Why You Can't Handle It:
The Human Response to Meeting ET
(originally published Nov 2010)
Both here and abroad there is a rising swell of hostility toward immigrants. This mounting negativity towards "those from somewhere else" threatens to shake the very foundations of a multicultural society. We even call immigrants "aliens." But what if the immigrants were "real" aliens? How would you act towards someone who is not from another country – but from another planet? Someone not just of a different skin color – but whose outward appearance is wholly unfamiliar to you? Can we possibly forecast the human response to meeting ET? In so doing, do we also provide ourselves with the answer to the ever-pressing question of why the extraterrestrial has not made open contact with us?
HOW WOULD YOU DEAL WITH IT?
Others have examined the potential impact that open contact with aliens would have on science, economics, religion, politics and similar institutions. What is of greater interest here is how the individual would behave and respond. How would you personally "handle" your interaction with the alien? It would likely impact your innermost self, your essential nature. Might it have other unforeseen consequences?
Would it bring out a deep-seated fear of foreigners, strangers and of the unknown that you did not know that you even had? Would it evoke feelings of inadequacy or diminish your sense of worth and importance as a human being?
APPEARANCE IS EVERYTHING
If you were to encounter a living, breathing entity like those pictured at left, your immediate reaction would likely be one of mild revulsion. Imagine if its appearance were even stranger to you? Though the alien can likely appear as it wishes, its "true" inherent appearance is not human. They may be humanoid or be able to disguise themselves as human. They may even be "future humans." But they most assuredly will not be identical to us. For a society increasingly concerned with "looks" and with "first impressions" - the visiting alien would be at a distinct disadvantage from the outset.
When we view the grossly overweight or anorexic, we are repelled. When we see the deformed, we stare. You would scarcely know what to say or how to act towards a pygmy suddenly seated in your suburban living room. An encounter with a sentient being who may appear utterly unlike you in very fundamental ways may bring out
very fundamental fears and anxieties. Many people may simply not have the ability within their psyche to interact and communicate with a creature wholly out of range of their experience. How would one feel in front of a sentient and conversant creature whose size, bodily proportions, features and coloring are not even Homo Sapiens? Some would recoil. Others would be unable to focus to talk. All would be initially shocked or "jarred" – and few would be able to get over it.
Conversely, we may find the visiting alien to be stunningly attractive. Perhaps more attractive than other humans. And this too would bring troubles. It may bring about feelings of inadequacy ("I am nothing compared to them") or of unhealthy obsession, envy or jealousy. We have all said stupid or incoherent things because we are overwhelmed by another's appearance. Mankind would be "overwhelmed" by the alien's appearance – whether we found it aesthetically pleasing or hideously revolting.
And it is vital to understand: Humans have only ever had conversation with other humans. It is all we have ever known. Our very frame of reference on this would have to shift. It would be disorienting in the extreme to intelligently converse with a physical being who is non-human. I do not think that most people could ever become accustomed to holding an intelligent dialog even with familiar creatures. Few for instance could handle talking with an upright grizzly or with a camel. Few still could handle speaking with creatures who are not even from Earth.
If the visiting alien's image (especially its facial features) and its countenance, carriage, mannerisms and dress were unpleasing to us or markedly different from our own – many of our own would reject it. Though some would be awed by their appearance, many would abhor it. They would experience angst, distress – and even uncontrollable aversion – based simply on looks alone. And this physical dissonance would be compounded if we were to view and interact with people who do not look like us and who are non-emotional (or who express emotion in ways in which we are unfamiliar). Humans of course express their emotions on their faces.
NATIONALISM, ETHNIC IDENTITY, AND THE ALIEN
A "real" alien would be the Ultimate Immigrant. He would be viewed as not only "not from our country" – but not even from our own world. "Nationalism" is endemic to all countries today. It is an engrained ideological apparatus where citizens and the nation-state find common loyalties and identification. We have all cultivated a devotion to the interests and culture of the respective nations in which we live. "Ethnic Identity" is our shared heritage. It can be based on such things as ancestry, traditions, language or territory.
