Fiction and social commentary

I recently mentioned to someone how Star Trek, in its depiction of the refusal of the Federation to intervene on behalf of Bajor was an example of the negative aspects of cultural relativism mentioned in my last blog. They appeared to think that this might be an example, but not a good example.

For those who are unfamiliar: Star Trek has three ‘nations’ in this conflict, the Federation, Cardassia, and Bajor. The Federation has a ‘Prime Directive’ which states: never interfere in non-Federation civilizations. Cardassia went to war with Bajor without provocation, took over Bajor, and enslaved its people. The Federation refused to help, because of the Prime Directive. In my opinion, this was wrong, and the Federation should have rescued the Bajorans.

To return to my original point, I will fully grant that real life examples are really good things to which to refer. However, I believe that fictional examples can be incredibly good as well, especially science fiction examples. Let us consider the benefits of each.

The main benefit of a real life example is that it has the advantage of definitively demonstrating something real. A fictional example can, of course, be completely made up, and reflect nothing about reality. That is a good reason to consider real life examples superior to fictional examples.

The downside (irrelevant side note: I am drunk, and I swear I wrote ‘downshide’ before correcting it), is that real life examples are not statistically relevant, but of course this is true of fictional examples as well.

But can fictional examples be relevant at all? Well, I think that they can, in the same manner as thought experiments. Thought experiments are very important – Einstein developed his theory of gravity (general relativity) using thought experiments (he also used thought experiments in his development of special relativity). In other words, he took what we knew about the universe, and assumed it would apply to situations where we had no way to experimentally determine the outcome, and used this to derive new principles.

Now, fictional settings like Star Trek are not going to be able to do this. However, they can do something else: they can allow people to consider social scenarios without their preconceived notions.

In fact, Star Trek: The Original Series tried to do this, with their episode, ‘A Private Little War.’ This episode was a critique of the Vietnam war. At the time, American television censors were not in favour of anti-war shows, but this was allowed, because it paralleled the situation.

In a parallel manner, when we present someone with a question about a real-life situation, they will approach it with their preconceptions intact. If, for instance, you were an American in the late sixties, and wanted to talk to another American about the Vietnam war, they would likely already have a fixed opinion on the matter. However, if you showed them the episode, they would be likely to consider this parallel (fictional) instance without any preconceptions, and to be therefore able to morally analyse the situation more objectively. It is a bit like the following situation: if a person finds out a family member were involved in some situation, they would be unlikely to have an objective opinion about it, but if they were to hear about a similar situation involving utterly unrelated individuals, they might be able to see it clearly. When we see fictional examples in which we have no emotional investment, we form judgments more readily without bias.

For this reason, when faced with anti-interventionists and cultural relativists, I like to appeal to the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict. Because in such situations, people are very likely to say ‘Clearly, the Federation should help Bajor!’ But once they admit this, then they have to admit intervention is, in principle, sometimes acceptable. Whereas if we stick with real-life examples, they might not do this.

To give another example, consider the Star Trek episode in which two aliens of the same species were in conflict, because one of them had black on the right of their face and white on the left, while the other had black on the left and white on the right. This conflict seems absurd to almost everyone, even if they themselves judge humans based on skin tone (in fairness, humans have tribalist instincts which might be triggered by skin tone, and perhaps these aliens might have tribalist instincts which are triggered by tone placement – but by seeing the irrationality of this instinct in the aliens, humans might be persuaded to see the irrationality in the instinct about skin tones).

Of course, the real-life examples might be good for persuading people in some cases. However, the point is that these fictional examples can help people to see why their principles are inconsistent, or why their principles are compatible with a course of action which they would never before have considered (or, why their principles are against a course of action which they previously favoured). And they can do this more effectively than real-world examples, because people approach them with no preconceptions or pre-existent loyalties.

Fiction cannot demonstrate anything about reality per se. We cannot say, for example, ‘Ah ha! Hamlet behaved in such and such a manner, which proves something about human nature!’ But what we can do, is to say to someone, ‘Your analysis of this fictional situation reflects one set of principles, but your analysis of this real situation reflects another, which shows that your analysis of the real situation is inconsistent with your real principles.’ And in doing this, science fiction is especially effective, because it presents people with situations that are totally alien (pun, I’m so sorry) to the real world, that it particularly elicits from them a reaction that is consistent with their real principles, without any prejudices creeping in.



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