Of That Which is Other

The interesting thing about dating a folklorist is that you get to borrow weird books from various academic presses.  We’re rather complementary – I like to read about possible futures and he likes discovering hidden things about the past.  Right now, I am reading Dark Shamans: Kanaima and the Poetics of Violent Death from his collection.  Roughly, it’s about cannibalism, but that word has its own connotations which are not always accurate or relevant.  Really, it’s about power, and what people will do to bend the world to their will, and their beliefs about how to achieve that.

The ritual itself is pretty much one of the worst ways to die–if you want to read the citation you can read it here, third paragraph,–but reading on, I had a couple of thoughts.  One is about switching the nature of things, and the power inherent in that.  The text talks about how in a typical person, the mouth is “incontinent” and the anus is continent–but this form of torturous death keeps the person from being able to speak, forcing continence, and unable to control their bowels, forcing incontinence.  And then the person dies from dehydration from horrible diarrhea–before being tasted to consume their force of life.

But the harder part to read was that this was a death that was inflicted on men, but now victims are often teenage girls or children because they aren’t able to defend themselves –they don’t typically have guns.  So, of course, the question becomes how could anyone do this to a person, especially a child?  It’s abhorrent and awful. (It should be noted that some of this information cited in the book came from a woman known as “Nurse”, who put her own life in jeopardy to shed light on this practice.  An act of courage, to be sure.)

The simple answer is that defining someone, or something, as “other” means that it is easier to hurt, or to kill, and to inflict prolonged death.  Even the Kanaima, the shamans themselves, will talk about their victims as animals.  But the type of “animal” influences the power gained by sacrificing one’s humanity in order to do such a thing in the first place.  It reflects the Western idea of selling one’s soul to the devil, except it’s more of selling a piece of one’s soul for power–feeding one’s devils, not The Devil.

In fact, we feel this power hierarchy even in our prison system – kill a child, and you are sick.  Killing a man is not the same.  Is it because of innocence and the loss of potentiality?  But when you look at serial killers, there is a complete lack of empathy.  Victims are “other,” the killing act is one of power, pleasure, and control over one’s environment, and power to disobey human laws.  It is an ultimate FU to society.

And of course, you can take it farther.  The inability to empathize with other humans makes it easier to wage wars and to segregate.  The inability to empathize with animals makes it easy to eat meat.  In Western culture, the idea of eating dogs, cats, or horses is an ugly one–we anthropomorphize and empathize too much with those animals.  Monkeys and apes are taboo, again, because they are too much like us.  And for people transitioning away from meat, there is definitely a hierarchy.  Red meat and pigs are worse than chickens which are worse than fish and shellfish.  The further away something is from human in the animal kingdom, the harder it is to understand.  The harder it is to care.

Which means that it will be really interesting to see how current AI work pans out.  We are just starting to understand that the first aliens we may ever meet are one that may spring into existence here on Earth.  We are so used to thinking of ourselves as individuals, that our bag of skin is a demarcation of what constitutes the individual, but with connected internet and new AI work, those ideas could be seriously questioned.  Many philosophical questions come down to “Who am I?”  We can analyze a brain, but the mind is still just an idea we create.  A construction held aloft by synapses, but we still don’t really know.  We are still creatures of ape habits.

As robots become more like us, our ideas of “other” will change.  Perhaps the Buddhist ideals of nirvana are inextricably linked to robotic AI.  Perhaps, in a parallel to Babylon 5, the idea of human souls reincarnated into a different form will surface as philosophical questions of how uploaded memories could constitute a true human existence.  And perhaps, veganism will finally get wide appeal as people chose to protect biological life over mechanical life and extend their circle of empathy.

But the fact will remain that while we are bound in mortal life, we will see things through a biological filter.  There may be intelligent life on other planets, but we can only see what we have receptors for.  Technology may change the world we live in, but we, ourselves, are not much different from our ancestors thousands of years ago.  I think it will be fascinating, frankly.  I’m kind of excited to see what happens.  It’s a new frontier.