We Have To Have A Conversation About Star Trek

12 Mar

I felt awful this morning, so I did this instead of any actual work.

Is there any more feared line, these days, than ‘we have to have a conversation about …[whatever]’?

Well, no. The problem isn’t that we need to have a discussion about [whatever], the problem is that we don’t have a discussion. When people say ‘we have to have a conversation about …[whatever],’ what they really mean is ‘I’m going to speak, you’re going to listen and, when I’m finished, you’re going to agree with me in every particular … and, if you try to disagree with me in even the tiniest way, you are a hating hater who must be hated and ostracized from polite society.’ This generally goes as well as any conversation with a religious nut, who is firmly under the belief that people who disagree with them are either ignorant or wilfully evil. The idea that someone might reasonably disagree with them is anthemia.

The conversation goes poorly, in other words.

The problem is two-fold. First, the people who want to have a conversation are generally ignorant – and unaware of their own ignorance. There’s a world of difference between reading about something and actually doing it, for example, and anyone with any genuine experience of [whatever] would generally know that there is more nuance to the issue than the inexperienced might believe. Second, perhaps more importantly, conversations about racism and sexism tend to leave someone with the feeling that they’re being ‘got at’ in some unsubtle way.

Feminists complain, for example, that when they talk about sexism they inevitably hear the refrain of ‘not all men …’ Of course they do. The way feminists – and social justice warriors in general – approach the issue of sexism ensures that people who feel personally targeted will push back. It is undeniably true that, for most of human history women were, at best, second-class citizens. But it is also true that no one alive today is personally responsible for how poorly women were treated a hundred or so years ago. Why should they be made to feel personally responsible for something they didn’t do? The same is true of slavery and other such issues.

Conversations about sexism and racism, therefore, are fraught with minefields. People can be dispassionate about problems that don’t afflict them personally, but find it hard to be equally dispassionate about problems that do. A discussion about how awful people have been in the past can easily turn into a ‘their descendents are somehow to blame for this and must be punished and anyone who disagrees with this is a racist.’ There’s no way to recognise the nuances of the argument, let alone identify the factors that determine what actually happens.

It’s impossible to argue with someone who is blind to the simple fact that they are arguing in bad faith. Captain Picard’s famous quote – “we agree there is evidence to support [Q’s] contention that humans have been savage. Therefore I say test us. Test whether this is presently true of humans” – wouldn’t even get off the ground. Why should it when so many people are emotionally involved?

Star Trek lets us look at such problems dispassionately.

Think about it, just for a moment. The Federation of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager is a post-scarcity society in the truest possible sense. It may not be quite as advanced as the Culture, but most of humanity’s problems are firmly in the past. Racism and sexism no longer exist. Star Trek shows us a utopia we can all support, one where technology has advanced to the point where some form of socialism is actually sustainable. Who wouldn’t want to live in the Federation?

This actually has an interesting side effect. Star Trek’s humanity can look down on other races – even the all-powerful Q – and study their problems dispassionately, because – to them – those problems have been solved long ago. There are very few problems in The Next Generation that cannot be solved and most of them could be solved if the Prime Directive (of non-interference) was discarded. This actually allows us to consider the problems while, at the same time, feeling above them. We do not feel got at when Star Trek shows us aliens facing problems that also face us today.

It also allows us to feel without fearing that we will fall prey to emotional blackmail and/or weaponised empathy. We can assess the problems facing Bajor and Cardassia throughout Deep Space Nine – the long-term effects of fighting a global insurgency, the issues with turning from war to peace and rebuilding, the problems caused by losing a war, the dangers of turning to a strong man to lead us to glory (and, more likely, ruin) – without feeling that the scriptwriters are having a go at us. We can study the problems of military interactions along the border between the Federation and Cardassia without feeling as though we have to take sides. Indeed, we can study the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict through this lens and appreciate the nuances, instead of seeing one side as completely innocent and the other as completely evil.

