Friday, October 2, 2009

Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Lovelace’s 1642 poem asserts that a free mind cannot truly be imprisoned. Which is all well and good when you’re either not in prison or, as with Lovelace, can expect to get out pretty soon. But what about people who are imprisoned, either physically or socially, because of some aspect of who and what they are? Most commonly this is an issue for minorities, who are denied opportunities, denied rights, or even segregated from other parts of society in some way. And one response to that sort of prejudice can be for the minority group to voluntarily remove themselves from the society that they feel is mistreating them, thereby becoming the majority population in their own sub-domain. For example, in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, 120 dwarves have formed a commune with a maximum height restriction. To live there, you have to be under 4’3”, according to the Daily Telegraph. They have their own emergency services and have even begun to operate as a theme park, charging admission for visitors to watch them perform. If they’d been forced to go to this place, it would be called a reservation, perhaps, or even an internment camp if it had physical walls. But the article suggests (and I haven’t been able to find any other sources to corroborate it) that they both chose to locate themselves there and to operate the theme park.

But grouping people together by physical characteristics offers certain challenges. For instance, what happens when a dwarf couple living in a dwarf-only subculture produce a non-dwarf child? What happens when a resident wants to marry somebody who is too tall to live there? It’s all too easy for the minority victims to become the majority perpetrators.

The old TV show Babylon 5 explored this issue through a unique minority – telepaths. In the B5 universe, human telepaths were deemed too dangerous to freely cohabitate with non-teeps (as they were called, teep being the pronunciation of TP, or TelePath). As the teep population on Earth grew, they formed a self-governing organization that exerted control over its own members as an alternative to having a non-teep, majority-controlled government do it. But while that organization, the Psy-Corps, was run exclusively by teeps, it wasn’t necessarily as kind as one might expect. In order to ensure that teeps didn’t become subjected to harsh controls instituted by the majority, they opted to institute harsh controls themselves. Every teep identified was forced to either join Psy-Corps (and move into a Psy-Corps-operated facility, living, working and even mating at the direction of the Orwellian Psy-Corps) or take telepathy-suppressing drugs that caused loss of interest, listlessness, depression and often suicide. Teeps were taught to control their talents and to limit when and how they were used on or near non-teeps. Teeps who defied the Psy-Corps or tried to run away were hunted down by teep police called Psy-Cops and imprisoned or killed. Meanwhile, the senior members of Psy-Corps were involved politically and even criminally with various factions that rank-and-file teeps wouldn’t necessarily have approved of or supported. Certainly the non-teep population would have been appalled at some of the activities the Psy-Corps’ leadership was undertaking, including drugs, extortion, blackmail and murder of teeps and non-teeps alike. So a minority group self-insulates, then becomes more of a menace to its own population and to society at large than had its members remained dispersed throughout society.

Now, I’m not concerned that the dwarves of Kunming are going to form a shadow government that threatens to tear China apart from the inside. And even if they were to do so, I’m not certain that would be a bad thing. China’s government is pretty screwed up. But I do think that one of the biggest ongoing challenges of modern society is to balance meaningful differences between people in a way that recognizes that differences exist and matter, but then proceeds to embrace all people in the most-open, least harmful way possible. And that’s really hard to do at times. People are emotional creatures, and we’re comforted by things that are familiar to us and are similar to what we are and what we understand. Conversely, we’re often uncomfortable or even frightened by things (and people) that are significantly different from us. We’ve made tremendous headway on differences of skin color and ethnic background, because ultimately those physical differences are so superficial. But some physical differences, like dwarfism (or telepathy, which would certainly be a MAJOR issue for people to deal with if it ever were to transcend fiction) are practical and can’t simply be ignored as if they don’t exist. But cultural differences are a challenge as well. I think most Americans today realize that, for example, black people and white people are fundamentally the same physiologically. It’s the cultural and social differences that continue to isolate those populations (though less and less as time passes). There are lots of other populations, however – rich and poor; smart and dumb; handicapped or not (which is an oversimplification, but you get the idea); gay and straight; young and old; and on and on.

It’s easy for a member of any one of those groups to say “I’m free in my mind so you can’t cage me,” but if they then walk outside their home and discover they can’t get a job or an education or just live where they want to in relative security, are they really free or just deluding themselves? Sadly, there’s no simple solution to this challenge – it’s basic to human nature that some humans will be very similar to each other and some won’t, and as soon as one group identifies itself (either out loud or not) as different from another group, you start to have issues. Fiction deals with it in everything from Seuss’s Star-Bellied Sneeches to Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron (in which “handicaps” are placed on above-average members of society to bring their abilities in line with the lowest common denominator) to Straczynsky’s Psi-Corps, and certainly serves as a tool to draw attention to the issue and inspire reflection on the part of individuals and groups as to whether they’re perpetuating ongoing disunity or growth. The evolution of society will no doubt resolve some of these issues, even as new ones (the genetically pure vs. the genetically-enhanced, perhaps?) emerge. There’s no doubt that society today is far more open and tolerant than it was at any time in modern history. The question, really, is how long it will take to move to true equality and, for that matter, what true equality would even look like. Until then, as unique as we are, we’ll each live in our own little cages made of thoughts and fears and wisps of hope for a better society.

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