Originally written on 06/16/14 (Picard Day); also found here.
I have a confession to make. Well, it’s not so much a confession as a declaration of pride: I love Star Trek. I’ve watched The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, and even the Animated Series, which roughly equals 573.5 hours of television, not including the episodes I rewatched. I’ve seen all 13 films. I have ringtones, mugs, shirts, pins, and uniforms (yup, plural). I even made a parody fan film with my friends, but I am certainly by no means a hardcore Trekkie – I can’t even speak Klingon.
As I have tried to explain to many of my friends, Star Trek is more than just a show about space, aliens, and questionable outfits. It’s a reflection, an in-depth examination of what it means to be human.
For those not versed in the Star Trek 'verse, here’s a very basic rundown: Thanks to the discovery of warp drive in 2063, humanity is deemed technologically and sociologically ready to meet their galactic neighbors. The Vulcans, an alien race, reach out and make “first contact," setting off human race’s first clumsy forays into space exploration and diplomatic work. This inspires social and personal development over the next couple of centuries to the point that war, disease, and the need for money is eliminated.
As relationships with alien races strengthen, various planets join together into a semi-autonomous governing coalition that upholds universal liberty, rights, and equality through peaceful sharing of knowledge and resources. This group becomes what is later known as the United Federation of Planets, which maintains Starfleet, the organized vehicle for exploration and peacekeeping.
Starfleet develops from culturally ignorant explorers to diplomats, then to active partners with other species throughout quadrants of the galaxy and beyond. All the while, crew members and their respective captains grapple with difficult issues: civil rights, love, the origin of life, imperialism, xenophobia, classism, specism (the more evolved version of racism), sexism, faith, sexuality, honor, violence, war, genocide, slavery, and the list goes on.
To help each of the crews and their respective captains as they struggle to navigate these dilemmas, there is one guiding principle considered to be the most ethically important: the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive prohibits Starfleet crews from interfering with the natural development of alien civilizations, even if their actions are well-intentioned and potentially life-saving, so as to avoid “playing God.” This principle generally applies to societies that have no knowledge of life outside themselves and are technologically "primitive."
In encounters with such societies, crews struggle, torn between saving lives with quick solutions like medical technology, and the possibility of creating long-term problems that could be arguably worse than the issue at hand. Some end up disregarding the Prime Directive, often to disastrous consequences. Others take the Prime Directive so seriously that they are willing to sacrifice themselves and their crews to uphold it.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard of The Next Generation series says, “The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy… and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever [hu]mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well-intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”
Though the Prime Directive may come from a television show, it's derived from real world problems. It was a direct reflection of a common political opinion of U.S. foreign policy, especially in regards to its involvement in the Vietnam War. It is even cited as a development from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s opinion of Christian missionaries and their destructive involvement in other cultures.
This makes me think of my job; my real, right-now job, not my dream job as a Starfleet captain in the 24th century. The entirety of my career has been within the realm of development and nonprofit work, which is essentially dedicated to "interfering" with other cultures and societies, for better or for worse.
In this reality, where uniting as a species seems like a fairy tale, where we over-consume in a race to planetary self-destruction, where we haven’t discovered warp drive yet (I’m counting on Elon Musk to be our Zefram Cochrane), we in the West are interfering, meddling people. We assume that those who have less resources than us are inferior and in need of our assistance, even when nobody us for help.
Development projects often seem like experiments that advance the organizations' public images, with little to no consultation or partnership with those they claim to help. This can be seen in the NGO that distributes water catchments to villages before researching whether they’ll be used or even wanted. Or, the Christian missionaries that set out to baptize entire countries, then teach that their Western brand of songs, clothing, and churches is the one true way. Or, the corporation masquerading as a charity, like TOMS shoes, that make consumers feel good about their purchases and perpetuate the Western savior trope, while being virtually ineffective in solving poverty.
It is certainly good to be philanthropic, but how we think about who we help, and whether they really want or need our help in the first place, is crucial. As economists like Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly argue, humanitarian aid is often just another form of colonialism.
This is not to say that we should take an extreme interpretation of non-interference; globalization and trade make that impossible. But we, if not as countries then at least as organizations, could learn something from the Prime Directive, collaboratively finding solutions with communities in need, rather than making autocratic decisions regarding the fate of entire people groups.
As Captains Archer, Kirk, Janeway, and Picard, and Commander Sisko discover, each situation has its own complicated context, and there is no one easy solution. Perhaps the answer lies in an ideological shift. Roddenberry imagined a world where people treated one another, and the environment, with mutual respect, whether they lived in the same country, planet, or quadrant. Physical, political, and financial violence was unnecessary. They shared resources, knowledge, and culture with one another peacefully, enriching the lives of all involved.
This is unusually idealistic of me to say, but I believe that the Star Trek universe can be a reality, and it’s up to us to make it so.