Adventures in Teaching: The Aliens That We Are, or Roleplaying the World

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Let’s talk aliens, ethics, and mock United Nations debates, shall we?

Since 2011, I have run an experimental debate session with my students at least once per year. In this debate, they are asked to roleplay as one of two alien species (or as members of an Intergalactic United Nations security council) who have been in a multi-century conflict reminiscent of the current Israel-Palestine conflict — albeit, in a reductive and allegorical sense. One group wishes to be recognized as a planet (i.e., member state) in the IUN, while the other does not. A panel of students ultimately decides whether planethood (i.e., becoming a member state) will be granted; this decision is based on the strength of the presented arguments. If you’re curious about the scenario, I’ve provided the full slideshow below:

The object of this debate is to have a conversation with my students about the ethics of prolonged conflict AND the influence of history and social constructs on our perceptions of right or wrong. These conversations don’t always go as expected, and so the lessons we learn often shift.

This year, I ran this debate for three different classes, and each came up with wildly different interpretations of facts or unique debate strategies. The following sections provide quick snapshots of what happened. Each contains two images (the “Y” on the left and the “X” on the right) broken into sections to account for their first three debate rounds (opening statements, first rebuttals, and second rebuttals); some will have a fourth section (closing arguments).

Class #1

This first class is an example of what often occurs in the experiment:  Group X (The Astronauts) often throws itself into a trap by doing precisely what Group X is supposed to do — be the imperialistic aggressor.

After opening statements, you’ll note that “they’re savages” shows up in the first round of rebuttals (X went first in this round). In response, Group Y (the Cuban Human Aliens) blamed X for their “savageness” — a defense, in a sense, of their history of terrorism.

This is actually fairly mild compared to the sort of thing that has been said in previous renditions, but it is a prime example of my contention that our biases, even ones we’re merely “playing,” impact our behavior in remarkable ways. Keep in mind that these debates are often “funny,” in the sense that people will say things they wouldn’t normally say a la playing a card in Cards Against Humanity even though you know the intended joke is grossly offensive. Yet, the laughter we experience when one group calls the other “savages” is almost always a kind of nervous laughter.

Typically, these debates are somewhat one-sided. Group Y almost always opts for the more compassionate argument, which they do here in the final rebuttals. Group X, thus, almost comes off as aggressive and dismissive of human rights; they’re the bullies. Here, Group Y simply ran with the “savage” claims and used it to throw shade at Group X. In the end, it almost worked, but the “we are what you made us” line ultimately led to Group X’s victory on the grounds that Group Y did not seem prepared to offer assurance that its past would not proceed to the present or the future.

Class #2

The second class did not fall into any of the traps built into the exercise. Nobody dehumanized (or de-alienized, I guess) the other to justify the past (or present). Instead, Group Y (The Nightfall) chose a measured yet emotionally-charged appeal to reason; Group X (The Na’vi), however, shifted the responsibility for the past to the IUN or Group Y, never quite addressing the skeleton in the room:  alleged human rights abuses.

Frankly, Group Y went for the jugular in this debate. They admitted their faults and provided a justification for the past by way of an anti-imperialistic critique of their opponent. Group X has little in the way of a response to this. They could have defended their actions on the basis of Group Y’s past behavior, which has been done before and can work. They also could have provided more force behind the idea that “you cannot justify loss by taking from others.” Instead, they opted to claim that Group Y could not govern itself (an imperialistic attitude), shifted blame solely to Group Y or the IUN, and rejected Group Y’s claim that their past actions might have been justified.

In the end, Group Y took this debate.

Class #3

The final class was a pleasant surprise. Group Y (The Russian Dukes) went for a similar argument as Class #2, while Group X (The American Eagles) chose instead to hinge their argument on the issue of trust.

Both groups delved into the actual history, citing specific events in their arguments against the opposition. For Group Y, so much hinged on the question:  What did you think would happen? After all, you can hardly expect any large body of people to have their territory partitioned / annexed by a foreign party and simply shrug. That sort of thing rarely happens in the real world, so it’s actually a simplistic and useful strategy to deploy when trying to show how the past is a consequence of actions that neither party necessarily wanted.

The result was a fairly close debate between one group trying to explain the past while moving beyond it and another trying to acquire assurance that the past was indeed dead. Ultimately, it came down to Group X in part because Group Y never provided the assurance either the IUN or Group X would need. But it was by no means an easy decision.

What’s Next?

I’m actually considering ways to expand this project to include a lot more detail. For one, the simplicity of the history tends to result in semi-shallow debates, and I think writing more extended histories with additional documentation (fictional news stories, etc.) could make for an in-depth discussion about power. I also want to add more roleplay elements to the whole thing, such as “in real time” reporting, breaking news provided on a fictional news feed, and more. This will add more elements to the debate that could change student interactions.

So there you go. Another semester of alien roleplaying down!

What would you like to see added to this experiment? Let me know in the comments!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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