This month your Book Review Editor is indulging himself, not writing a review but a short article. There is a connection to books, however, as this article reflects on an entire genre of books (and movies, too), namely science fiction, and considers how this genre relates to the intercultural field. Not to worry, meanwhile; next month we’ll be back with a good book.
Imagining the Other
Many years ago, as a recently minted English Lit major, I had a dark secret: while I deeply appreciated Chaucer, Austen, Thackeray, and all the other notables, I also really liked science fiction, books and movies. But this was so low brow, shameful, and otherwise beneath me, I had to hide this from my peers. Then, years later, I discovered the intercultural field and began to practice in it, and suddenly it was all OK because what is the intercultural field but the attempt to understand the Other? And is not that also one of the major themes of science fiction?
Granted, our Other is not an alien species, a creature from a distant planet, or a citizen of a parallel galaxy. Nor is the intercultural Other out to destroy the earth, wipe out the human race, or otherwise cause a great deal of inconvenience. But in some ways the intercultural Other does come from another world, is alien in many of its values and behaviors—just as we are alien from its point of view—and in some cases can even be threatening. So I decided that my love of science fiction was completely respectable after all, especially for an interculturalist.
And then I began to notice something odd: in nearly all the depictions of the Other in science fiction books and films, there was always something distinctly and recognizably human. Here is how I put this in a new edition of my book The Art of Crossing Cultures
The capacity of the average person to fully conceive of the “other” has always been greatly exaggerated. It is interesting in this context, and also quite instructive, to reflect on so-called science fiction, on the people who are in the business of creating Not Us. Even these people, whose job it is to imagine the “other,” aren’t very successful. Who doesn’t know the famous bar scene in the film Star Wars, where Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobe, and Chewbacca visit a local watering hole in search of an experienced pilot. The place is teeming with a wondrous variety of extraterrestrial bad guys. But when you think about it, they’re not really that extraterrestrial. Oh, they may have a second head, some additional arms, and more eyes than you or I have, but that’s just it: they have more of these attributes (or sometimes fewer) but they don’t have different attributes, something instead of heads, arms, and eyes. They’re just variations on a theme—humans—but not a new piece of music. Nor have the filmmakers come up with anything new, anything nonhuman, for these guys to do. They’re just doing what guys like them everywhere do, apparently even in other galaxies: knocking back a few at the local neighborhood hangout. Not even George Lucas and Steven Spielberg can conceive of nonhuman behavior; there are no models. Most of us even conceive of animals in human terms, explaining their behavior exclusively in reference to our own.
The old proverb notwithstanding, we cannot put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Or, more accurately, we can, but it’s still our own feet that we feel.
Naturally, this made me wonder about our field. Is it really that easy to conceive of and truly understand the Other? Are we really any better at this than most novelists and film makers? Or are we mostly just fooling ourselves? This is our bread and butter, after all, identifying cultural differences, making others aware of those differences, and generally helping people understand other people who are not like them.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s a noble effort, a worthwhile undertaking, and a just cause. But perhaps we should approach it with more humility and not claim too much for our findings. Maybe we should be careful not to give people the impression that we have actually figured out and really do understand people who are not like us. We should say, rather, that here are some ways we and others may differ and admit that in the end the only person we really understand is our self. Just a thought.
I mean if Lucas and Spielberg can’t do it…