Arrival and the possibility of conversation

Arrival, the film adaption of the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, has been recognised as one of the most intelligent sci-fi films of recent years, as concerned with helping us see our own world anew as with what might exist beyond it.

It is especially poignant, perhaps, that Denis Villeneuve’s movie was released only days after a bitter US Presidential race, whose outcome was only the most shocking upset of a year that has exposed seemingly irresolvable political and cultural divisions. For essentially it is a story about the possibility of communication, of bridging the abysmal gulfs that stop us talking to each other.

An alien civilisation visits Earth, their opaque, ovoid spacecraft – monumental structures recalling 2001’s monoliths – materialising one day at various locations across the world: the Indian Ocean, the Siberian tundra, the plains of Montana – twelve in all. Their portals hover a few metres from the ground, inviting entry.

The subsequent meetings with the extraterrestrials powerfully convey something of the radical otherness of alien life. Partially visible, swathed in swirling fog behind a transparent screen, the tentacular ‘heptapods’ have no front or back, and communicate by projecting enigmatic circular symbols on the barrier’s surface. This is sci-fi that understands the difference between encountering and communicating with other forms of life, recalling Wittgenstein’s observation that if ‘a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him.’

But a breakthrough is made. And as the alien script is gradually decoded it becomes apparent they have come to bring a gift, not war, and that the gift is their language itself, and the new perception of reality it unlocks: the ability to see, as they do, into the future as well as the past, to experience time as a totality, not simply as a linear series of events.

That may be an improbable interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language structures our perception of the world. But whatever liberties have been taken with the theory for cinematic purposes, the film’s essential message is delivered with emotional force and clarity: a shared language opens the possibility of conversation, and conversation the possibility of peace. It’s a thought worth holding onto today, when our public discourse is so charged with anger.

This year’s spectacular political events indicate that fierce but familiar differences between neoliberals and social democrats, austerians and Keynesians, social conservatives and liberals, climate change sceptics and environmentalists, have been transcended by a more elemental divide between what might be called ‘nativists’ and ‘cosmopolitans’: between those who emphasise national identity, protectionism, isolationism, fidelity to place and family, and an idealised past; and those who prioritise internationalism, trade, social liberalism, and an idealised future.

Even mainstream politicians have indulged in the intemperate rhetoric that suffuses contemporary debate, the centre-left Hillary Clinton referring to Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’ and the centre-right Theresa May suggesting in her Tory conference speech that ‘a citizen of the world’ is ‘a citizen of nowhere’, unable to ‘understand what citizenship means.’

But Villeneuve’s film reminds us that we do share something fundamental: language. However much we disagree about the interpretation of concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘prosperity’, ‘happiness’ and ‘equality’ we recognise they form part of a common moral vocabulary that offers a starting point for conversation. We do not stand on either side of a screen, with nothing to say to each other.

Our moral grammar is ‘open-textured’, contestable, rich in possible meanings that can be shaped and refined through discussion between parties who – precisely because they disagree – all have something unique to bring to the table.

The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose work emphasises the importance of conversation, suggests that our debates are so intense not because we have different values, but because we recognise the importance of the same set of values and disagree over their meaning:

It is, in part, because we have shared horizons of meaning, because these are debates between people who share so many other values and so much else in the way of belief and of habit, that they are as sharp and as painful as they are.

And today, for cosmopolitans concerned by the rapid rise of the new populism, it is especially important to be prepared to talk about those elements of our moral grammar that risk colonisation by the nativists, such as ‘patriotism’, ‘faith’, ‘family’, ‘security’ and ‘community.’ These are words that belong to all of us, and close consideration of their meanings shows that, like all moral terms, they are inherently fluid concepts that permit progressive as well as conservative interpretations.

Consider, for example, that most charged of words, ‘patriotism.’ Certainly, it is saturated with ostensibly conservative sentiments: the love of a homeland, with its particular landscape, myths and history, and the sense of pride and belonging that attends that love.

But these are complex sentiments. For the conservative the idea of nation may evoke the continuity of a settled social order, the slow evolution of a constitution and its embodiment in the figure of a monarch. But progressives have their own rich national mythologies – histories of uprisings, labour movements, radical writings – which over time secured the gradual enfranchisement of the wider population. And it is possible to retain a special bond with one’s own nation while believing its interests are best served through membership of transnational institutions. National loyalty does not preclude internationalism.

‘Community’ is another term that risks appropriation by the new populists, for whom it signifies attachment to family, neighbourhood and place, in contrast with a ’rootless cosmopolitanism.’

But communities are always in flux, forming and reforming as their populations shift, morphing into fresh shapes as new clusters of people find ways to live together. Something similar might be said about ‘family’, a term that through history has been used to refer to many configurations, encompassing extended families, nuclear families, adopted children, heterosexual and gay couples, and single parents.

And the value of community – however it might be understood – is something recognised by both radicals and conservatives. Community is the necessary condition for any kind of progressive political project, the source of the collective agency necessary to build welfare states, health services and education systems.

Consider one further example, ‘faith’, a term freighted with notions of timeless patterns of life established by what has been revealed and cannot be changed. But religious traditions have always yielded radical as well as conservative interpretations, producing liberation theologies as well as doctrines demarcating gender roles.

Discussion with those with whom one profoundly disagrees is, of course, hard work, requiring courtesy, patience, a capacity to listen and a recognition that dialogue usually won’t change views overnight, if at all: our foundational values are deeply rooted, evolving over long periods of time, with a high degree of immunity to whatever questions might be raised in the course of a challenging conversation.

Arrival fondly imagines a universal language that, once understood, facilitates spiritual awakening, a kind of Zen enlightenment that opens the way for a new era of peace. Our reality is rather different: language is always, by its very nature, contestable, even when we share the same vocabulary.

But if we are prepared to keep talking, and to begin fresh conversations, we can continue to refine and enrich our moral language, to find new meanings in well-worn words, and find surprising points of agreement with those with whom we most disagree. A simple thought, but important today, when darker means of resolving conflicts loom on the horizon.

This article is also available on openDemocracy.