We all loved the banter between Dr. McCoy and Spock from the Old Show, didn’t we? We knew they respected each other and knew, as well, that their speciesist comments didn’t come from a place of hate. But what was so engaging to us as we watched them making fun of humans or vulcans? In fact, why was it ok to make fun of an entire species?
Because they weren’t making fun of each other. They were making fun of us.
Our culture is essentially, overwhelmingly tribal. Our politics, our sports, our cliques, our families–we pick one side and stick with it because “he’s our man” they’re my team” “I like him” “I trust them” “that’s what we’ve always done” “it’s god’s will”.
When someone changes a thought or action or affiliation making it different from yours, you feel miffed. You take it personally. They are looking down on you or criticizing you. Your choice is better, right? They’re wrong…here, I have a meme to prove it.
Tribalism makes all kinds of differences difficult to express or to accept. Do you look, sound, eat, pray, love, and vote like everyone you know? Do you allow others to express differences and not treat them as outsiders?
You can find plenty of science about how tribalism was a feature of human survival, how tribalism is wired into our brains and behavior. It very likely played an important role in our evolutionary success against other species of humans. However, what was once a feature has become a bug.
A theme in Star Trek is to show how damaging this innate behavior is to human progress. Extreme group loyalty means we pick a side–we pick personalities over principles–and that may cause a lot of damage in our own lives and in others. In good faith loyalty, we can forget about ethics and experience cognitive dissonance. In bad faith loyalty, we can use means-to-an-end thinking and cherry-pick our reasons.
Star Trek has challenged these good faith and bad faith actions throughout its various shows. It chided us with McCoy/Spock but challenged us with Kira/Odo. Every show carried this theme of overcoming tribalism, including the newest one, Star Trek Lower Decks.
Lower Decks is an animated comedy but its soul is Star Trek. I grasped this during the second episode, and I don’t think any other incarnation of the series has made it more clear or presented it in such a fun way.
In this episode, Rutherford, an engineering ensign, decides to try out other jobs on the ship in order to free up time to be with a friend. When he requests a transfer from engineering, his commanding officer grows threatening. The animators make the scene dark and the expressions dark. There’s going to be a confrontation, accusations, insults, maybe a fight.
The writers are telling us about ourselves. Someone leaving our group, choosing a different path, is rejecting us, is criticizing us. They’re arrogant and insulting. We don’t like it, and now we don’t like them.
But wait…this is Star Trek. This is comedic Star Trek. The engineering officer suddenly erupts with, “This is exciting. I’m sure wherever you end up, they’ll be lucky to have you.” And everyone on deck cheers for Rutherford.
Throughout the episode, Rutherford transfers from medical, command, and eventually from security, as well, with the commander of security growing dark at his rejection before announcing, “That’s outstanding! Got to be true to yourself. Am I right, Bears?”
Rutherford’s exploration isn’t even the principle plot in this episode, but it’s so refreshing to have this explicit reminder of what makes the Star Trek universe so special. And why many of us look to Star Trek as a guiding light in these extremely tribal times.