Star Trek and Multiculturalism

I’ve been re-watching Star Trek: TNG (yes, Picard is My Captain). Yesterday I came to the fourth season episode “Half a Life.” The basic premise is that Deanna’s mother falls in love with an alien scientist, an alien that comes from a culture that believes everyone should kill themselves on their 60th birthday. Naturally, the scientist is only days away from turning 60, and Lwaxana tries to convince him to defy his culture and live. The rest of the episode plays out this conflict: between the scientist’s desire to continue his work, his desire to stay with Lwaxana, and his desire to honor his upbringing and his home.

It could easily have been a throwaway episode, but for me it showcases what I loved about Star Trek. The conflict here works on several levels: we have the romance angle, the fear of growing old and becoming a burden on others, and the conflict between saving a life (the scientist’s) and honoring the Prime Directive. All the main characters react to that conflict in keeping with their natures: Picard stays out of it, Lwaxana fights against what she sees as a barbaric custom, and the scientist is torn between custom and his desire to live.

And the third conflict points directly to a problem American liberalism was facing in the 90s, and continues to face today: multiculturalism. The idea that people should be free to practice their own cultural traditions is an honorable one, but where do you draw the line? Where does honoring someone’s culture become dishonoring (or refusing to fight for) my own?

In the 90s, these questions came up over the conflict in Bosnia, female genital mutilation in Africa, and our relationship with China. We knew genocide was happening in the Balkans, but did that give us the right to go in guns blazing? We believed female circumcision to be wrong, but did that mean we should pressure other governments to stamp it out? And we knew human rights were being stamped on in China, but did that mean we should stop trading with them?

Domestically, it played out over civil rights – for women, for minorities, for gays and lesbians. With so many intolerant people in the world, using hateful language, discriminating against others, and claiming it was their right to do so, how much of it should we allow? How much intolerance should we be tolerant of?

Star Trek’s answer, with the Prime Directive, seems to be: all of it. At least in terms of foreign policy, the Prime Directive would tell us to butt out.

At one point in the “Half a Life” episode, one of the aliens from the euthanasia culture says “How dare you insult me and my beliefs?” When I first saw the episode, the line and its sentiment really resonated with me. Who was I to make fun of someone else’s culture?

Re-watching it today, the line seems ridiculous. How could anyone expect to be free from criticism? What kind of culture would we have, if no one could poke fun at someone else’s beliefs? And in this particular case, what sort of liberals would we be, claiming to speak for human dignity and freedom, if we didn’t speak out against a culture that asked its members to commit suicide?