Paolo Jose Cruz wrote a post in answer to What I Wish I Could Unlearn From Star Trek TNG: The Prime Directive or conserving cultures like a lab sample, which I published in a three-part series. I thought I might as well take the time to write a decent answer! Warning: this post contains mentions of anthropological work.
“I would quite simply insist that there is no way one culture can know what is best for another.”
This affirmation, which I stand by, is part of a comment thread that follows my post. In the post itself, I examine the notions that underline the Prime Directive, criticize some of them and highlight the double-sided attitude of Starfleet officers: the Prime Directive dictates non-interference in the internal affairs of others as well as in the natural development of pre-warp cultures. However, officers often act in a condescending way toward these other cultures.
In other words, the Prime Directive is ambiguous, many of the ideas that are behind it and deserve criticism, and it sometimes poses strong ethical problems (like allowing or not a pre-warp civilization to be destroyed, as part of their natural development). Still, there is a good part to the directive. As I state in my post:
“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, that of 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.”
My post made Paolo Jose Cruz react. He feels that “there are measurable, quantifiable ways to improve the quality of individual lives” by interference from other cultures. His post deals mainly with video games that have been created to educate women in underdeveloped countries learn about maternal health and responsible parenting.
One topic I had avoided, in order to keep my initial post short, was that of the very definition of interference. But Paolo’s reaction, and any answer I might provide, should at least start with a clearer and more common definition of this word. What, then, is interference?
Let’s go back to the original example of the Prime Directive: interference is not clearly defined in Star Trek either. In some cases, non-interference means letting a whole planet of addicts face a shocking withdrawal when their pre-warp ships stop working (Symbiosis, S1E21). In other instances, it means allowing a government to brainwash an individual who’s gender identity is considered deviant (The Outcast, S5E17).
With societies that are deemed advanced enough, technology is shared after careful consideration, and information about various topics can be exchanged. Assistance may be given if asked for, and joint projects may be undertaken. Yet, from one episode or movie to another, interpretations of the Prime Directive vary.
Then what can we at least determine? Unsolicited mingling in other’s affairs is prohibited. Solicited help may be acceptable in some conditions, even if it may have unexpected consequences (The Masterpiece Society S5E13). But in conflict situation, Starfleet does not take a side (Redemption part 1 and 2, S4E26-27). Overall, my impression is that the Prime Directive aims at maintaining respectful relations between equals, while limiting as much as possible negative consequences of Starfleet’s participation in any situation. Briefly said, then, interference is not minding one’s business, and imposing views on others.
Back to Earth
The specific examples given by Paolo do not seem particularly problematic: women can certainly benefit from information about maternal health, parenting or avoiding parasites. In this case, the information shared has a positive impact on people’s life, and that’s great. I would argue, still, that such games are one of many examples of expressions of Western domination over ideas of health and well-being, and over instances that seek to impose those ideas over humans populations (like the World Health Organization).
In fact, I wouldn’t say these games are “an example of the Prime Directive in action”, as the directive would probably recommend non-interference in this case. If anything, this, and so many other projects of international cooperation, international development, missionary work, alien governments interventions, UN interventions, World Bank or World Health Organization (WHO), are exactly the opposite of non-interference.
The very notion of “improvement of quality of life” is determined according to Western standards. Such standards seem indisputable to Westerners, but may not be to other cultures. A branch of anthropology, called the anthropology of development, explores how projects of international development, solidarity or cooperation, sometimes serve to extend Western domination, or cause unexpected consequences, such as the dislocation of local worlds, cultures and social networks. In the field of health and well-being, particularly, every context is unique and general solutions cannot be patched on everyone.
Indigenous peoples all over the world, but especially in Canada, the USA, Aotearoa/New-Zealand and Australia, have been deeply involved in their own healing movements for decades. When reading literature on the Canadian indigenous healing movement, one learns rapidly that it was born in part because the solutions the governments were proposing simply didn’t make sense to indigenous peoples or didn’t work. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation published many interesting documents on the topic, as did various authors such as Naomi Adelson, Adrian Tanner, James B. Waldram and many others.
Françoise Dussart wrote a great article titled “It it hard to be sick now”: Diabetes and the Reconstruction of Indigenous Sociality in which she described the many problems aboriginals communities face with bio-medicine and the lack of flexibility of nurses and doctors who treat them for sicknesses such as diabetes. The treatments prescribed, in fact, are in direct conflict with their way of life, with what allows them to live a life well-lived.
I am not saying, of course, that all and any type of international cooperation or development project is bad. What I am saying, however, is that they can sometimes serve to enforce Western domination in one form or another. Whether this is done willingly or not, consequences can be unforeseen.
One of the most important points of my post about the Prime Directive was precisely to question the notions underlying it: how can a culture or alien race be considered suitable for contact? Who decides what these criteria are? Aren’t these criteria based on the same notions that were used to justify colonialism?
I think the most important thing, in projects such as the ones Paolo mentions, is that 1: they answer to a need that the people actually have and feel they have; 2: that their input is respected, solicited and taken into account; 3: that the project seeks to share and not impose something on them.
However, the criteria underlying the Prime Directive, many of which are in fact shared by instances such as the UN or WHO, at least in appearances, can serve to justify consulting peoples or not, including them in decision-making or not, considering seriously their own knowledge and wisdom or discarding them.
Like many other topics, international development requires careful consideration. Science-fiction serves as a form of exploration of various moral imperatives and possible outcomes of our actions. In that regard, and in many others, it is worthy of academic consideration.
Dussart, F. 2010. “It Is Hard to Be Sick Now ”: Diabetes and the Reconstruction of Indigenous Sociality. Anthropologica 52, 77–87.
Waldram, J. B. 2008. Aboriginal Healing in Canada : Studies in Therapeutic Meaning and Practice (ed J. B. Waldram). Ottawa: The Aboriginal Healing Foundation Research Series (available on-line: http://www.ahf.ca/downloads/aboriginal-healing-in-canada.pdf, accessed ).