Sunday, May 24, 2009

Putting the Shoe on the Other Foot

Many years ago when I was still at school, I read a short story that forever changed how I think about myself in relation to others. Of late, I have had much reason to remember that story, so I'd be honoured if you would allow me to share it with you.

Let me give you fair warning on 2 accounts though; firstly, it was not a work of literature from the western canon to begin with; secondly, given my memory & literary talents, my retelling of it may do it great injustice. It was one of the stories in a paperback science fiction anthology, the type that came with lurid drawings of spacemen with rayguns fighting aliens on the cover. If you're still keen to listen, I'll tell it to you, with my apologies to the author.

The story went something like this:

Sometime far in the future, humans are routinely exploring the universe & interacting with alien civilizations from all over. From time to time, new alien civilizations are discovered, and Earth sends its diplomatic envoys to establish peaceful relations with them (If you are a fan of Star Trek, you will know exactly the type of situation it was).

As the story begins, one such envoy (let's call him Dudley) is arriving at a recently discovered planet (let's call it Zeta). Dudley is a rising star in the Earth Diplomatic Service. His skills at understanding & assimilating alien languages & cultures has put him on the fast track. Hence this prestigious high profile assignment.

Planet Zeta is unique in many ways. For starters, it is a very small closed system, with no natural resources whatsoever. Therefore everything, from exhaled air to dead bodies to raw sewage, had to be recycled to provide the citizens with air, water & food to live on (like a more extreme, yuckier version of Singapore & Newater). Without this recycling, the entire planet would surely die a horrible death.

Zetans are also unique in their exquisitely refined culture & social system, which has evolved to support its recycling ethos. Reflecting its scarcity of resources, Zetan culture places the highest value on maintaining physical & spiritual beauty, cleanliness & purity. It revolves around the need to keep the planet well ordered with every Zetan in his or her place.

All the recycling was the sole responsibility of the Cleaner, of whom there was only one. The Cleaner does his job in a plant deep in the bowels of the planet, so the surface dwellers do not have to put up with the stench & the filth of the recycling process.

As Dudley arrives, he is feted by the ministers. The food, drink & entertainment are exquisite, unlike any he had seen in his extensive travels in the universe. The performing & fine arts had developed to such an extent that in comparison, earth's best performers & artists were rank amateurs. The Zetan language was like music to the ears, highly developed, with every inflection & gesture rich in meaning. Being surrounded by such sublime beauty & refinement, Dudley was certainly going to enjoy his posting here.

Later that evening, the Zetan ministers urgently visit Dudley at his sumptuous quarters, and beseech him for help. The life or death of the entire planet is in his hands. The Cleaner is refusing to carry out his job, threatening an imminent breakdown of the planet's delicate balance. Would Dudley be able to carry out some urgent but simple operations at the plant? All the instructions on which dials to turn & levers to pull were all prepared in a handy leaflet.

From his thorough knowledge of the culture, Dudley knows that a surface dweller could never ever operate the Cleaning plant or communicate with the Cleaner, as this would cause him to be permanently defiled. It would be the gravest of insults to even suggest it to a surface dweller.

Eager to make his mark with his hosts, Dudley makes his way to depths of the planet, suitably clothed & armed. The underworld is a total contrast to the surface. The stench is overpowering, even through his respirator. The dull roar of the plant assaults his entire being. Surely this is Hell, as the surface is Heaven.

As he approaches the console, in the distance, Dudley sees the cleaner as a dark, hulking presence. His heart races as he unsheathes his raygun & fires a warning shot over the recalcitrant Cleaner. The Cleaner take a step back. Dudley quickly changes the settings on the console as per the leaflet, all the while keeping the gun trained on the Cleaner. He locks in the settings & turns to leave this hellhole for the surface. As he runs for the exit, out of the corner of his eye he sees the hideous thing huddled next to the console.

