This piece is the second in a series of three about the things I wish Star Trek, specifically TNG, could have addressed differently. You can read the first piece about gender roles here.
The Prime Directive, or conserving cultures like a lab sample
“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy… And a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well-intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.“- Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Symbiosis, S1E21)
At first glance, the Prime Directive looks like an astonishing and humble moral posture: humans admit that they don’t know everything. They should mind their own business instead of imposing their views on others. They should respect the laws, cultures and values of others. They should not interfere with aliens whose development is under a certain level and allow them to develop naturally.
First and foremost, let’s mention that despite this directive, characters often seem convinced that their way of thinking and of doing things is better than anyone else’s. On many occasions, they describe the alien values and ideas they are confronted with as outdated, comparing them to elements of the human past (Angel One S1E13, The Outrageous Okona S2E4).
Often enough, the comments are expressed by Commander Riker:
“We no longer enslave animal for food purposes.” (Lonely Among Us, S1E7)
The humility that seemingly underlines the Prime Directive doesn’t necessarily extend to all Starfleet officers. In fact, the Prime Directive isn’t entirely based on humility, and the ideas which underline it are problematic (at least in an anthropological perspective informed by processes of decolonization). Let’s examine some of these ideas briefly.
Don’t contaminate a petri dish culture
Listening to the way TNG characters talk about aliens cultures, one could think they are petri dishes: they must not be contaminated, the contamination must be undone, and observation must be conducted without interfering with the experience’s natural results.
In other words, aliens cultures must be spied on in secret to preserve their natural evolution until they reach a point where one deems them ready to meet with members of the more advanced Starfleet.
Although it could be interesting to see how a culture turns out if it is left undisturbed, it is arrogant to sit there and watch from the shadows, choosing by which criteria to determine if aliens are ready or not for first contact. That is essentially the plot of the episode Who Watches the Watchers (S3E4).
Additionally, when considering human history, on which Star Trek stories are based, no culture ever really developed in a vacuum. Actually, the way a culture reacts to an encounter with aliens is just as revealing about its nature as how it might change over the following centuries.
Although the Prime Directive emanates from “good intentions”, such as the desire to protect those who are weaker, it finds its roots in notions of western ideology which have been used to justify colonization and paternalistic attitudes towards various indigenous populations.
The notion of a natural course of evolution that all cultures must move across is one which has served as an excuse to take control of societies, attempt to assimilate them, and even commit genocide. As some societies were deemed “primitive”, western colonial powers took it upon themselves to bring them “up to speed”, into modernity. In doing so, they conveniently stole their land, resources and rights.
In fact, the so-called good intentions to help others progress were extremely damaging to the peoples who saw their culture denigrated and their children taken away to residential schools (see CBC archives) as was the case for indigenous peoples in Canada. Many colonial processes are still enduring today in different forms (see Idle No More).
Despite the fact that anthropologists originally contributed to the popularization of the notion of a natural evolution of cultures with predetermined stages, they have long criticized it. It is no longer considered valid to “rate” cultures according to their political or economic system, technological level or other such elements. Sadly, just like the concept of race, evolution is still part of popular vocabulary and shapes attitudes, perceptions and even government policies.
I am not saying that the Prime Directive should be about interfering with all life-forms. In fact, it’s probably not a bad idea to try to mingle with aliens who have similar technological levels: if anything, races who don’t develop warp drive might simply want to be left alone.
The real problem is the criteria chosen by Starfleet to determine if contact should be made or not or if interference is acceptable: among these criteria is a certain level of technological development. That suggests that as cultures change, evolve, they can only do so by developing as western societies have, because that is necessarily the natural way. And why should factors such as technological advancement be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to save an alien race from impending doom? (Pen Pals, S2E15)
Better than nothing
The Prime Directive is the subject of much debate between Star Trek fans (see forums 1, 2 and 3) and isn’t interpreted or put into use in the same way by all Starfleet officers. Kirk, particularly, was a big believer in his own right to decide when to respect it or not.
The directive concerns a great variety of contexts, and provides guidelines not only for first contact, but also to help officers manage situations regarding the laws and international affairs of aliens cultures. There are some good aspects to it (Symbiosis, S1E21), even if characters are sometimes quick to set them aside when they do not suit them (Justice, S1E7).
Despite the few problems I find with the directive, it does, at the very least, express that Starfleet officers should not interfere with other cultures, no matter how superior they might think they are compared to it. It also teaches that this very conviction, being convinced one knows what’s best for others, is arrogant and can have disastrous consequences. That lesson of humility is one that western societies, and the ones who have suffered under their rule (and still do) would very much benefit from.