Both of these powerful concepts – nationalism and ethnic identity – contribute to our sense of belonging. But the alien does not "belong." The alien does not fit any of our people's sense of nationalism or of ethnic identity. The alien would not "fit in" to any existing professional, social, racial, legal, class or caste system. In fact it may well be that they do not share anything with us with which we are familiar. They would be distrusted. Many of us would find it difficult to cultivate a sense of kinship with them. How would you act towards a "stateless" person who does not have a past, an identity or any "ways of being" with which you can relate?
Nationalism and ethnic identity can lead to a "healthy pride." But unchecked it can also lead to a negative view of other cultures. It can promote an "Us versus Them" attitude which would not welcome the visiting alien. One could envision the uprising of a "One Earth, One People" movement in the wake of the visiting alien.
WE'RE NOT THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING ANYMORE
Medieval society actively resisted the notion that the Earth was round and that it revolved around the Sun. They even killed over it. Though today we universally accept this reality, we still somehow believe that Man is the Center of Everything. We believe that Man exists unchallenged – that he has dominion over his world and its creatures.
What if we were suddenly forced into a new "Copernican Revolution?" Many would indeed "revolt" if they were to become aware of Others in the Universe who are far beyond in time and technology. We would be forced to realize and accept that we share the world. Some of us could not "adjust" to this massive paradigm shift. We would have to come to terms with the fact that we are not uniquely intelligent. It is a "model" which could not be handled by many.
T.S. Eliot once noted that "humankind cannot bear very much reality." And so too it would be if we were made aware of the alien reality by actually meeting them. We would then realize that we are not the Center of Everything anymore. Many simply could not bear it.
And it could have even deeper adverse repercussions. Many would no doubt suffer from "future shock." Future shock is a condition of physical distress and psychological disorientation which is brought on by the inability to cope with rapid or sudden change. Acknowledgement of the alien would necessarily mean that we must also acknowledge that there are those who are older than humankind, who are smarter and wiser than us, and who are more highly advanced on every technical level. They have already "been there and done that." They are "better" than us. Our history is small and insignificant compared to theirs.
Would that hamper our drive to discover and innovate on our own? Would we then individually and collectively question or minimize our very value and worth in the Universe? What would it be like to be ever the student and never the teacher?
And even if they were shown to be non-malevolent, we would continually question the alien's "intentions." It would create an underlying sense of anxiety and concern. Knowing that they know more than us would be a sense of eternal frustration. If their technology is not shared, that sense of anxiety and suspicion would be intensified.
WHY THEY DON'T MAKE OPEN CONTACT: XENOPHOBIA
In ancient times as well as in primitive tribal states, the "foreigner" was viewed as an outlaw, enemy or criminal. Even today there is that same subtle sense that is instilled in many of us. We humans seem forever
compelled to draw division. We need to box and label "them" in order to deal with "them." We often blame them. Over the centuries the Irish, Jews, Italians, Black and Latinos have all taken their turns on the bigotry hot-seat. The visiting alien would surely be next in line.
As humans, we seek comfort. And the visiting alien takes us far out of our comfort zone. The fear of moving toward something that is not known is inherent in most all of us. If someone does not know the other person's culture, religion or race – prejudice emerges. And this prejudice stems from the fear of how such exposure might change ourselves. We would be frightened of the huge change that the visiting alien would represent.
The Alien recognizes that the Human is historically unable to get along with other humans of other races, creeds, colors and countries. They see that we even find it difficult to deal with those of a different age group, gender or sexual identity. They see how we avoid those with physical or mental challenge. We build up inaccurate or even hateful mental images of those things to which we are not exposed, about those who are not like us. Sometimes we even demonize them.
Until we are proven able to "get along" as a human race, non-human races will not make open contact with us. They see that humans still cannot even understand each other – and for that reason we would be entirely unable to understand the visiting alien. We are still dealing with the tremendous challenge of being human. We are not ready for non-humans. Until we change our inner selves, our outer world will forever be in conflict.
Until this personal transformation, Man will remain apart from the diversity and full splendor that is the Universe. The alien knows that man cannot handle his own society. And because of this, Man's invitation to celestial society is still a long way away.