Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake
jaylake

[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?

Originally published at jlake.com. You can comment here or there.

Tags: culture, fiction
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