so alien, that we have absolutely no starting point for establishing communication. Maybe they have no sense of touch, smell, hearing, sight, taste. Maybe they posess other senses that are completely alien to us.
Taken a step further, what if there are aliens that are so alien, that we don't even recognize each other as living beings. What if we discovered that beach sand is a living, sentient species from another galaxy...that beach sand showed up here millions of years ago traveling on particles of radiation? What if they live out their lives on an extremely slow time scale that makes us appear too fast to percieve. What if we've been co-existing with this alien species for the entire existence of humanity and neither we nor they recognized the other for what they truly are. I'll speculate that one reason this rarely shows up in science fiction is that if you have two alien species encounter each other and blithely go on their ways not recognizing each other, then you have the makings of a very short and boring story. But I digress.
If, indeed, we figured out such a thing, we'd probably be no closer to figuring out how to speak to each other, but I'm pretty sure we'd devote a lot of time and energy to trying to find a way. And that would be in spite of the fact that we've gone milennia without needing or wanting anything from each other...without necessarily having any common goals. We'd do it for the hell of it, for the shear curiosity if that were all we could look forward to.
What got me thinking in this direction is a post that Vince wrote today about the folly of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy. I read that post and my first reaction was, "It's all so obvious, who could argue with that?" Yet, there are a great many people who do have an argument with it. And I just can't understand how those people's minds work. Sure, I'm aware of their arguments and, truth be told, I don't honestly think most of them are motivated by hatred -- they just come from a mindset that's so alien to me that I can't even make the first stab at empathizing with them.
There are a lot of opinions I disagree with, and even though I disagree with them, at least I can understand where they come from. I understand the motivation of most people who oppose abortion. I understand the motivations of people who argue about welfare and bailouts and whether or not we should have soldiers in Iraq. I even think I can understand something about the position of people who deny Evolution and think there should be Christian prayers said in every school in America right after roll-call.
I don't understand the mindset of people who think that a gay man or woman can't serve in our military. Surely, it can't really be the fear of some guy lusting after their baby boy in the showers. Don't Ask, Don't Tell implies a level of self-control that wouldn't exist if that were the problem. And surely they're not afraid of their boy turning gay from having to acknowledge that they exist. I mean, regardless of whether they believe that people are born gay, or make it a choice, they must have some faith in how they raised the kid for the first 17 years of his life.
And I'm really not just talking about homophobia here. I can't muster up any empathy for African villages who torment children with dyslexia or other learning problems because they see the ailment as evidence of witchcraft. I have no empathy for cultures who value male children so much that they'll abort girls just because of they're not boys. There are cultures all over the world who firmly believe things that I categorically reject.
And please don't start in on me about tolerance. It's a word that's used so much it ceases to have any meaning. I'm not tolerant of the KKK or of inner-city gangs or assholes who want to protest at soldiers' funerals because they think God hates America. I'm not tolerant of any of them and I don't really give a shit why or how they got to be the way they are.
The fact is, as far as I'm concerned, these people all have utterly alien minds. I understand the words they're saying but their thought process is unfathomable to me.
And I'll grant that most of the people I'm talking about don't care about converting me to their way of thought; they'd rather I just go away. But some of the people I'm talking about...they do make an effort to convince the rest of us that they're right and we're wrong. Unfortunately, that doesn't make their minds any less alien to mine and vice-versa. Any discussion is more likely to degenerate into nothing but name calling and bemoaning the other side's ignorance.
I sure as hell don't have any answers. But I do have what I think might be a new question. If we'd put masses of time and energy into trying to figure out how to communicate with sand (and we would), why can't we manage that with the alien minds who already live among us?