Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cultural Diversity in the Future

I've always loved Star Trek for the way it bucked trends on race, and even species, for the way it could have an entire episode about whether Data could be considered his own being with rights or not. It has a certain sense of undying optimism as it portrays human beings in an era beyond racial discrimination, after poverty has been eliminated from our civilization.

It makes me wonder.

My husband, who always looks at America with a certain degree of humorous distance (being a self-professed Aussie descendant of convicts), has been talking a bit about a post-racial generation, ever since the election of Obama. I think in a sense that America may be moving toward this, or at least, that in a couple more generations race may not mean the same thing it always has.

But what will it mean? And furthermore, what will it mean in the far, far future?

I've seen lots of science fiction where alien invasion or at least the appearance of aliens on the scene brings squabbling humans together against a common enemy. But on the other hand, the persistence of human divisions, such as those in the middle east and even in Ireland, continues to amaze me. The other thing I noticed when I was in college was the way that certain racial groups which received public recognition proceeded to splinter further into subgroups. The particular example I'm thinking of from my past was the Asian student union, which began to break up into multiple groups by nation.

I admire the authors, C.J. Cherryh and C.S. Friedman being only two of them, who have portrayed a cultural difference between planet-dwellers and non-planet-dwellers in their science fiction. I encourage all of you writers out there to consider what kinds of distinctions between people would have staying power in a future universe.

Where are the barriers? What kind of people might be hidden from public sight, even by purely logistical factors such as jobs servicing the innards of a ship, or long hauls between stars, such that others might be inclined to fabricate perceptions of them?

Ask yourself also: where are the points of pride? Who feels indispensable, and why? Who feels superior, and why? And how do those people mark themselves, whether it be physically, linguistically, behaviorally, or all three?

History shows us that when people stop separating themselves in one way, they will often separate themselves in another, often based on new categories that take on new meaning for those who experience them. The richness of diversity will never be lost, but only shift. It's worth seeking out those places so that your universe will thrive with depth and difference like our own.


  1. I don't think Star Trek was exactly bucking the trend, since the trend, at least among those circles, was entirely in that direction.

    Oddly enough, the delight in diversity and pity for the stranger are almost entirely a Western thing. As the West declines in prestige, we may expect to see a resurrection of such things as go on between, say, Shona and Zulu or Somali and Bantu.

    Shona fleeing the Zimbabwean catastrophe into the [only relatively] more stable South Africa, have found themselves less than welcome by the residents there; esp. as many are "illegal immigrants" taking jobs away from real South Africans.

    Recently in India, one of the low castes rioted -- Gujjars, iirc? -- because they wanted their caste to be rated even lower. Why? Because falling below a certain scale entitled them to various government benefits and programs. Those currently entitled did not want this, as it would split the pie into smaller slices; and so street fighting ensued. Now =there= is a modern reason for inter-ethnic ill will.

    On the planet Harpaloon, in the forthcoming Up Jim River the original settlers, called Loonies, have a great deal of dislike for "movers." Harpaloon has become the big kickoff point for the settlement of the Lafrontera stars and people have come from all over the Periphery, overwhelming the loonies. But they reserve their greatest detestation for the Terrans, those who have maintained a self-identification with the ancient, lost home world. I'm working my way up to a street riot.

    As long as people with little fear losing it all to people with less, these sorts of things will arise. If there is an easy physical marker -- blond hair in Pakistan, say -- the fear can be easily exercised. If not, we can always make the Other wear special clothing or badges, so we know who to hate.

  2. Mike,

    Wow, how great to see you here! This is a really great, thoughtful comment. I would agree that though diversity is inevitable, the acceptance of diversity is not. You also make a good point mentioning the Indian case - government policy can have odd effects on people's behavior, sometimes causing them to make counterintuitive decisions. I agree that markers of social identity can come from within, or from outside (even coercive) sources. I'm going to have to read Up Jim River, that's for sure.