Today in his closing keynote at the Games for Change conference, Jesse Schell floated an interesting theory. Why, he asked, do we have Orcs? Or more pointedly, why do we have a pervasive cultural trope of dumb yet violent humanoid monsters that we kill without remorse?
We call them, variously, trolls, ogres, flesh eating zombies, lizard men, or a host of other names, but they are always pretty much the same. They are stupid, they are violent, there are lots and lots of them, and we create highly popular fictional entertainments around the premise of gleefully mowing them down.
We don’t do this with other species. There are no happy fantasies of killing hundreds of chimpanzees or bonobos (well actually, we do send the members of other species to outrageously painful and horrible deaths in large numbers, but we try to pretend we’re not doing anything of the sort). No, we only create entertainment fantasies around the killing of creatures that are sort of like us, distinctly human in their way, only more stupid and more violent.
Jesse’s theory for why this is so came as no surprise: That this drive to kill Orcs is a holdover from our instinct to kill off our real life near-human rivals — the most recent of these, of course, being the Neanderthals, who died out only around thirty thousand years ago.
There have been many theories as to why the Neanderthals died off, but Jesse’s theory is quite simple — we killed them. Why? Well, in his exact words: “I think we killed them all because that’s how we roll.”
It’s hard to judge these things, but to me his theory has the ring of truth. And this idea of an instinctive basis for antagonism toward “the human-like other who is different from my tribe” goes a long way toward explaining the extreme idiocy of racism.
After all, no human mind that is functioning rationally would sanction singling people out for completely nonsensical reasons, say because their ancestors happen to be from Africa, or from Italy or Ireland, or because they are gay, or Jewish, or some other artificially labeled marker of “differentness”.
And yet we know that it happens all the time. I find Jesse’s theory appealing because it explains the complete lunacy of racism. Whether they be antisemites, or homophobes, or just averse to people with red hair, people suffering from this sad affliction are simply playing out left-over survival instincts from long ago.
Deep down, on an instinctive level that their rational minds cannot access, such people think they are still fighting the Neanderthals.