Contrast this, for example, to the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. The original Galactica makes it clear that the Colonies basically intervened in a war between the Cylons and another alien race, although it is fairly clear that the Cylons would have come for the colonies eventually anyway. The reboot, however, insists that humanity effectively brought its fate on itself – they created the robots as slaves, giving the slaves a justification for waging a genocidal war against humanity. It is a great deal harder to argue over which side is in the right when one side created a slave race and the other set out to commit genocide (and effectively succeeded).

Or … Farnham’s Freehold. When the book opens, we see two kinds of slaveowners (or at least slave-owning attitudes). Duke Farnham is a classic racist, who sees himself as being on the top and hates blacks merely for being black; Hugh Farnham is a paternalistic racist, who sees himself as the permanent father-figure, the kind of person who always controls his children’s lives. By the time the book closes, we see them both as slaves, victims of slaveowners who see themselves as being on top and think they’re doing the right thing for the poor little powerless slaves. It’s a valid point, and one that needs to be made, but it’s difficult to stomach for a number of reasons. There is very little distance between us and the characters in the book.

But Star Trek – or at least The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager – offer us that distance. We can assess things properly, without our blinkers. We can see how foolish some aspects of our society are. And we can also believe that we have grown up enough to put them in the past and leave them there.

And, best of all, we can do this without feeling that we’re being attacked for an accident of birth.

25 Responses to “We Have To Have A Conversation About Star Trek”

  1. none March 12, 2019 at 1:46 pm #

    I was raised in the South, Both sides of my family history was a series of farmers on the fahers side and farmers/ministers on my mothers side, Further back my fathers linage goes back to our progenitor Gilbert de Venables (circa 1075) (i’m a Venable we lost the s as we came across the pond at Jamestown.
    My favorite adage is we were royalty once but its been downhill ever since.
    At any rate in the time from 1685 to now, we never owned slaves rather having scientists, teachers and farmers in our genealogy..which is full elucidated by a crazy distant aunt that did a book on the Venable genealogy in the ’60’s. my father was a Dallas PD, then detective – and in the last 50 years both families are heavy in engineering disciplines, teachers, and scientists.; and an occasional farmer.
    My point is, I know the issues in the South, but my family never owned slavery, and the modern push for reparations is wrong. Lots of folks families did not participate in slavery; hence divisive issue like that drive wedges between social classes, particularly when one group is asking for special treatment.I mean the Irish had a potato blight and came here- why shouldn’t they get special treatment? Earlier English settlers came here for religious freedom…why don’t they get special treatment?

    I’m a fan of Star Trek, Next Gen, and Enterprise; but DS9, and Voyager got stale to me…Rick Berman repeated himself too much, the new reboot opens up such possibilities.

    But from a factual basis; I don’t remember the past with rose colored glasses; but the modern view of punishing folks for sins of their fathers just won’t work. Everything needs to be by the Rule of Law. Problem is today there are political factions who say they support free speech, right up until you opinion is different. i mean free speech exclusion zones on campuses???!! Both political parties would be appalled at that idea 45 years ago…
    The current left turn by many wont lead to Utopia, only honest and equal treatment under the Law will lead us to a society where everyone is treated properly.

    .Isn’t that the message of Star trek? True the future ST society is built on the premise of no food shortages, and social problems are solved, but in reality that is a sci fi writers wet dream. War and rumors of war..one thing I have always regretted was the tangential way ST handled the issue of God and Christianity..I understand why,,,don’t make all the other faiths mad; that’s why sadly we’ll never build a society like we see in ST..its going to be a different future; due to religious issues which ST glossed over, but which in real society are the drivers.; and the lack of which is driving the assault of diversity on the older Judaeo-Christian status quo.

    I just pray that we find a way to be the Shining City on the Hill like Reagan referred to us as….but I’m honest enough to realize that it won’t be a third WW, but rather a 2nd American Revolution.

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 12, 2019 at 1:48 pm #

    Yet, there’s the danger of “giving simplistic answers”.

    I have my doubts about “how perfect” the Federation was in Next Generation and there were times that the “message” was “just be nicer” without providing answers to become “nicer”.

    There was an episode of Next Generation where an alien planet believed that the “bill was coming due” concerning a “deal with the Devil” concerning their ecological problems centuries ago.

    The Enterprise arrives just in time for the “Devil” to appear.

