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New Worlds: Beautiful Society, Ugly Laws

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Out of sight, out of mind.

That’s the mentality behind what sometimes get called “ugly laws”: if you don’t have to see a thing, then you can pretend it doesn’t exist. Beggars, disabled people . . . forbid them to be out in public, and you have a better society. Right?

Of course not. All you do is hide the problem — and let’s bear in mind here that the “problem” in question is people, ones whom you’re mistreating by decreeing that they can’t be seen in public (except for the purpose of educational and moral instruction). But for the kinds of individuals who promoted ugly laws, the thinking was that by sequestering the abjectly poor and the disabled out of sight, you were helping everybody else.

There are a couple of layers to this, depending on the specific purpose of the ordinance. In the case of those with physical disabilities — whether from injuries, like an amputation, or congenital anomalies, like a cleft palate — part of the concern was that seeing such unpleasant things was psychologically traumatizing to the onlooker. A similar logic applied to those with mental illnesses, with the focus on behavior instead of bodily appearance. Ugly laws prioritized the personal comfort of the rest of the populace over the well-being of the afflicted (and ensured that such sights were more traumatizing, because they were more unfamiliar and shocking).

In the case of beggars — who might well overlap with the above population — the reasoning was slightly more complex. The same concern for what’s “unseemly” applied; it’s upsetting to the well-off to see dirty, hungry people, so hide the latter away. They were further viewed as an impediment to traffic and commerce in busy downtown areas. But as my commenters noted on the post about begging two weeks ago, there’s also a strong moralizing strand that frets deeply over how a beggar might spend the money you give them. (A 1910 book compared giving them charity to firing a gun into a crowd!) During the heyday of ugly laws, the cure for poverty was supposed to come via other routes: systemic change in the efforts from the better reformers, stern moral lectures from the worse ones. Get the beggars out of sight, and people will no longer be tempted to give them handouts, nor suffer the dreadful sense of conflict that comes from putting your natural feelings of sympathy at odds with your civic duty to ignore their need.

So far as I’m aware, ugly laws are very much a phenomenon of modern, urbanized society, which throws together large populations of people with very few mutual social ties. We react differently when we see strangers injured or starving than when we see our familiar neighbors in the same state. In fact, the phrase “ugly law” is specifically used in the context of the United States, starting in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and not being fully repealed until about a hundred years later. But the general principle shows up elsewhere, as a social ideal or very localized ordinance, e.g. forbidding “unsightly” people to come near important religious or governmental buildings, where they might upset the elite.

And it’s only a small step from ugly laws to an even uglier topic: eugenics. Like the ordinances of the U.S., eugenics practices have existed in some form for a long time, and then really got rolling as a formal movement in the nineteenth century. Historically, it was not uncommon for societies to practice infanticide, killing infants with visible deformities, or abandoning them to be raised by religious institutions. And any kind of mental illness or chronic health problem could seriously harm your prospects for marriage and reproduction, as people feared you might pass that on to your children (whether the condition in question was actually genetic or not). On the flip side, some people actively tried to apply the principles of livestock husbandry to their own species, arranging matches between the “best” men and women in the belief that it would “improve the human breed.”

Advances in medicine and the development of the theory of evolution poured fuel on this fire. If a species really can change over time, the reasoning went (and still goes, in some corners), then of course you should prevent the “unsuitable” from reproducing — through imprisonment and forcible sterilization, if need be. Combine this with racism (people of color have been subjected to such treatment at a vastly disproportionate rate), pseudoscience (aiming to breed out supposedly heritable traits like “criminality”), and of course an absolute tsunami of ableism built on the core assumption that an individual’s worth as a human being is based on their “fitness,” and, well, you wind up with Nazis.

The eugenics movement has declined significantly from its heyday, thanks in no small part to the role it played in Nazi policy. It gets significantly harder to claim that your philosophy will better the human race when its most aggressive proponents used it to justify mass murder. But just as it gained powerful momentum from scientific advances in the nineteenth century, so too are advances in the twenty-first century bringing it back in new form — thanks to genetic engineering.

They’re not quite the same thing, of course. There’s a profound difference between imprisoning, sterilizing, and/or killing a living human being because they have some trait you consider undesirable, and taking steps to ensure that they’re never born with that trait. And a great deal depends on what trait you’re talking about! When it comes to genetic disorders like Tay-Sachs disease, which in its infantile form kills most afflicted children before the age of five, you can absolutely understand why parents might welcome medical treatments that can ensure their kid will have a normal life expectancy, free from horrific suffering.

But if you’ll forgive me trotting out the standard cliche: it’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? My severe myopia hasn’t put my life at risk, but if I wouldn’t really have minded if my parents could have gotten rid of it ahead of time. Other people feel very differently, though, e.g. in Deaf communities. And the slope keeps on going, well past anything you could plausibly call a disability and back to that notion of “improving the human breed.” Could we genetically engineer our offspring to be smarter, more athletic, more beautiful? We can’t right now, but who’s to say what might be possible in the future. At what point are you ordering your kids from a catalogue, in the name of giving them the best possible start in life . . . and what happens when you can’t afford all the improvements on offer?

Genetic engineering might offer miracles, but it won’t offer them equally to all people — not unless we get a lot better at legislating equitable solutions than we are right now. The rich will be able to grab the most advantages for themselves, while the poor can afford little or nothing. And so the gap between the haves and the have-nots will expand into new dimensions, making it even harder to bridge.

Science fiction has been chewing on the promises and perils of genetic engineering for a long time, of course, and Nazi-style eugenic dystopias are not hard to find. I see fewer stories, though — and especially fewer fantasy stories — that grapple with the lower-tech end of the spectrum, with the ways in which societies try to hide the problems they can’t solve. Beggars in novels get chased off by the town guard fairly frequently, but the character who lost an arm to an infected wound doesn’t get arrested for “making a public exhibition of himself” by, y’know, being out in public. Writers looking to create oppressive societies for their stories could lean on such ideas, with interesting results.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Beautiful Society, Ugly Laws”

  1. Anthony Docimo

    >A 1910 book compared giving them charity to firing a gun into a crowd!
    With the “we need everyone armed” attitude of the US in recent years (and decades in parts), that sort of a link could’ve done so much good (ie soup kitchens, clothing shares, etc)…even as an inversion of what that book’d intended.
    *sigh* as plot bunnies go, thats an interesting connection.

  2. In _Shards of Honor_ or _Barrayar_, Cordelia is told that Barrayaran culture (a “lost colony” climbing back up the tech tree) strongly encourages disabled people to off themselves. No law as such, but a veteran who is still perfectly capable of walking, albeit with a cane, is considered a typical suicide risk. And then of course there’s infanticide of ‘mutated’ children being positively encouraged. Whether the early days of the colony, due to radiation or alien ecosystem or what, truly had a major problem with mutations, has not been revealed by (or perhaps to) the author.

  3. Things can get especially ugly (no pun intended) in cross-cultural circumstances, which are much more common in post-Renaissance urbanized environments. Consider the tourist/other visitor from a European country who is wheelchair-bound… and visits an urban area where there’s a less… accommodating view of mobility restrictions.

    Not just a hypothetical: https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2023/jun/16/ignored-and-isolated-my-nightmare-in-a-wheelchair-at-the-champions-league-final

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