Would you like to live in a world inhabited by people who looked like giant margarita glasses, aptly dubbed Margaritaville, who worshipped (you guessed it!) Jimmy Buffett as a god? Or how about the Republic of South Paw where left-handers live on a diet of laundry lint and right-handers are shunned? Maybe Fruitopia sounds sweet, ruled over by King Jack O’Mellon, where criminals are recycled into fruit fertilizer? No? Then how about Bootyville, inhabited by one-eyed pirate aliens? Each semester my Intro to Sociology students have to get in a group and create their own society – from scratch. No preconceptions, no boundaries other than the limits of their own imaginations. They have to create a society complete with people, a language, a history, a political hierarchy, socialization practices, cultural traditions, etc. They all think it’s a lot of fun, of course – arguably the best group activity of the whole semester. But the novelty of the exercise masks its more somber message.
We all create our own societies – you and I – each day that we walk this planet. In many ways, the world we live in is a fiction that we’ve created to suit our purposes, our own version of Middle Earth replete with heroes and villains, complicated languages and alliances, and tales of friendship, love and bloodshed. Like the master storyteller Tolkien, the world we create may have some semblance of reality, but mostly it is a reflection of our fears and desires, more allegory than substance. Like the fantastical creations of my students, the societies we create are inconsistent and sometimes even bizarre (after all, is a lint soufflé any more absurd than a Congress that refuses to create laws?!)
The point of all this rambling (yes, there is most definitely a point!) is that we – all of us – each in our own little patch of the planet, play a part in creating the Before Contact society that we live in. Even if we choose to do nothing, to abstain – we have still made a choice. Societies are created; they don’t just passively or magically appear. Tolkien and my students were lucky; they only had to create their worlds on paper. Real worlds are constructed both with bricks of concrete and with bricks of bigotry or tolerance, greed or generosity, dishonesty or integrity. You get the picture. Our world doesn’t need to fit neatly together like Tolkien’s epic, nor does it need to be as hare-brained as many of my students’ creations. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the societies we create now lead us into a future, heavy with the possibility of Contact? Bravely and boldly would be great; but I’d be happy with slowly and meekly if done with an honest spirit.
So, class, get into your groups and start brainstorming! What should our world look like in these (short? or many?) years Before Contact?