"Her name is Alejandra Maria Yaotl, and she is desperate to squat here, in this ribbon of grass between armies, to defecate. But her knees do not permit squatting, and she knows the desperation is only a great, killing mass in her bowels making demands of the failing body it consumes from the inside out, a little more every day. So she walks; strands of white hair blowing about her eyes, bent spine unable to straighten, papery hand gripping the rough wooden knob of a cane. The punishing sun shines down on a spill of engine oil, a pool of chlorophyl, a gob of intestine crushed into the soil. Behind, there is a shuttle with a weeping grandson at the helm who begged her to stay home and die in peace. Ahead, there are the towering gates of a city-state that teaches its people how to perform it, a continental theatre of violence caked in the blood of its sacrificial victims, the place where she will die one way or another." - D is for Duel, forthcoming in D is for Dinosaur
About nine years ago, I read a problematic book entitled How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living by Rushworth M. Kidder. In it, Kidder presents simplistic ethical dilemmas wherein the answer to the problem is embedded in the question itself and uses these to argue that humanity shares a set of core values. He further argues that everything outside these core values is a right vs. wrong issue. In short, he uses trite ethical dilemmas to argue for metanorms and moral objectivism.
My immediate thought, because this is the way my brain works, was "Tell that to the Aztecs."
My second thought, because this is the way my brain works, was, "What if there were a far-future New Tenochtitlan run by a sociopathic, transhuman emperor who volunteered to be sacrificed by anyone who could beat him at an ethical challenge?"
I have, perhaps, shared too much about the way my brain works at this point.
I didn't know much about the Aztecs at the time except that human sacrifice was an important component of their religion. So I bought an interesting and terrifying book entitled City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization by Davíd Carrasco. What I found in that text was that Aztec civilization was far more violent than I had ever suspected, and indeed "The mythology, shape, sculpture, and ceremony associated with the Templo Mayor reveal that more than any other single structure, it embodied the Aztecs' vision of their place in the world. But this supreme sense of emplacement was characterized by immense aggressions, death by obsidian knife, and signs of anxiety, hatred, and fear of the outsiders. When we examine the mythic expressions of this vision of place, we find that the whole language of symbols and social structure that followed were filled with messages of religious violence, sacrifice, and even monumental sacrifice of enemies, slaves, women, and children." In other parts of the text, Carrasco writes about the cultivated cruelty of the Aztecs, especially among its Jaguar and Eagle warriors, and details the punishments leveled against priests who failed to carry out the sacrifices of children because of an emotional inability to do so.
I doubt very much that Kidder would want to be transported to the Tenochtitlan of the 15th Century with only his faith in metanorms and moral objectivism to rely upon.
But this brings me to the salient point of the story I'm writing. If we believe in metanorms, who decides what they are? And if we believe in moral objectivism, who decides what is right and what is wrong? More importantly, once these metanorms and objective morals are established in a society, what does it take to change them when they turn out to be horribly misguided?
As I write this blog entry, transgender people are being targeted in the American southeast with laws that require them to use the public washrooms designated for their sex at birth. But that isn't what's really happening, is it? What's really happening is that a group of conservative people have decided together (metanorms) that it is wrong to be transgender (moral objectivism) and are endeavoring to enforce these values upon others. The consequence of this is that transgender people in the American southeast cannot use public washrooms and must live in a society where others are encouraged to marginalize and threaten them. Worse, these ideas are dug in like ticks, and it's damned hard to change them, especially since powerful institutions like churches and governments are reinforcing them.
Here's another example, and this one might piss you off. Animal agriculture is the single greatest contributor to climate change and global hunger. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are calling on people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products so that the worst impacts of climate change and global hunger can be mitigated. Further, industrial animal agriculture is a horrifying industry that quite literally tortures the animals it farms, and even small animal agriculture operations force-breed and slaughter sentient beings for the sake of a dietary preference. But cultures all over the world have decided (metanorms) that it is appropriate for humans to use animals as we will (moral objectivism). So when vegans argue for a reduced consumption of animals, we are ridiculed, reviled and threatened.
Right. So the reason why metanorms and moral objectivism are frightening is because humans are flawed. We decide together that people of colour are less than human, that LGBTQ people are perverted, that non-Christian people are godless heathens. And when institutions reinforce those beliefs, suddenly human beings (and animals - see above) are at risk.
But back to my story.
Who the hell were the Aztecs that they all decided together to live this way? What were their metanorms? What was objectively moral behavior for them? Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect details the ways violence is normalized by authority and consensus, and I certainly think generational consensus plays a big part in the problematic values people hold, especially when institutionalized authority propagates and encourages those values. Is this why over 80,000 people were sacrificed when the new temple to Huitzilopochtli was dedicated in 1487? Is this why parents permitted their young children to be sacrificed to Tlaloc because their tears encouraged the rain to come? I certainly don't think it was the only reason, but the Aztec people had to agree that these radical acts of violence were appropriate, or the priesthood never would have been able to undertake them on that scale.
So I finished the Carrasco text, outlined the story I wanted to write from it and promptly put the whole thing down for a few years. Along the way, I briefly courted the idea of writing a comic miniseries using my outline and even started working on a script, but my artist was too busy to continue the project, and it was shelved again. This was probably for the best, since I most certainly could not have addressed these themes in comic book form, though I hadn't thought it through far enough to realize that at the time.
Fast forward to 2016 and Rhonda Parrish's Alphabet Anthologies series, which I've been writing for since its inception. The fourth volume is D is for Dinosaur, and while my far-future, transhuman, Aztec emperor certainly isn't a dinosaur, his elderly, comparatively luddite challenger most certainly is, in his eyes at least. And so I'm finally writing this story. In doing so, I'll have to give voice to things so far outside my experience base that I find them upsetting to think about, let alone write, and I'm not even certain my thoughts about metanorms and moral objectivism will come through in the work. But I'm writing it because it's an interesting thought experiment couched in what I think is an interesting premise and because I think it's dangerous to insist that we should all share the same values. That doesn't mean I agree with yours or that you agree with mine, and it doesn't even mean that we're all correct from our own perspectives and should keep silent when we disagree with one another. It does mean we don't decide what we think is the absolute truth for all people and then stop thinking at all.