This is part of an ongoing series, ANALYZE TREK, in which we analyze classic Star Trek episodes through a modern, socio-political lens.
“…The greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. But there’s no such thing as the unknown, only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.”
– Captain James T. Kirk
This quote from the episode, The Corbomite Maneuver, represents Star Trek at its very core. The biggest danger is not the unknown, but how we allow ourselves to react to the unknown.
During the episode, the Enterprise destroys an unidentified object that had been emitting dangerous levels of radiation harmful the the crew and the ship itself. It is soon revealed that the object was a beacon, belonging to a powerful force hailing from an organization called the First Federation. When confronted by a representative from the First Federation (Balok, of the starship, Fesarius) about the destruction of the beacon and trespassing in restricted space, the Enterprise is faced with imminent, and almost certain, destruction.
The Fesarius is not only bigger than the Enterprise, it is significantly faster and more powerful. Escape is not an option. Balok, in his initial address to the Enterprise, explains that no amount of diplomacy or pleading will change their fate.
“In chess, when one is outmatched, the game is over. Checkmate,” Spock tells the Captain, hopelessly.
This comparison to chess sparks something inside of Kirk. His attention is drawn to another game of wits, but one of very different principals: poker. More specifically, the concept of bluffing.
The episode’s namesake, The Corbomite Maneuver, is a phrase that Kirk simply comes up with on the spot.
“This is the Captain of the Enterprise. Our respect for other life-forms requires that we give you this warning. One critical item of information that has never been incorporated into the memory banks of any Earth ship. Since the early years of space exploration, Earth vessels have had incorporated into them a substance known as corbomite. It is a material and a device which prevents attack on us. If any destructive energy touches our vessel, a reverse reaction of equal strength is created, destroying…the attacker! It may interest you to know that since the initial use of corbomite more than two of our centuries ago, no attacking vessel has survived the attempt. Death has little meaning to us. If it has none to you then attack us now. We grow annoyed at your foolishness.”
This bluff is enough to get Balok to stand down; to allow for a dialogue between the two ships, and ultimately, to reach an understanding.
Throughout this episode, Kirk places his bet on the rationality of their opponents, rejecting the idea that anything can be truly unknown. “Surely a lifeform advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives,” he explains when formulating his plans.
If Kirk in this scenario represents reason in the face of the unknown, it is the character of Lieutenant Dave Bailey that acts as his foil, or irrationality in the face of fear.
In this episode, Bailey represents the concept of Social Identity Theory, which states that a portion of an individual’s concept of self is defined by a perceived belonging to a relevant social group. Psychologists, Henri Tajfel of the University of Bristol in England, and John Turner of the Australian National University, developed the theory when looking at the psychology behind the range of biases and prejudices. What Tajfel and Turner’s theory tells us is that individuals develop self-importance through association with groups (i.e. nationality, religion, appearance, race, sexuality, sports team, organization, etc.), and easily denigrate those who identify with a different group in order to retain an air of superiority.
In essence, given some set of criteria, we “naturally split people into two groups—an in-group and an out-group,” (source: Why We Fear the Unknown – Psychology Today).
We have watched this concept played out in history time and time again, often with bloody and destructive repercussions. Despite this, we continue to repeat the same mistakes. Today, in our own culture and society, this fear and concept of otherness is directed at Muslim communities, immigrants and refugees. A major candidate for President in the United States is proposing a ban on immigration from Muslim countries and advocating to build walls along the borders. This rhetoric encourages fear to fester into hatred. Just recently, Great Britain voted to leave the European Union, largely in the hope of securing borders. And at a more personal level, local incidents of prejudice, racism and violence simply breed more prejudice, racism and violence – incidents like the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American in Arizona who was killed in 2001 by a man who wanted revenge for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
All of this comes at the expense of compassion, reason, and rationality. Undoubtedly we have an enemy, and terrorism is a major threat. However, what we overlook is that those who are most victimized by these enemies are those who we seem to be turning our backs on. We allow ourselves to categorize them along with those who perpetrate violence. 60% of deaths from terrorist attacks take place in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq (source: Are Most Victims of Terror Muslim? – BBC).
As we see in The Corbomite Maneuver, it is not the unknown (or the “other,” in this case) that is doing the most lasting damage, it is our reaction to and fear of it. Arguably, the animosity that we are facing from terrorist organizations and religious extremists is based upon the same inherent categorization and sense of “otherness” that we seem to project onto refugees and immigrants trying to escape the very same animosity. It is our reaction to this targeted hatred and the attacks from groups such as the Islamic State, Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda that seem to be further driving a wedge between us and victims of terror and oppression who may look different than us. All that this division does is alienate people, perpetuate hatred and anger, and allow terrorists to succeed in spreading fear.
Understanding Social Identity Theory, psychologists recognize that we have an innate and natural reaction to categorize those who are different than us. When researching this, psychologists, Samuel L. Gaertner & John F. Dovidio looked at what’s known as aversive racism. Aversive racism states that negative thoughts and beliefs of others stem from a persistent avoidance of those racial or ethnic groups. Outright racism stems from an intrinsic hatred and fear, but aversive racism comes from ingrained segregation and otherness (whether conscious or unconscious) and manifests more-so through ambivalence. What this tells us is that proposed bans of certain ethnic and religious groups, the strengthening of borders, and increased segregation will only make the problem worse. Gaertner & Dovido, when looking at ways to combat aversive racism developed the idea of the common group identity model which rejects Social Identity Theory’s idea of an in-group and an out-group, in favor of a restructuring of how we categorize and group individuals altogether. This begins by “acknowledging and addressing unconscious bias.”
In The Corbomite Maneuver, Kirk’s ability and desire to overcome the fear of otherness that Lieutenant Bailey succumbs to, ends up saving the ship. He, like Gaertner & Dovido, begins to think outside of the in-group and an out-group, and realizes there are more ways to look at the whole picture. Instead of stopping at the belief that Balok is unknown and therefore must be feared, he holds to the belief that he can appeal to the rationality of his opponent to not only avoid violence, but de-escalate the situation, open a dialogue, and identify and reason out the misunderstanding.
As it turns out, Kirk wasn’t the only one bluffing. Upon meeting Balok face to face, we find that the blue alien figure (pictured above) was simply a puppet in an orchestrated attempt to test the crew of the Enterprise in order to learn more about the nature of humanity. The true Balok is none other than Ron Howard’s brother, Clint Howard – a portrayal that could be argued to be even scarier than the initial alien puppet, however that is beside the point.
In the end, what we are left with is a glimmer of hope. Hope that fear, and the irrational categorization of others can be overcome with reason, compassion and intelligence. Lieutenant Bailey is shown to have seen the error of his ways and even agrees to stay with Balok so the two races can learn more about each other. As Bailey gets a new opportunity to expand his personal horizons, the Enterprise is left with a new and unique ally in its quest to seek out new life and new civilizations. We can only hope that, like the characters in Star Trek, we can overcome our fears as well and ultimately work towards a better tomorrow.