“On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see Paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a saint in Paradise, but the Maquis do not live in Paradise. Out there in the demilitarized zone, all the problems haven’t been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints — just people. Angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with Federation approval or not!”
In the above quote, taken from a second season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Avery Brooks’ Commander Benjamin Sisko monologues on the difficulties of relating to certain kinds of struggle when one has never had to face it for themselves. His speech refers to the Maquis, who, in the Star Trek universe, are a group of Federation colonists whose homes fell on the wrong side of a border after a treaty the Federation made with the Cardassian Union. After the treaty, these colonists found themselves cut off from the Federation and subjected to Cardassian occupation. Feeling the need to fend for themselves, many of them banded together as the Maquis and fought back. They felt themselves to be freedom fighters, while Starfleet considered them traitors and the Cardassians called them terrorists.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote lately. I think why this monologue is so effective and why it still says so much today is how effective of a picture it paints of privilege.
Ever since the word civility has become the hot topic – the buzzword headlining countless editorials and think pieces – I’ve been continually reminded of how Sisko points out that, “it’s easy to be a saint in paradise.” I think I’m not alone in my growing frustrations with the ease in which the term civility has been tossed around to discredit or deflect dissidence and protest – not just from conservatives and Trump supporters (which is its own warped brand of hypocrisy) but from many liberal leaders as well. At the very least, these calls for civility reflect a particular naivety from individuals who don’t really feel the negative impacts of what’s going on – individuals who have a strong disconnect from the struggles of many minority groups in our country (and those looking for entry into our country). It’s easy to judge dissent and those who rise up in resistance when your life is not particularly affected by what they are protesting against.
In thinking of this, I’m reminded of a recent argument between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein. Harris invited Klein on his podcast, Waking Up with Sam Harris, to discuss a controversy over the connection between IQ and genetics – a discussion which ultimately boiled down to the two of them defending their respective views on “identity politics” (you can listen to this particular podcast episode here). For those that might not be entirely clear, identity politics (according to wikipedia) refers to the notion of basing political opinions “on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.” In a response to the debate, Ezra Klein critiqued Harris’ position against identity politics, by stating that his stance is “one of the advantages of being the majority group: Your concerns get coded as concerns; it’s everyone else who is playing identity politics.”
Again I refer back to Sisko’s quote in Star Trek – “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise.” I believe that Klein’s words above reflect Sisko’s speech (made over 25 years ago) by pointing out how easy it is for members of the majority social group to fail to really see their own collective advantages and thus cast judgment on minority groups for expressing their frustrations. Personally, I love Sam Harris. I think he brings a lot of good, thoughtful ideas to the table, and as a left-leaning progressive he touches on some important criticisms to liberal schools of thought and movements. I believe it’s important for social ideologies – much like peer-reviewed research – to accept and understand criticisms to improve and legitimize themselves. That being said, I think Klein got the better of him here. Klein effectively makes the case that, while members of the majority group may not be able to relate to the systemic frustrations that push minority groups to the point of dissent and protest, they should not be dismissive of their overall message. I myself can’t pretend to understand the lived experience of others who have had to struggle simply because of social status, but I like to believe that I know enough to recognize that I can’t quite fully understand.
The Star Trek franchise has often been socially conscious, striving to present commentaries and critiques on the problems we face in society. In watching these old episodes there are elements that are definitely dated but it’s striking how relevant many of the ideas still are today. Gene Roddenberry’s original vision was for Star Trek to present us with hope and optimism in the face of conflict and prejudice. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, however, while also building on that tradition of hope and optimism, endeavored to add an element of a more darker realism in order to demonstrate that finding solutions to some problems may not always be so black and white. I get the idea that people want civil discourse, and I get the notion that, as Michelle Obama stated, “when they go low, we go high.” There’s a place for positivity and optimism, but I believe there is also a place for defiance from time to time. As Sisko puts it, we are all “just people. Angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive.”
Ultimately, civility hasn’t seemed to be working out all too well. People are beginning to lose patience with this notion amidst the mounting scandals, power grabs, flagrant racism, outright cruelty, and a constant barrage of assaults on many of our nation’s values from the Trump administration; all with persistent deflection, misdirection and a push towards discrediting the checks and balances in place to prevent these kinds of problems. Almost worse are the false equivalencies (“both sides are equal”) presented often in the media and the passive politics and lack of resistance we see from many leaders in the Democratic Party.
Evident of this is a recent article in the Miami Herald in which writer Leonard Pitts Jr. categorically states “I’m done trying to understand Trump Supporters. Why don’t they try to understand me?”
Pitts argues that there’s no point in ineffectually trying to understand where there’s nothing left to understand. Understanding implies the potential for compromise, and to Pitts, there’s no place for compromise anymore: “No compromise is possible here for a simple reason Trump followers seem to understand better than the rest of us: You can’t compromise with demography, can’t order numbers to stop being what they are and saying what they say about the coming tide of change. But what you can do is seize the levers of power and change the rules of the game in hopes of blunting the force of that tide. That — again, look at the studies — is what Trump supporters elected him to do.”
In another recent article, CNN‘s Gregory Krieg argues that “the so-called ‘civility debate’ is the newest front in a wider conflict that has less to do with manners, or ensuring a polite discourse, than in protecting the powerful from being forced to engage with politics on someone else’s terms.”
What Pitts and Krieg both seem to hit on is the fact that calls for civility reflect a deeper misunderstanding from those in power – a misunderstanding that, with voices of dissent reaching further than ever in the digital age – could very likely be their downfall. We’re witnessing it with mounting nation-wide protests for a variety of causes and movements and the success of the Justice Democrats movement with political victories from individuals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the growing grassroots support for more insurgent Democrats like her. Civility and compromise are by no means dead and we should ultimately strive to work towards those ideals in the end, but I think I am in agreement with many people when I say now is not the time. Now is the time to resist.