Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Spock Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It!

After Leonard Nimoy died, I saw a flood of memes based on one of his character Spock's famous lines.  Here's one of the more complete ones; most I've seen omit the first clause.

One of the things that increasingly turned me off the more I watched the original Star Trek series was that the character of Spock was written by people who weren't particularly logical themselves and didn't know much about logic. I suppose you could argue that "logic" was a sort of fetish for the Vulcans, and that they were never very logical either; like those who claim to champion love, they could well have been deceiving themselves.  It was part of the Vulcan backstory, if I recall correctly, that they adopted their cult of logic because of their history of irrationality and violence, not because they had any 'natural' predisposition to logic.  Be that as it may, what was touted as logical in the TV show often was not; it was "logical" purely by fiat, usually spoken ex cathedra by Spock.

Logic doesn't dictate, clearly or murkily, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  If someone wants to make this claim, they need to support it with an argument of some kind, and I haven't seen one.  One reason to reject Spock's diktat is that Kirk counters it by declaring, equally without supporting reasons (though Kirk isn't expected to be logical), that the needs of the few, or the one (namely Spock), outweigh the needs of the many, and this formulation is supposed to win the day.  One could say that the conflicting statements cancel each other out; I'd say that they are both true, because moral judgments are not logical.

When you encounter two clashing claims that both seem valid, you have to start thinking.  This, of course, is too much trouble, but let's do it anyway.  Spock sacrifices his life in The Wrath of Khan in order to save the Enterprise and its crew, his comrades and friends.  In The Search for Spock Kirk and some of Spock's friends take great risks to bring Spock back to life.  (Remember, Spock cheats: he doesn't really sacrifice his life, he downloads his Self into Dr. McCoy so it can later be uploaded to a new Spock body. Would he have chosen to save the Enterprise if he'd known he really would die in doing so, or if he wasn't also saving himself along with the others? Logic, it seems, dictates covering your ass.)  Logic can't really help us here.  These are choices that people make, not conclusions dictated by logic.  (I therefore disagree with this Randite commentary on Spock's choice.  But then, Rand was another person who claimed to be rational but was not.)

It's odd for Kirk to dismiss Spock's choice, since in a military situation like Starfleet individuals are expected to sacrifice themselves for the good of the many: their comrades, the folks back home, their country.  (It's notorious that in Star Trek many hapless crew members are sacrificed by the writers for the needs of the Plot.)  Heroes are generally people who've done just that.  At the same time, the team doesn't abandon its fallen comrades, even if great risk to the team is involved.  So decisions, judgments, choices must be made.  You might fail, you might die yourself and your comrade might be lost, but that doesn't mean you made the wrong choice: it only means you weren't able to carry it out.  Within the world of Star Trek and most popular entertainment / propaganda historically, this is hardly controversial.  Not either/or, the many/the few, but both/and.  The two films, taken together, make the point explicitly.  It's interesting that fans never seem to give Kirk's version any credit, though it triumphs in the end with Spock's resurrection: a Google image search turns up no memes using it, but many based on Spock's, even when I searched for Kirk's.

I might have ignored these memes if it weren't for the "discussion" they inspired, mostly of the "Take that, Republitards!" variety.   

Well, no, it doesn't.  It was funny to see liberal Democrats taking this line.  Unlike the Stoopid Republitards, surely they're acquainted with the US Bill of Rights and the concept of the tyranny of the majority?  Once again, protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority isn't a universal rule: the needs or wishes of the many do not always trample the needs of wishes of the few, but the needs or wishes of the few do not always overrule the wishes or needs of the many.  They must be weighed against each other, and the decisions made are not final or forever.  The history of Supreme Court rulings shows this: in 1896 Jim Crow was acceptable, in 1954 it was not; in 1985 sodomy was not a civil right, in 2002 it was.  (It's also funny to see Democrats and Republicans alike celebrating an "activist" Supreme Court when it hands down a decision they like, and denouncing it when it hands down a decision they dislike, but that's another topic.)  Luckily, logic doesn't dictate Spock's principle.  But even if it did, logic would have to be defied.