Tag Archives: ethics

“Anthropologists” in the 24th Century

Star Trek doesn’t know what anthropologists do. That, or the discipline undergoes a radical transformation between now and when TNG is set, in the 24th century.

A few days ago, I watched a season three episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers.” The crew of the Enterprise is called to assist a team of “anthropologists” who have been secretly observing a species of “Bronze Age” humanoids (Mintakans) on another planet.

Pause. Two things.

One, that’s not what anthropologists do. Anthropologists don’t conduct long-term studies of people without their knowledge, consent, or cooperation. That’s unethical, to say the least. The ethnographic methodology is called participant-observation. Not hide-in-a-cave-hidden-by-a-hologram-and-catalog-the-behaviors-of-people-as-if-they-were-an-exotic-species-of-bird. Star Trek seems to think that anthropologists are naturalists, but for humans. (Or, in this case, humanoid aliens.)

This leads to point number two: the whole “Bronze Age” thing, which casts the Mintakans as primitive human Others who are imagined to be from a different time, as opposed to coexisting in the very same century as our technologically advanced “heroes.”* Star Trek‘s (misguided) idea of social evolution gets at the very heart of its most cherished guiding principle: The Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive stipulates that Star Fleet must not interfere with the “natural development” of any alien societies it encounters. This assumes that all societies follow the same trajectory of change over time, passing predetermined stages of (particularly technological) development. These stages seem predicated on a (simplified, Western) notion of human social development on earth. Here Star Trek assumes humanity is a monolithic entity, rather than a complex collection of interconnected cultures that yes, change over time, but not by following a path of predetermined developmental stages. The fictional universe has this problem in general, assuming that each species of alien Star Fleet encounters has but a singular culture.

Furthermore, Star Fleet personnel are forbidden from making their presence known to species or societies that have yet to develop space travel. What if an alien society simply doesn’t value pursuing that area of science and technology? To my (limited) knowledge, that possibility is not considered.

Star Trek‘s vision of the future, like all science fiction, is constrained by its creators’ understandings of the past and present. As Gene Roddenberry and the writers and other folks who worked on the show were embedded in U.S. culture, the show has a particularly Western pop-understanding of multiculturalism, liberalism, and social dynamics. Although it takes pains to present the different species and societies Star Fleet encounters without judgment, Star Trek‘s lack of understanding of how culture operates seriously hinders their ability to do so convincingly. At least for this 21st century anthropologist.

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*Here it is crucial to cite Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s seminal 2003 essay, Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.

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Forcible Consent: (in)Humanity & Submission on Star Trek

About a month ago, I sat through a season four episode of Star Trek: Voyager that left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. No, not the one where B’Elanna succumbs to oxygen deprivation and declares her misguided love for Paris. As troubling as that installment was, it was an arc in the first few episodes of season four, culminating in “The Gift,” that had my jaw on the floor.

A brief background on the episode before we wade into the (un)ethical subspace of the Delta Quadrant:

After striking a tenuous alliance with the Borg to defeat a common enemy, our wayward crew finds itself playing host to Seven of Nine, a member of the Borg whose connection to the Collective has been severed for the standard techno-magical reasons. A few other Borg henchmen are unceremoniously dispatched from Voyager after they betray the crew’s trust, leaving Seven of Nine to advocate for itself. (It should be noted here that the Voyager crew think of Seven of Nine as female, although at this point the Borg probably considers such gendered designations Irrelevant.) The crew digs into their effective captive’s history, discovering that Seven of Nine was once a little girl who was abducted and assimilated by the Borg. At that point, Captain Janeway makes it her mission to bring Seven of Nine back into humanity’s fold.

7 of 9 borg

Seven of Nine, badass Borg

This is not the first time Janeway’s leadership has made me uncomfortable. I’m not sure I’d follow her home, especially if the option of joining Holo(hottie)-Chakotay in his coup were to worm its way out of its interactive fictional exercise and into reality. The point is, Seven of Nine wants to return to the Collective, or, barring that, be dropped onto the nearest hospitable world. Both of these requests are denied, as is her more basic request to maintain her personal (or species?) agency.

A crucial aspect of “The Gift’s” plot revolves around the ethical question of whether to return Seven of Nine to her original human state. Because she is no longer connected to other Borg, the Doctor determines that the human parts of her body are rejecting the Borg technology. Captain Janeway seizes upon Seven of Nine’s biological history as proof positive that she is fundamentally human and must, deep down, wish to become so again biologically. Janeway denies Seven of Nine the choice of whether to undergo what amounts to both major invasive surgery and a change in biological identity, instead claiming this as her prerogative, citing Noble Human Reasons.

In doing so, Janeway denies the Borg as a species the dignity of personal agency. And since what little humanity is left within Seven of Nine doesn’t readily (or recognizably) asset itself, Janeway takes it upon herself to speak on its behalf and give it more weight than the (very loud) assertions of the Borg part of Seven of Nine. Thus Janeway leverages her power as captain to declare Seven of Nine’s Borg identity invalid, clinging to the idea that what was once human must still be fundamentally so. She orders the Doctor to medically extract and enhance Seven of Nine’s available human biology, enabling it to completely eject her Borg DNA and technology. The Doctor, for his part, enables Janeway, and Seven of Nine is forced to become human against her will through a process that amounts to medical torture.

Why the Doctor doesn’t invoke his Hippocratic oath, as he did when Tuvix expressed his desire not to die (season 2, episode 24), is a major unanswered question. The Tuvix episode did a much better job of representing the complexity of the ethical dilemma at hand. There’s little such nuance here. Viewers are made aware of the opposing arguments [read: Seven of Nine’s position about her own body] only so they can be shut down by the characters who occupy the positions of power in the Federation hierarchy and along the moral axis of the cast.

One of the most maddening weaknesses of Star Trek‘s otherwise inclusive philosophy is its insistence that humanity is the pinnacle of existence. The episode is SO SURE of Janeway’s moral high-ground that it’s disturbing, which points to Star Trek‘s occasional failure to achieve the progressiveness it prides itself on espousing. Janeway’s position amounts to one of human species supremacy, echoing centuries of colonial white supremacy, and she imposes it on a being who is already in a disadvantaged position and has little recourse. Janeways repeatedly ignores Seven of Nine’s clearly stated desires and staunch refusals to grant consent. But in a heartbreaking irony, resistance for this Borg is indeed futile.

7 of 9 human

Seven of Nine, reluctant human

Once again, the female body is stripped of its agency and remade into society’s image. This time literally. Viewers are meant to side with Janeway’s view of the situation and cheer when humanity triumphs and they are able to count Seven of Nine (see what I did there?) as one of their own.

Perhaps contemporary discourse surrounding consent and identity politics is what’s causing me to react so negatively to this plot and character developments. I don’t doubt that the episode’s moral stance was better received when it aired in 1997. But today, these blatant denials of someone’s personal agency simply do not fly (puns are always intended).

In the Delta Quadrant, the perception of humanity eclipses even the Prime Directive.

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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Gender Trouble, Power, Television and Movies