    Of course, the Devil (a female) turns out to be an alien con-woman using “high tech tricks” to fool everybody but of course the Enterprise won.

    What really bothered me about the episode was Picard’s conversation with the planetary leader.

    The “Devil” hadn’t “solved their ecological problems” centuries ago.

    The people of the planet had “just worked” to solve their own problems.

    So where did the story of the “Deal With The Devil” come from?

    Did the planetary leaders centuries ago “make up the story about the Deal With The Devil”?

    If they did, how did they convince everybody about the “Deal With The Devil” in order to get their people to “work to solve their own problems”?

    In short, a very simplistic answer to a possible “Real World” problem.


    I’d have loved a brief visit from another alien explaining that they (or their ancestor) were the “Devil” who had convinced the planet to “work together to solve their own problems” by playing the “Devil”. 😉

    • none March 12, 2019 at 3:27 pm #

      I should say I liked next gen, but with all scifi, its an escape; and I suspend all belief.My degrees are in organic physical chemsitry, so I’m a pragmatic realist.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 12, 2019 at 3:32 pm #

        NG had too many Idiot Plots for me to “suspend my disbelief”. 😉

  3. Rhino March 12, 2019 at 3:37 pm #

    Years ago, I spoke heresy to a rabid democrat that Star Trek was the meritocracy that society was blindly, unknowingly reaching for and hopefully would achieve. OMG, the ear full I got. Without sinking into argument over fine points of various scripts, I believe the umbrella of the basic idea should never be lost. If I label myself, I am a libertarian, but actually I have a profound love of the Constitution. And the Constitution supports live according to merit. I will leave others to dissect the minutiae and hope & pray we achieve a Star Trek state with individual liberties intact. Tell me Chris, how is anything possible until malfeasance of the powerful is eliminated. Hang in there, buddy, the world needs your brain. Greetings, Drak!

  4. Billy March 12, 2019 at 4:55 pm #

    If you have a empty bowl and you want food in that bowl.

    Then something has to happen.

    That food just does not appear out of thin air.

    The Liberals want someone to grow the food, pick the food, pack the food, put it on a truck (Which uses fuel) then carry that food to a place where the person who has that bowl can get the food and take it home and eat it.

    The Liberals want all those people doing that work to just do the work for free and have nothing to show for all that work except wasted time and effort.

    The thing is no one does something with no reward at the end of doing it.

    No one wants to be a slave.

    So everyone (Even all those people who would grow the food, pick the food, pack the food, put it on a Truck and bring it to the store, even the people who would have worked at the store) will * Every one of them * do nothing except hold out a empty bowl (Excuse me no one wants to make bowls for nothing) empty hands wanting food.

    Examples: Venezuela – Venezuela the new shining example of the Liberals goal for the whole planet to aspire for. They dream of Venezuela.

    • Gary Denton March 20, 2019 at 10:49 am #

      Stupid mindless diatribe against liberals using the standard goto conservative example of Venezuela as if it is not an example of corruption at the top like Trump is trying to institutionalize.
      Pick a class of people and say they are lazy and want things given to them – the definition of a mindless bigot. Libertarians are just the modern day Confederates.

  5. Rhino March 12, 2019 at 5:18 pm #

    Bravo, Sir Billy. Can we achieve a merit based society without the “absolute corruption “, etc?

    • Billy March 13, 2019 at 3:39 am #

      Quote: Bravo, Sir Billy. Can we achieve a merit based society without the “absolute corruption “, etc? End Quote

      Most corruption starts at Government.

      It goes all the way back in time to when the King would take half to 2/3 of what the farmers had so even after growing all that food the farmers were dirt poor and the people in the castle lived it up.

      Smaller Government makes for less corruption all around.

      • Bob K March 13, 2019 at 8:11 pm #

        Please tell us what you define as “smaller”.Corruption is caused by people not governments. The lust for wealth and power is the root.
        Capitalists have proven time and time again that they cannot be trusted to regulate or even moderate themselves.

        In America we have replaced the European nobility with the wealthy. The rich pass power, wealth and positions of power to their offspring. As the latest scandal surrounding buying college admissions shows that if the offspring of the rich cannot muster the grades to get into a university daddy and mommy will simply pay to get them in. Sounds a lot a new kind of nobility.

