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What Is This Thing You Call 'Social Justice'?

“Why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we’ve learned not to fear words,” Uhura says.

· 10 min read
What Is This Thing You Call 'Social Justice'?

Star Trek: Discovery begins its second season this week, with its producers no doubt hoping for a smoother start after a first season marred by considerable behind-the-scenes difficulties and uneven reception from hardcore fans. After major delays and a series of sudden creative staff changes, many plotlines were introduced and quickly abandoned, fans were frustrated with the show’s inability to adhere to the Star Trek canon—the whole first season was chaos.

But hey, at least the succession of showrunners were able to signal their progressive bona fides to the woke social media legions. Indeed, they started well in advance. Before Discovery had even premiered, former showrunner Aaron Harberts was on a press tour boasting of the fact that Discovery was going to take on the Trump presidency through its storytelling: “The allegory is that we really started working on the show in earnest around the time the election was happening,” said showrunner Aaron Harberts. “The Klingons are going to help us really look at certain sides of ourselves and our country. Isolationism is a big theme. Racial purity is a big theme.” (Harberts, incidentally, was one of the showrunners accused of “verbal violence” and subsequently let go after the first season was complete.)

Star Trek fans didn’t appreciate that in the initial episodes, the lead character, a woman of colour named Michael (for some reason) had no moral backbone and no redeeming qualities other than a high intersectional score, and the supporting cast seemed to have been assembled for reasons of diversity over talent or compelling character. The two exceptions to this are Saru, the cautious and clever Kelpian, and Cadet Tilly, who provided much-needed comic relief.

Worst of all, Discovery turned the Klingons into hairless race supremacists, an embarrassing, two-dimensional depiction of one of the most popular alien races in the Star Trek canon. Echoes of the deplorables’ rallying cry of “Make America Great Again” can be found in the Klingon’s rallying cry for racial purity: “Remain Klingon.” The parallels were so excruciatingly obvious that CBS had to publicly deny any direct connection.

In the first two episodes of Discovery, which serve as a form of origin story for the rest of the season, Klingon leader T’Kuvma preaches to his followers that the Federation must be attacked because humanity and its like-minded democratic allies seek to impose multiculturalism on the galaxy. T’Kuvma preaches a “Klingon First” mindset, in an attempt to unify the 24 disparate Klingon houses. The Klingons might as well have been chanting, “Build the wall!” The message behind the first episodes is mind-numbingly simple: diversity good, Trump voters bad.

Star Trek fans are smart, though, and they took to the internet to call Discovery out on its virtue signaling. This led to a litany of media-approved think-pieces defending the social justice agenda of the new series, including one cringeworthy attempt by a writer at the Mary Sue to break down all Star Trek series, including Discovery, according to quota.

Diversity is a good thing; art can be used to make political statements; and not all anti-Trump art is bad. I’m also willing to grant that episodes later in Discovery‘s first season became more watchable as the production team began to show more respect for Star Trek fandom and canon. But there’s no getting around the fact that the overt, reactionary tone of the early Discovery episodes had all of the subtlety of a Kathy Griffin tweet.

This was particularly jarring when set in comparison to some of the classic episodes from this historic franchise’s past. While Star Trek always has been broadly liberal in its politics (including TV’s first interracial kiss), it has typically been classically liberal—in opposition to what we would now call political correctness, identity politics, and mob justice. And by pausing to appreciate some classic episodes, we may find hope to conclude that it’s not too late for Discovery to alter course.

In particular, it’s hard not to get shivers re-watching a 1967 episode of the original Star Trek entitled Return of the Archons, in which Captain Kirk and his crew encounter a society whose behavior is entirely regulated by a centralized authority called Landru. People walk around in a collective daze and greet each other with platitudes like, “Peace and joy to you, my friend” and “Contentment and tranquility.” Later in the episode, Dr. Leonard McCoy, who had been indoctrinated by Landru, realizes that Spock and Kirk were just pretending to be as “absorbed” as he was. McCoy becomes hysterical, pointing and screeching at his shipmates: “You’re not of the body!” and calls for the “Lawgivers” to arrive and correct them—which is basically what now happens here on planet earth when an unpopular opinion is expressed online.

(Kirk and Spock eventually confront Landru, who turns out to be a software artifact. They pose a series of queries that lead to Landru’s self-destruction, by convincing the entity that since its own definition of evil applies to itself, and its mandate is to destroy the evils of society, it must self-annihilate.)

In the 1992 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Outcast, Commander Riker becomes romantically interested in Soren, a member of an androgynous race whose society is apparently blissfully free of gender. The alien race, called the J’naii, forbids gender specificity. As Riker and Soren get to know each other, they share information on their respective mating rituals. They grow fond of each other. At one point, an exasperated Riker tells Soren: “For two days, I’ve been trying to construct sentences without personal pronouns…forgive me if the odd he or she slips by.” Soren smiles and nods because—not being a 2019-era culture warrior—she is an adult and not insane.

Soren boasts that the J’naii process for reproduction is “less risky.” Riker quips that it is “less enjoyable.” She explains that, “the idea of gender, it is offensive to my people. Long ago, we had two sexes as you do. We evolved into a higher form”—an unintended foreshadowing of a vision promoted by modern social justice activists who insist that “the future is non-binary.”

The pair eventually fall in love and Soren is arrested by her people as a result. The J’naii authorities force Soren to chemically alter her physiology in order to become sexless and genderless. Riker tries to intervene and take the blame for Soren’s attraction. But Soren does not accept his help. She faces her inquisitors and says, “I am female. I was born that way. I have had those feelings, those longings all of my life. It is not unnatural. I do not need to be helped. I do not need to be cured.”

