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Us and Them
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I'm currently reading City of Pearl by fellow 2000 Clarion alum Karen Traviss (go order the book, already).

From her website is this interview with Vector magazine. There's lots of interesting stuff in there, but I was particularly struck by this bit:

Andrew M. Butler: What draws you to writing sf, fantasy and horror?

Karen Traviss: ...I want to explore what people do when they have to live with the choices technology and science gives them, and how they handle relations with creatures that aren't the same as them. One of the themes that most occupies me is the dividing line between the "us" that we treat with respect and can empathise with, and "them" - the external bin into which we dump those who we can crap on and get away with it. That can be a gender line, a race line, a species line, a class line, whatever. Wherever it's drawn - consciously or not - it's the tipping point at which even apparently nice, decent people say somewhere in their mind, "It's okay to do this because they're not like us".

It's a fascinating issue. Karen likes to deal with the line between humans and other species, whether they're animal species we're familiar with or fictional aliens.

It was one of the central issues I was trying to address in this post about liberalism and terrorism, when in the comment section I asked:

Do you believe that gays should be murdered for being gay? Do you believe that women should be allowed basic rights and treated as equals (wear what they want, drive, go to school, etc.)?

Do you believe that if a homosexual is murdered in Wyoming it's wrong? Well then what about in Saudi Arabia? If you say it's wrong for someone to be murdered for being homosexual in Saudi Arabia, then why do you "know better than they do"?

If I were pro-life, and wanted to ban abortion here in Texas, would you have a problem with that? Why? Do you "know better than we do"?

I'm trying to get at the distinction between "them" and "us", and find out to what larger group you think rights should extend to.

If you're arguing that granting all people in the world basic human rights is not feasible from a practical standpoint, fine. But there is a principle at stake here, and it's whether or not you believe that notions like equality, women's rights, gay rights, and basic human rights should extend to all people regardless of borders, or whether they are simply "Western ideals" that would be impositions on other people in the world.

Of course the notion of "us" and "them" doesn't have to be black and white. It can be a fuzzy distinction. Karen talks about the line, a tipping point, where we do whatever we want to "them". But I'm not sure if there is such a line. For some people, perhaps. But in general we tend to have outgoing concentric rings of "us" and "them", our inner circle of close friends and family, then acquaintances/coworkers, neighbors, people from the same city, then state, then country. And we do have a species line, but it's fuzzy, too. We have laws to treat certain animals humanely, even ones we eat, but those rights degrade generally in proportion to the animal's intelligence.

When it comes to our fellow humans, how widely do we cast that net, though? Traditional liberalism, it seems to me, doesn't make a hard distinction between your next door neighbor and someone in another country.

There seems to be an inherent contradiction in believing that all people should be granted certain rights and treated with equality, and the notion that balks at saying other societies need to reform. Many liberals seem to think this latter position reeks of cultural imperialism, and on more than one occasion on this blog people have dragged out something along the lines of "Who are we to tell them how to live?"

To reiterate some examples from above, many liberals are against the death penalty in my home state (incidentally, so am I). Would it be reasonable for me to tell you, if you are not a Texas to f--k off and mind your own business? After all, who are you to tell us how to live? Would those of you living in other states be upset if Texas somehow outlawed abortion? Or reinstituted slavery? If so, why are we included inside your circle, while foreign countries are not?

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