        So how do we prevent the rich and powerful from taking what they want from the weak? Good government with equal participation from the citizens. Of course we will never have that ideal, but it is worth fighting for.

  6. sam57l0 March 12, 2019 at 7:46 pm #

    I watched a TV show called Brave Eagle in ’55-’56. Always ended in a moral. I found them heavy-handed. Star Trek did the same for me. I watched the first season, and found it heavy-handed. I did see a few of the later episodes, but only a few. Overly obvious, and it takes only a few whacks on the head to get me to stop watching.

  7. Shrekgrinch March 12, 2019 at 7:55 pm #

    My fav was DS9 precisely because it was more grittier, less perfect. But I can’t stand STD.

  8. Rhino March 13, 2019 at 3:04 am #

    Aah, Chris, you can stir the pot!!

    • Rhino March 13, 2019 at 8:34 pm #

      Great special effects always has my attention and Star Trek had that in spades. Along the premise of a merit based society, how futuristic do you want it. A philosophical argument might be misplaced. A forest for the trees kind of thing. It supposed to be fun, remember fun, stuff that makes you smile. Drak…Don’t beam up yet, can’t read these folks without seeing the intelligence, Chris writes this stuff to compel comment. And it works really well

  9. philippeO March 13, 2019 at 3:16 am #

    I think the Maquis would disagree with you there.

    and its not about personal responsibility, its about whose Profiting from past event.

    Star Trek’s federation could look at problem dispassionately because they are Post-Scarcity Society. everything they want, they can have through replicator and holodeck (although there are episode that disagree with this, and realistically not every resource problem could be solved by replicator and holodeck)

    In RL, resources are scarce, and who gets what is significant problem. in many cases people own things, because they inherited them from Ancestors who commit past event. Racism and Reparation is significant issue because descendant of slaveowner are STILL richer than descendants of slaves. Sexism is still issue because men is STILL richer than women. Its not about past, its about present.


    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard March 13, 2019 at 3:52 am #

      “Beam me up. There’s no intelligent life here”.

  10. Anarchymedes March 13, 2019 at 8:36 am #

    Star Dreck. English-German. ‘We can study the problems of military interactions along the border between the Federation and Cardassia without feeling as though we have to take sides.’ That’s why I, for one, find it boring: another lecture on social psychology. I’m not a scholar: I’m just another chancer who wants to take a break and for a few hours a week, see what he wants to see. That being: us, good; them, bad; them, dead. Bullies, bullied. Torturers, tortured. And liers and schemers, dragged out into the open and made miserable. Give me but a few hours—and then I can go ahead and slave away for another week in the real world, without resorting to chemicals.
    Chris, you said it yourself, in one if your earlier posts where you critiqued to death one of the unfortunate ‘liberal’ sci-fi writer’s work: fiction must be first and foremost entertaining. It’s not an academic debate, for God’s sake; it’s fun. Isn’t that why those superhero movies are so hot, even though they’re beyond silly, come to think of it?

  11. vavu2009 March 14, 2019 at 12:04 am #

    The moral superiority of Next Gen got to be a bit much. Picard and company wasted no opportunity to tell us how much better they were as beings than the poor slobs who were watching the show. They were above it all, including the audience.

    • bob k March 14, 2019 at 9:31 pm #

      I liked to look at it as what humans could be if we wanted it bad enough. I remember best the episode where Q forces the Enterprise to meet the Borg for the first time. Picard whines about the fact he had to ask Q for help and is told to either grow a set or crawl back into a cave on Earth.

  12. Giusi March 15, 2019 at 2:24 pm #

    There is a principle of practicable law that people cannot be punished for acts that were not crimes when the act was committed, this is essentially only dropped in revolutions, it is not just in law that this is a principle, however. We generally find it an unreasonable position for somebody to move the goal posts after the ball has been kicked. There’s also a mode of thought that goes ‘quality will out,’ which is present in our general acceptance of capitalism & meritocratic principles, (however justified) the fact is that slave owners achieved economic independence enough to buy slaves in the first place, genetics & the effects of parental upbringing being matters of fact, it should hardly be surprising that some lineages including slave owners survive in positions of wealth.