It’s a powerful soliloquy in defense of individual rights and the freedom to love whom you want. But of course, it does not persuade the J’naii authoritarians, and they use her impassioned plea as incriminating evidence. She then is sentenced to “psycho-technic perversion therapy.”

Riker goes rogue and attempts to rescue Soren from the J’naii. But, by the time he reaches her, she has been pumped so full of drugs or ideology (what “psycho-technic perversion therapy” entails is not clear) that she claims that she had only been attracted to him because she was “sick.” She has been converted back to J’naii asexualnormativity. Seen by the lights of 2019, the episode’s story arc is eerie to say the least. Riker might as well have tried to rescue an activist grad student from Evergreen State.

Strange New Sci Fi
If truth is the first casualty of war, then perhaps good fiction is the first tragedy of culture war.

The very best Star Trek episode that tackles social justice (as we would now call it) is the 1991 Next Generation episode The Drumhead. This is Star Trek’s own version of The Crucible. The Enterprise becomes 17th-century Salem in this cautionary tale, as Captain Picard must fight a ranking officer who is conducting a show trial based on a fantastical conspiracy theory.

The ranking officer is distinguished Starfleet Admiral Norah Satie, who comes aboard the Enterprise to preside over the trial of a Klingon named J’Dan. (By this time in the canon, the Federation and Klingons have become allies.) He has been charged with attempting to sabotage the Enterprise. J’Dan admits to being a spy for the Romulan Empire, which remains hostile to both the Federation and the Klingons, but Admiral Satie becomes convinced that J’Dan had accomplices, and her ideas grow increasingly unhinged .

Satie deputizes Lieutenant Worf, the Enterprise’s security chief, who also gets swept up in the moral panic that surrounds the trial. He promises Satie that, “If there is a conspiracy on board, I promise you I will find it,” and starts rounding up innocent members of the Enterprise crew for interrogation.

A young crew member named Simon Tarses is one of them. He is fidgety and nervous. Satie pounces on him and tries to restrict his movements. As it turns out, Tarses indeed has something to keep from Admiral Satie—his racial identity: While Tarses is innocent of any kind of subterfuge or conspiracy, he is guilty of having a Romulan grandfather, something he has kept secret in order to pursue a career in Starfleet.

The cruelty and ruthlessness of Admiral Satie toward Tarses escalates to the point where Captain Picard himself is forced to intervene. Satie rejects Picard’s appeal for sanity, and informs him that the Head of Starfleet Security, Admiral Thomas Henry, is already en route to witness the completion of the trial. Satie then turns her attention to Picard and attempts to railroad him with false allegations of betraying Starfleet. This leads Worf to snap out of his own paranoid hysteria and defend his captain. Of course, Worf is now implicated as a result—a fate that can befall anyone who stands up for justice in the face of moral panic.

The episode reaches a crescendo when Picard uses the accusations against him to invoke the words of Admiral Satie’s father, Judge Aaron Satie, a legendary Federation lawmaker who warned about the dangers of denying due process in the name of safety: “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.”

Satie is enraged and screams, “I have brought down bigger men than you!” With this, the trial effectively comes to an end as Admiral Henry has now been witness to the delusional fanaticism of the once-trusted Satie. The explosion aboard the ship that triggered the investigation is eventually determined to have been a simple accident, caused by a faulty part.

Once the trial is officially brought to a close by Admiral Henry, Worf and Picard discuss the hysteria that swept throughout the Enterprise.

“We think we’ve come so far,” Picard says, “The torture of heretics, the burning of witches, it’s all ancient history. Then, before you can blink an eye, it suddenly threatens to start all over again.”

“I believed her…I helped her. I did not see what she was,” Worf says.

“Mr. Worf, villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged.” He concludes: “Vigilance, Mr. Worf. That is the price we have to continually pay.”

Attention, Star Trek Culture Warriors: Stand Down from Battle Stations
It’s a shame so many viewers apparently were too busy fighting the culture war on planet Earth to watch the much cooler war being fought against Klingon forces in the inky vastness of space.

These are just a few of many examples in which Star Trek warned us about the perils that attend any fanatical mindset, even those that begin with apparently virtuous intentions. The entire Borg storyline, for instance, is all about the dangers of the hive-mind, which can extrapolate a society’s natural desire for unity to its pathological extreme.

There’s another scene from the original series that I keep coming back to. I’ve written about it before in relation to the Twitter-shaming of Chris Rock. It’s from a 1969 episode called “The Savage Curtain.” Lieutenant Uhura comes face to face with an alien entity who is projecting the image of Abraham Lincoln. The alien is struck by Uhura’s beauty. He calls her “a charming negress,” then immediately realizes he has said a problematic word and says, “Oh, forgive me, my dear, I know that in my time some used that term as a description of property.”

“Why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we’ve learned not to fear words,” Uhura says.

The response embodies the hopeful, humanist sentiments that made Star Trek resonate with fans in the first place. It reflects a vision for the future where diversity is a given as opposed to an obsession, and where resilience and confidence were prized over sensitivity.

While the original (and best) captain of the Enterprise continues the fight against social justice extremism on Twitter to this day, the franchise itself is in danger of trending in the opposite direction. Whether Star Trek: Discoverycan succeed depends on whether or not its creative team can begin to tell stories that don’t rely on pandering to activists and instead engage with broad audiences. Following Uhura’s advice would be a good start to righting a listing ship.

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