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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Marcus Tullius Tiro - Common Ground, or the Lack Thereof


"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.

The Hierarchy

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-
decided-to-kill, and ramen means Intelligence-that-we-haven't-decided-to-kill-yet." As a response of sorts, the character who first constructs the Hierarchy aknowledges this in one of her later works:

"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.


TacoDave said...

Great post, Mr. T. :-)

I see the current war in much the same way, as I believe most conservatives do. Our moral ideologies are so different from our 'enemy' that no real communication is possible.

Here is a blog I write for that examines society, media, religion, etc.

Maxwell Evans said...

There's a difficulty, though, when you apply this principle to our current enemy...

We can't seem to decide who he/she is, where they live, or if they're really our enemy.

I mean really. In the simplest terms, who exactly are we fighting right now? Who or what are we fighting for?

Victory in Iraq will be impossible until we decide how to answer those questions. Imagine a board-game with no victory conditions.

For instance have you ever "won" the original Tetris? The levels cycle forever, so victory must be defined by the player. The game, itself, never ends. Is victory a high score? Is victory beating level 9? If you don't decide what winning is, the only way the game ends is when you lose.

THAT is what I see when I look at our conduct of the war in Iraq. A Tetris player with no victory condition.

Paul said...

But ultimately you forgot that the moral difference is in the head of the person or group placing the label, not the group being labeled. If you read Card's statements in your own article more precisely, it is not an excuse to invade Islamic countries but a moral command to understand radical Islam or any other group with whom is said to be inevitable. I write this fully realizing that Card himself has forgotten this.

Maxwell Evans said...

"But ultimately you forgot that the moral difference is in the head of the person or group placing the label, not the group being labeled."

True, it's easy to forget that distinction, and it's an important one... what was the quote "what we learned was that identifying another group as Ramen didn't mean they'd reached a threshold of maturity, it meant we had" or something like that.

Maxwell Evans said...

ah, right, "When we declare an alien species to be Ramen, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity, it means that we have."

Tiro had it in the article of course, and here I went scrounging around for the book. Silly of me.

Anonymous said...


I disagree that Card has forgotten the point he was making. I believe that he has realized a subtle point that you are missing. That in order to prevent war, not only do you need to classify the enemy as something in which you can relate, but they must do the same thing in reverse. I don't consider Iraqi's or Arabs, or any of those groups to be Varelsa, but the hard core islamist fundamentalists DO view everyone else as such. Consequently, we cannot find common ground for real communication.

It takes 2 sides to have a conversation, and if the west is the only side actually attempting to communicate, then the islamists are the ones causing the war. We may have struck first, but only because they have made war inevitable by their unwillingness/inability to communicate based on their fundamental and (at the moment) unchanging world view.

Maxwell Evans said...


Well argued. I'm going to have to think about that one for awhile. For the moment, I think I agree with you.

Chris said...

A fascinating post, Maxwell. I like Card's hierarchy, too. I wonder if there will ever come a time when we have occasion to apply it not merely to inter-human relations, but in the inter-species context for which the novel intended it.

I hear what Josh is saying, but I also believe that if we allow the Islamists to set the agenda-- that is, warfare without conversation-- then the cycle will never be broken. There are two very different philosophies for dealing with varelse in competition with each other in the Card novels. One is that when confronted with varelse, you strike so hard and fast that they are utterly destroyed and can never harm you again. The other is that no matter how hard they try to destroy you, you refuse to go on the offensive or give up on communication. In so doing you prove yourself to be ramen rather than varelse, and hopefully eventually turn your enemy into ramen as well. The former approach was Ender's strategy when he killed Bonzo and wiped out the Buggers. The latter was Ender's approach in dealing with the Descoladores. It was also the approach of Jesus, who said "do not resist the oppressor" and "turn the other cheek".

The point of these two strategies is that they break the cycle of violent retaliation. Unless you want to be locked in continual warfare, you need to have the stomach for one or the other.

Maxwell Evans said...

(I would like to emphasize/remind that this article belongs to Tiro, not to myself)

"Unless you want to be locked in continual warfare, you need to have the stomach for one or the other."

I think you stated the challenge very aptly here. Perhaps the problem with our approach to the Islamic world isn't so much that we're failing at one or the other of these approaches, but that we're attempting both simultaneously and consequently failing to accomplish either.