As he makes it back to the surface, he sees that all the Zetan ministers had assembled on the upper deck to welcome him back to the surface. As Dudley waves & smiles broadly at them, he sees Charlie, his old assistant from Earth arrive & be greeted by the ministers. Dudley tries to join them on the deck, but he can't get past the steel bars of the locked gate. He calls out to the Charlie & the ministers, but even though they are a mere 3 metres away, nobody acknowledges him. Dudley reaches out to them between the steel bars, and the ministers (and Charlie) physically recoil back. A expression of pure disgust & repulsion crosses their angelic countenances as they continue their reception for Charlie. As the ministers escort Charlie to his sumptuous quarters, Charlie, with a Zetan gesture reserved for slaves, tosses a piece of crumpled paper through the steel bars. It reads, "Don't speak to me or touch me. The Zetans have rejected you as Earth envoy as you have defiled yourself. I am your replacement. You have been demoted and hereby ordered to return to Earth for debriefing. Get on the ship NOW & don't touch anything before you are on board."

When I was reading this story for the first time all those years ago, this ending made me feel as if I had been punched in the gut. I was not upset because the character whom I had identified with was demoted, or that the Zetans had played him for a fool; rather I was shaken because I had come to realize something unpleasant but significant about myself as a human being. All the while that I had identified with Dudley & his HiPo ways, I had not spared a single thought for the Cleaner's situation. All I wanted was for Dudley to get the job done & return to his Heaven on the surface. In my mind, I managed to rationalize that any system which was to my benefit was fine. I couldn't (or didn't want to) see the unfairness & injustice of the system until the shoe was on the other foot. Why was I unable to care about anything beyond my own nose?

Ever since that day, I have had a simple rule that I follow. Whenever I look at any issue & try to distinguish right from wrong, and decide my best course of action, I put the shoe on the other foot. I imagine that the situation was reversed, & try to make sense of the emotions & impulses that come rushing in. I ask myself, what are the principles that have been upheld or violated? How do these principles stack up with or against each other?

Following this rule has not made me a rich or powerful person. Far from it. However, I can say with certainty that it has afforded me a clear conscience, something that I hold very dear indeed.

Why have I been reminded of this story of late? When I surf the Malaysian blogosphere, I see things that make me wonder whether the bloggers/authors have considered how they themselves would have felt if the tables had been turned. There are vicious personal attacks on opponents as well as attacks on their wives & children. They abuse & slander their victims with crude stories & vile language, all so that their party or cause can "win". They propose solutions & systems that benefit their own cause, but which violate every principle of fairness & equity; if the shoe was on the other foot, they could never accept it ever.

Whenever I read such a blog, invariably I form a poor impression of the author. If his intention was to persuade me to his way of thinking, he has failed miserably. Only his diehard unquestioning supporters will stay with him, even fence-sitters will be repulsed & go to the other side. Worse, his opponents will have all the evidence they need to justify their low opinion of him.

Sadly, I see blogs of all persuasions doing this, including some bloggers whom I had come to respect. I wonder if we Malaysians have forgotten how to empathize with others who may not share our point of view.

Thus ends my rant :-(

On another note, when I first read this story, I was at an age when knowing the author's name, or even the title was of no importance. What mattered most was reading it as fast as possible to see how it ended. I regret now not having noted down any of the information that would have allowed me to track down this story & read it again. By any chance if anyone out there has read this story and could share its title or author's name with me, I would be most grateful to you.

Malaysian Heart

No comments:

Post a Comment

How to Paste Text into Comment Boxes

Google seems to have disabled pasting text (including ctrl-v) into blogger comments boxes in Firefox. The good news is that:
1. You can still copy paste using Internet Explorer (I successfully tried it with IE7)
2. With Firefox, you can still "Drag and Drop" text into the comment form. I have successfully dragged and dropped text from MS Word, websites (HTML) and from ScribeFire (plain text and HTML). Just do the following:

a) reduce the size of the window you want to take the text from, and place it near the comment box
b) Highlight the required text with cursor
c) Click on the highlighted text and drag it over to the comment box and drop it there.

Happy commenting!