Episode 97 – “The Gift”

Philosophy attempts to come up with and to answer our most basic questions. Those questions can include questions about philosophy itself, including the question of whether the questions of philosophy really are basic questions. Is philosophy is constrained by our social, cultural, historical, and economic circumstances or can philosophical inquiry transcend or bypass such contexts? Are the philosophical questions raised by such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard,  and Wittgenstein, really fundamental questions, or do they depend on assumptions and influences of the conditions under which they were formulated, such as the prior beliefs, cultural practices, and even language? Asked positively: Are there philosophical questions that can be raised and apply to all cultures, historical periods, and can be formulated in any natural language?

Whether philosophical questions are truly universal or instead are culturally relative is raised in “The Gift” when Serling, describing the location of story as forty miles south of the Rio Grande, in Mexico, adds, “But any place – and all places, can be … the Twilight Zone.”  His point is that our ability engage the imagination to consider possible worlds is not constrained by the the details of the setting or location for that engagement. Any actual time or place can be used to construct a possible world which can serve as the basis for our philosophical investigation.  Of course this is just a claim and not an argument. But the use of Mexico as the setting, a setting that would have been very unfamiliar to most U.S. television viewers in the early 1960s, is at least the beginning of an argument.

The particular imaginative exercise in “The Gift” asks us to consider h0w we would act if confronted by a being clearly unlike us, a being from another planet or realm, a creature bearing gifts.  The exercise is similar in some respects to that of “To Serve Man,” where visitors from another planet also arrive with gifts, and after some initial skepticism, we place our trust in them. In “The Gift” we fear and then quickly destroy the visiting stranger and its gift.  The difference in the two cases is that in the former, the aliens’ gifts were just lures to attract and deceive us, while the gift in “The Gift” was real and significant.

Perhaps the conclusion we should draw is that we are not particularly good at distinguishing threatening actors from benefactors, particularly when they come from
beyond the stars. This may be a particularly good example of a feature of human nature that really is universal, and not historically or culturally bound.  The fear-fueled reaction of the rural Mexican town are not the result of their occurrence in Mexico, or in a rural area, but are the typical responses of human beings anywhere.

Could more appropriate responses be learned and mastered over time? The question is raised in “The Gift” when the visitor draws the explicit parallel of his treatment to the treatment of Jesus. He says that it’s taken a few thousand years for people to come to grips with Jesus’s visit among people, and so it is not surprising that he’s met with a hostile reception. Maybe we learn to curb our emotions and more accurately assess threats and benefits, or maybe we can learn to have the appropriate emotions in response to novel interactions.


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