Personally, I'd like to think that I'm more the 'refuse to fight back' sort, but I'm not sure that would actually hold up if I were put in a relevant situation. I do believe, however, that it is the more enlightened and 'adult' point of view. There's also the issue of "gone forever," which is to say that things that are destroyed may otherwise have been assets later on. One of the major issues with Rainforest destruction, for example, is that when species go extinct, we can't use them. We may even lose long strains of example DNA which might have taught us something later on, or provided cures for diseases.

I also can't help but think that it is the only way to demonstrate true power. If you refuse to fight back, you are saying to your enemy either that he is so trivial that he does not merit your attention, or so inhuman that you do not acknowledge him as anything other than a force of nature. A father grabs his child's thrown fist and says "Stop" for instance, rather than hitting the child back.

By going on the offensive, you acknowledge that the target is a danger to you, which gives them value.

Chris said...

You make an interesting point about giving your enemies value, but I can't help but wonder if there aren't better ways to do so. Like concerted efforts at outreach and dialogue, for example. I'm definitely more of a don't hit back kind of guy, too, although I'll admit I waffle a bit. In extreme cases, I think some draconian measures may be required. Like Israel airstriking Iran's nuclear facilities, for example.

Incidentally, I poked around Card's website and found where he explained in more detail his own views of this:

Chris said...

Here's another:

DannydeBelden said...

While it is true that half the Hierarchy equation depends on the judging species, one shouldn't forget that to every debate, there are two types of radical: one determined to zero concessions and war on those who differ, and one unwilling to conceive anything as varselse, totally committed to admitted everyone as ramen, completely ignoring any barriers, hostilities, or lethalness of the species judged. Just food for thought.

Maxwell Evans said...

It's interesting that we have here teased out two opposed, but seemingly equally valid philosophical problems.

1. You have to choose one or the other, or you fail at both.

2. If you do only one or the other, you fail at both.

I feel like perhaps the best explanation for this is that there are ranges of success between each extremity and the middle, while both extremities *and* the middle fail:



with a representing the success track of the "everyone's Ramen" extreme, and b representing the success track of the "everyone's Varelse" extreme.

For examples, I feel that The Roman Empire was a critical success of track (b) and the Mongol empire was a critical success of track (a).

The Roman Empire imposed itself on places it took over, destroyed anything completely incompatible and absorbed the rest.

The Mongol Empire, conversely, took over the leading positions in places it conquered, leaving the existing governmental structure largely unchanged. They sought control, rather than cultural continuity.

In each case, they made exceptions to the rule where necessary.

Rome conquered Greece, but then rather than make Greece Roman, Rome absorbed Grecian culture, more-or-less *became* Greek and went around exporting the Greek-ness everywhere it went.

The Mongol Empire, if it encountered a city unwilling to surrender, would slaughter everyone inside who was taller than the wheel of a cart. Once they did this a few times, surrender more or less became the norm, and most of their subsequent conquests were almost bloodless.

If the Mongols had not imposed harsh sanctions on non-cooperating cities, their conquest would have been halted much earlier. If Rome hadn't absorbed Grecian academics, it wouldn't have been much of anything at all.

If neither had made exceptions to their general rule, in other words, they would have failed as surely as if they had no general rule at all.

jaskij said...

Great thanks MTT for the article and to others for the discussion. I'm in my last year of high school and as part of my exams have to make a presentations - one of the books I use is "Speaker for the Dead". You would be suprise how little there is about the second part of Ender's series.

Joining your discussion: the border between ramen and varelse is very fluid. As an example I would like to point out an example from another book: Lem's "Solaris" ( ) the alien there is a whole living planet. At first it seems clearly varelse, BUT the scientific team sent to investigate made some round-about tries at contacting it and succeeded... Hell, I lack words to describe it correctly without getting into too much details :/ anyways, what Lem states is that people view the universe through the prism of themselves (I've seen a phrase: "anthropomorphic room of mirrors") and that there are beings so alien and so inconceivable, that human cannot even begin to grasp them by our sheer nature. Look at most SF movies/games/etc. - all the "aliens" posses, if not humanoid shape, then at least human-like intelligence.

My point is, that, although there really is INABILITY of communication between, let's say, western people and orthodox muslims, but that doesn't mean they are Varelse for us. We can more or less imagine the way they think, or try to. But where would you begin such imaginations, if it would come to a living planet?

Hopefully I didn't get too tangled up in my thoughts and you can understand me.

Oh, btw, did you know that this post made it to Card's website? (that's how I found it)