    The other point I’d make, misguidedly, is that more white folks fought (in theory) for the freedom of slaves than owned them, and I’ve never heard of a fleet leaving Africa, owned & crewed by Africans, to try and free slaves taken by Africans. If somebody doesn’t want to accept the blood of thousands lain down willingly in sacrifice, as sufficient recompense for wrongs, they’re as much or more inhuman than the slave owners.

    I don’t know if Star Trek ever addressed real problems though, typical of ivory towers. Most of the supposed quashing of women’s rights in history occurred when the overwhelming majority of men had no rights either, & the only ‘domestic violence’ I have ever witnessed (granted anecdotal) has been female on male, and witnessed a great many times from a great many sources. Of course, most men understand that if they’re seen even threatening to hit a woman by anybody decent they’re in trouble. Doesn’t seem to work both ways.

    Chris established that people who don’t want to listen won’t listen, and here I go broadening the thing instead of trying to talk on his specific point, terrible person I am 🙂

    • Mr J Walker March 15, 2019 at 2:30 pm #


      came across that a couple days ago after being told by [serially abusive woman] that she’d been physically abused in the past, with no hint of irony.

      • Mr. Verbose to the point of failure. March 15, 2019 at 3:08 pm #

        I guess the trouble is that when the overwhelming body of evidence somebody is presented with(from news media narratives to sensationalized accounts and accounts entirely lacking context) is pointing in one direction, people aren’t even equipped to understand the reasoning of another point of view, let alone the complexities of reality.

        This, imho, is a big problem within the modern educational apparatus(from child raising to wikipedia & twitter) in that there is a bandwagonning, a set of culturally allowable parameters that get narrower and more constrained as more and more people accept them, creating an echo chamber out of all of society.

        When ostracism(anti free speech), and affirmative action(parochialism), censorship and screeching are allowed to become acceptable means of establishing the superiority of a position, we’re hardly better off as a society than during the time of the Puritans.

        We might say it isn’t as bad as all that, it’s just a vocal minority – but then it’s always a minority that does anything.

  13. Big Ben March 15, 2019 at 9:45 pm #

    I was never a big Star Trek fan – I liked the movies more than the TV shows.
    I think it’d be interesting if they did a prequel version of S.T. that shows how the “perfect” future society of the show came about. Kinda hard to see how we get there from here.

    There’s an old saying that I’m about to butcher ‘cause I’m too lazy to look it up: When attempting to persuade people improve your argument, don’t raise your voice.

    Wish politicians the world over would tattoo that on the inside of this eyelids or something.

  14. clbeam March 17, 2019 at 10:01 pm #

    I found that watching startrek that the federation never really address there own problem. from the discrimination of genetically engineered humans, to the right of secession from groups like the maquis. The show never really show how the federation treats there citizen. I would think that they drug there population because they claim that eliminated war. But every one knows that there is allways going to be some conflict between people even if it is just some neighbor squabbling. We never see a cult of borg worshipers trying to join the collective. Nor do we so any outside of the borg or a few aliens with cybernetics despite who usefull they tend to be.

  15. Guy Marc GAGNÉ March 19, 2019 at 7:13 pm #

    You may have experienced a physically challenging day…
    It, in no way seems to have hampered your insight!
    Your piece reminded me of those comedians who have us cramping up
    in fits of laughter – achieving this by illuminating and poking holes into our
    habits and morays in an objectified and detached manner!
    Id est: Eureka! The trees are the forest!
    A priori, not an all encompassing revelation, however, it offers opportunity
    for a ” Humm!” moment.
    Pondering in an open minded manner, the challenge is considerable.
    For intrinsically ingrained views tend to adhere/project themselves
    rather forcefully when we are presented with such opportunities.
    Commensurate with the aforementioned, it is a desired and hopeful
    outcome to transcend our foibles thus enabling equitable outcomes.
    This in all things – maybe a trifle utopian – but, unless we strive for greatness
    we shall ever wallow in mediocrity!

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