[culture] More on the ethics of contact

An observation, and a meta-observation, on my recent post about the ethics of contact.

Observation: Some very good, thoughtful comments have showed up in the thread at jlake.com, including several from people living in South America who have much closer exposure to the issue than most of us in North America.

Meta-observation: Some reactions to my post, both in my comment threads and elsewhere, have been fairly horrified, along the lines of “how could you consider such a thing?” Actually, my intention in my original post was to be very considered, and I believe I concluded with a very specific point against making contact. At the same time, I also note a tendency to conflate a pre-modern life with wisdom or closeness to the planet. That strikes me as a kind of romanticized prejudgment that’s potentially misplaced.

There’s also an implicit challenge (not in a confrontational sense, but in an evidentiary sense) to my standing in even having an opinion — analogous to one that surfaces when white people talk about minority issues, or men talk about women’s issues, for example. The same tension exists in fiction, balancing between writing what you know (middle aged white men, in my case) and stepping outside yourself and thus being vulnerable to criticism for “not getting it right” — I’ve most run into that when writing about Native American characters. It’s a reasonable challenge for me as a writer, as a blogger-cum-cultural-commentator, and as a human being; one that keeps me mentally and emotionally on my toes.

I will say on the topic of standing that I was born and raised in the Third World. I spent much of my childhood frequently encountering people for whom a dumpster to sleep in would have been a vast improvement. (I was always wrapped in a cloak of Western privilege, with a dry bedroom, air conditioning and good food.) Close observation of destitution has leached the romance out of “being closer to the environment” for me. While I am just as much a product of my culture as an uncontacted tribesperson is of theirs, I am not wrapped so closely in my own cultural assumptions that I can’t see them for what they are.