What Star Trek Teaches Us about DEI
When I first watched Star Trek as a kid, it was on a black & white television set. The iteration was The Next Generation series, and I eventually learned what the scope of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, and the entire genre was about.
I was tired of watching the same old smash-em-up-bang sort of TV shows. My autistic mind wasn’t grasping those cowboys versus the bad guys types of shows. Mostly because the bad guys were always akin to the people I grew up with, so it didn’t seem realistic to me as many of them weren’t like the portrayal I saw on screen.
Star Trek, however, showed me a diversity of species, including humans, of all different shapes, sizes, skin tones, and backgrounds working together, with a common focus and goal. No longer were the bad guys always brown or spoke with a non-American accent. I could not predict, based on superficial characteristics alone, who would end up being the heel and who the savior. I actually had to watch the story unfold in front of me and pay attention to the character’s motivations. It was the most in-depth thing on television that caught my attention and kept it. Thirty years later, it’s still something that I embrace, so much so that you will catch me at the occasional comic convention seeking autographs or photo opportunities with cast members from the franchise.
But more importantly, Star Trek taught me not to judge a character by their appearance, the way they sounded, where they came from, or who they were affiliated with. Klingons used to be enemies and now are part of the Federation. The Borg, an assimilation race that was thought to be a strict and steadfast enemy, has worked together with the Federation to eradicate or broker peace with a power species or alliance. Romulans and Vulcans, thought to be enemies forever despite their common ancestry, have found their way back to each other, even though one had their planet completely destroyed.
In the end, Star Trek presents a variety of ways in which people find themselves back to each other despite any differences (perceived or otherwise) that might have kept them apart. And most importantly, they talk about the assumptions made of their own kind that kept them stereotyping the most benign efforts of one society from so much as talking to another one. They admit their mistakes, fumble through the resolution, and seek repentance.
These traits have all been mirrored by humankind here on this earth. But the most devastating part of watching this unfold here in the real world is that there are often no altruistic reasons for people to fix their preconceived notions in order to make the world a more perfect union. Star Trek, it seems, is far beyond the human race’s desire to be better than it was yesteryear.
The one trait that sticks out to me in the Star Trek universe is the ability to see beyond what is to what can be. My favorite episode, by far, is The Measure of a Man, written by Melinda Snodgrass. In it, the one android currently serving in Starfleet goes by the name Data. He is cajoled by Dr. Bruce Maddox to accompany him for a procedure that would ultimately end in Data’s termination. The doctor, it seems, is not competent enough to ensure Data’s longevity and repair after the investigation is done. Data ponders this, and even though he is an android with a positronic brain and essentially should not have a consensus as to whether or not there’s a will to carry on in the pursuit of a greater good (as the creator of Data, Dr. Noonien Soong, is no longer around to help or give guidance), he decides ultimately to refuse the procedure based on the fact that he doesn’t want to not live.
Blown away by this decision, Dr. Maddox ends up ordering Data to do so. Basically saying that he’s property as he’s not a sentient being. He’s no different than the ship’s computer system. This leads to a fight for Data’s autonomy. And since it’s unclear if he has “rights” or not, he can’t just simply resign his post. We learn early on that Data, subjected now to a court hearing, is being viewed for possibly more nefarious purposes by Starfleet. Not necessarily to be of help, but to be a useful tool. In essence, a disposable weapon of mass destruction, and a cog in the war machine to keep the Federation on top of the fight against others who may threaten the Federation and any of its allied forces.
This keyword is something that is honed in on, not by any of the top military forces, but by a keen bartender who happens to be a great advisor to the ship’s captain. She nudges him just enough to get him to realize exactly what’s happening. And why. He concocts a plan to reveal what’s intended through the ultimate actions of Dr. Maddox and goes to spoil his plan of proving sentience lacking within Data’s autonomy. We can’t. No one can. And as a result, Data is simply asked, and he refuses to undergo the procedure.
However, despite this, Data decides to continue to help Dr. Maddox and provide comfort in that he understands the ultimate goal, just him being disassembled won’t be part of it.
The turn here is important.
Through all this drama, all this discouragement, all this force of frustration and trying to push Data's hand toward his way, Data still refuses to not see the good in what Dr. Maddox is trying to do.
In the world of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), I struggle daily to make this fact known among those I’m trying to help. We see the ultimate goal, and consultants like myself understand what outcome is desired from a company or organization, and why, but we must go through the drama of a “trial” of sorts in order to see the light in how our ways are harmful, how we must see the “humanity” within our trials, and even though we may seek to eradicate what we deem as harmful or unnecessary, sometimes it’s just a matter of perspective that needs the right nudge to see why what we thought was a benign procedure that “wouldn’t hurt anyone” actually harms everyone.
DEI, at its root, is not hard to understand. It’s hard to implement. And the reason is because humans have to get past the emotional reckoning that has, in essence, been compared to someone experiencing physical pain. That’s what keeps us divided, and that’s what keeps our present from looking more like Star Trek’s future.