"As the old proverb says, 'like readily consorts with like.'" - Cicero
In his Ender's Game series, which began as a short story published in 1977, the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card constructs a philosophical framework for understanding 'otherness,' which he termed 'The Hierarchy of Alienness.' The Hierarchy is one of those supreme examples of philosophy: something which largely unknown, or at least unnamed, before one hears it expressed, wholly self-evident after one has heard it, and largely non-trivial.
With much gratitude to Wikipedia and to card himself, I present the Hierarchy here, with some notes, first: within Ender's Game universe, the hierarchy originated in the fictional The History of Wutan in Trodheim, and, though Card describes the terms as coming from the Norwegian-derived language of Trondheim, they are (except for one) actually Swedish term. Additionally, within the Ender's Game universe, the Hierarchy uses the term 'alien' to refer to humans who are from different cultures, as well as actual aliens, in the sense of differing species. I hope you will agree with me, though, in that the hierarchy is still offers some relevent insights into relations within our own species.
Utlanning (from Swedish: "outlander" or "foreigner") - these individuals, while 'strangers' in the traditional sense, are members of a person's own species or culture. Americans from different cities, Europeans from different countries, or, say college students from different dormitories at the same school could all be considered utlanning, depending on the level of detail one is considering.
Framling ("stranger", from the Swedish främling) - this term refers to strangers who are of the same species, though from another world or culture, one who is "both substantially similar to and significantly different from ourselves." In the Ender's Game universe, this term is used to describe humans living on different worlds, but it could be used to describe the relationship between, say, natives of Britain and America, who share, for the most part, a common language and a largely common history.
Ramen (Card's original term) - these are strangers of who are of another species, and yet capable of communication and peaceful coexistence with, in Card's model, Homo sapiens sapiens -- although this does not ensure communication will take place; nor does such communication ensure peaceful coexistence. While Card uses the term to describe the relations between humans and certain species of aliens in his books, one could take this term to refer to, say, Americans and Chinese: while the majority of the members do not share a common language, and many of their customs differ significantly, there are many who can and do communicate between the cultures (and many individuals who are simultaneously members of both communities), and, obviously, peaceful coexistence is possible. From a slightly different angle, men and women (and, by this, I mean the standard, traditional Western view, which for the most part sees gender and sex as the same, etc.) might consider each other to be ramen. The two groups are certainly different in fundamental, physical ways, but there is a large body of shared culture between the groups (of course, one could make an equally strong argument for these groups viewing each other as framling, etc.).
Varelse (from Swedish: "creature") - pronouced 'var-ELSS-uh,' this term refers to strangers from another species who are simply not capable of communication with Homo sapiens sapiens. In the truest sense, they are aliens, "completely incapable of common ground with humanity." In Card's view, a meeting with true varelse must eventually, over time, lead to war.
Although I found the entire Hierarchy interesting when I first encountered it, the concept of the "ramen/varelse border," if you will, struck me as fascinating. In the Ender's Game universe, humanity is engaged in a war with a species that is deemed varelse at first, although later war is averted when the two groups manage to develop a framework for communication. Later, Card describes the differences between terms as originating not from the 'stranger' being named, but the one doing the naming. At one point, one of Card's characters remarks, somewhat cynically, that "As far as I can tell, intelligence is intelligence. Varelse is just the term Valentine invented to mean Intelligence-that-we've-
"The difference between ramen and varelse is not in the creature judged, but in the creature judging. When we declare an alien species to be raman, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have."
—Demosthenes, Letter to the Framlings
In terms of internal human affairs, the entire concept seemed to finally give a name to that which had constantly bothered me about the current 'war' between Western/American culture and radical Islam. What if it truly is the case that, even though we can find a collection of words and a grammatical framework that allows us to speak, we cannot communicate? Is it, therefore, not possible to even consider reconciling our differences and laying down arms until we find a common tongue - not a question of Arabic or English, but a question of ideologies?
Of course, the concept is certainly not limited to this one case. The territorial and sovreignty disputes, now and historically, in Ireland, Georgia, the Middle East, the Balkans, and so on -- many of these are between groups who often share some language or culture, but is this enough? Are there insurmountable differences in fundamental world-views that not only make peace difficult, but outright impossible?
That said, at first blush, this may not seem like (or, in fact, be) a new idea. The concept of needing some common ground, a shared framework, before conflict resolution con proceed is old news, even to those who are new to the issues. What I see as novel is the idea that it may not simply be a question of choice: the answer may not simply be that both parties should 'grow up,' make some concessions, and at least agree on some basic rules. Card's hierarchy takes this a step further and says that this may not actually be possible - that under certain circumstances, we lack even the ability to image what common ground would look like - and under these circumstances, war is inevitable.
In a sense, we see this in our daily lives, especially in the twin fields of politics and religion. Though the vast majority of us see the world in a mix of objective and subjective terms, share at least some common ground with others, and firmly believe that there are areas of grey in between the black and white, there are those who know a singular concept of Truth. This is not to say that either world-view is correct: practically by definition, the concept of 'correctness' is fundamentally intertwined with truth, and, if we allow for some common framework, I, for one, believe that practically any viewpoint can be argued. But in the discussion on, say, drug policy, there are those who hold views which are fundamentally, irreconcilibly different, for whom the basic axioms and the rules one can apply to them are in conflict.
As before, there are many things still to say, and many ideas still to examine. I hope, for now, though, you take something new away from the Hierarchy, as I did.
As always, your most humble and obedient servant,
Marcus Tullius Tiro
Tomorrow: The long-delayed article - Israel.