Sign up for my newsletter to be among the first to learn of upcoming titles!

[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.

[culture] The ethics of contact

I had the radio on briefly during my lunch break, and learned the startling (to me) information that there may be as many as 60 different “uncontacted tribes” in the upper Amazon Basin. Apparently about 45 are in Brazil, and 15 in Peru. The discussion was that Peru is more interested in opening resource exploitation than in cultural protection, while Brazil has an active, long-term policy to keep their “uncontacted tribes” safely isolated. Many of these tribes are thought to be the descendants of refugees and tribal elements fleeing violent contact in prior centuries, and virtually all of them discourage outsiders by violent and even fatal means. Some of them are referred to as “The People of the Arrow.”

The past 500 years of European history have drawn some stark lessons in the ethics of contact. At least part of the Brazilian policy is based on the abysmal healthcare consequences of contact — past tribal contacts have lead to epidemic deaths within weeks of first encounter not unlike the general decimation of tribes in the Americas in the early 16th century. (See 1491 by Charles C. Mann [ Amazon ] for more on this.)

I began turning over the ethics of contact in my head. European, and specifically Anglophone, history on this topic is staggeringly ugly, more so than most of us are willing to admit. Yet at the same time, I am bothered by the notion of leaving people without the opportunity to choose sanitation, healthcare, reduced infant mortality, education access, increased life expectancy, and the whole array of life choices attendant on modern culture when it is functioning correctly.

It is very hard for me to see what is right here. The question is essentially moot for me personally — I am highly unlikely to ever need to make a choice regarding an uncontacted tribe. At the same time, I can argue a number of sides of this question with equal passion. And I do appreciate the value of an extremely conservative, preservationist approach to the uncontacted tribes. Some mistakes can never be undone.

I believe I shall explore this in fiction. Your thoughts?

Bonus question: Would differing immune system requirements be one of the greatest dangers to a time traveller?