Star Trek: The Next Generation is thirty years old this month! To celebrate, Redeeming Culture is assembling the finest crew of culture redeemers from all over the internet to investigate the spiritual harmonies in this cornerstone of science fiction.
For more about Trektember, read our preview post. Please note that there are minor plot spoilers for this episode below.
Redeeming Culture regular David Lichty moves us along with season 5, episode 23: I, Borg. What counts as bigotry?
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
A distress call leads the crew of the Enterprise to an injured member of the Borg, a group who desire to absorb all beings into their collective. This creates a quandary for our characters, pitting their acknowledgement of the Borg’s malignancy against their own high-mindedness – do they save “it”? Some of our characters see the Borg as a thing right from the moment they find him injured:
WORF: Kill it now. Make it appear that it died in the crash. Leave no evidence that we were ever here.
The camera holds on Picard considering this possibility for quite a few seconds. In this case, the usual benefits of doubts will not be automatic.
CRUSHER: (Over her communicator) Captain, we can’t leave him here. He won’t survive.
RIKER: I think the Captain understands that.
CRUSHER: (sharply) I don’t.
Disagreement is unavoidable with groups of people, real and fictional, but it was officially forbidden in The Next Generation. That was ignored with this episode. Some of this crew impulsively plan to use this thing to sow destruction into the whole Borg species. Others see their captor/patient as a person. So this crew actually argues.
LAFORGE: If this works the way I think it will, once the invasive program starts spreading, it’ll only be a matter of months before the Borg suffer total systems failure.
CRUSHER: A question. What exactly is total systems failure?
DATA: The Borg are extremely computer dependent. A systems failure will destroy them.
CRUSHER: I just think we should be plain about that. We’re talking about annihilating an entire race.
PICARD: Which under most circumstances would be unconscionable. But as I see it, the Borg leave us with little choice.
RIKER: I agree. We’re at war.
CRUSHER: There’s been no formal declaration of war.
TROI: Not from us, but certainly from them. They’ve attacked us in every encounter.
PICARD: They’ve declared war on our way of life. We are to be assimilated.
CRUSHER: But even in war there are rules. You don’t kill civilians indiscriminately.
RIKER: There are no civilians among the Borg!
Rather than surrounding a single idea with by-the-numbers Star Trek rulebook conversations, the characters really challenge each other here. Moreover, they push upward. Guinan pushes back with Picard, who, positionally, is superior to her. Geordi pushes back with Guinan, who is kind of superior to everyone.
And because they do this, by the end, they manage to do something that is right in both the big picture, and the details.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
Jesus frequently challenged people deeply, both his social subordinates and his societal superiors. He challenged the ways people assumed that the world worked. He challenged their views of reality by doing miracles right in public. He challenged theologies, philosophies if you will, by announcing so clearly who He was – deity walking among them. He challenged their prejudices, specifically those of “God’s people” targeting Samaritans, prostitutes and tax collectors – reread as Israel’s defectors, tempters and open traitors. Were they really to be treated as full people? Even them? Who’da thunk? Jesus knew it, and He instructed us to see likewise.
Who decides who’s a villain?
Guinan’s people had been direct victims of the Borg. Most of her kind had been obliterated or absorbed by them, and she has no tolerance for any notion that they might be other than they are, or that the captive is anything other than he is, regardless of how La Forge and Dr. Crusher are personifying him.
GUINAN: Let me tell you something. When that kid’s big brothers come looking for him, they’re not going to stop until they find him. And then they’re going to come looking for us, and they will destroy us. And they will not do any of the soul-searching that you are apparently doing right now.
LAFORGE: Then why don’t you go and talk to him. It might not be so clear cut then.
GUINAN: (disgusted) Because I wouldn’t have anything to say.
She looks away from Geordi.
LAFORGE: Then why don’t you just listen. That is what you do best, isn’t it?
She does meet the captive, and eventually Hugh says something stunning to her:
HUGH: What you are saying is that you are lonely.
GUINAN: (astonished) What?!
HUGH: You have no others. You have no home. …We are also lonely.
Guinan, against her own history, looks at Hugh differently. He is one of them, and yet he’s not one of them in the way which used to matter. She goes to convince Picard to rethink him.
Picard’s Unique Qualifications
It is said that one should not judge his opponent until he has walked a mile in their shoes. Well, Picard has done more than that. The Borg forcibly made him one of them for a while. As weird as it is to say, he is uniquely qualified to judge them. Yet for most of this episode, Picard won’t even see Hugh. It could be thought of as just a command style, except that he usually does look into things directly, either as a part of the team or just when he has time. It could be too painful for him, but there is no evidence of that when he finally does meet Hugh.
It could also come from a bit of moral cowardice. Sometimes people find themselves getting past a prejudice when they recognize a member of a foul group as a person. Because they want to preserve their anger, they avoid doing this, even unconsciously.
See, there’s a drawback to calling Hitler a monster. Hitler definitely earned the designation by his own actions, but calling him a monster also gives him a bit of an excuse. Of course he did those things. How could he not; he’s a monster. It’s easier to simply hate, or use, your enemy if he’s a monster. It is a justification to malign, but it also partially lets the enemy off the moral hook. That’s what Picard thinks of this Borg he has never met. It’s a monster, or a complicit part of a monster. He may not want to let that card go while he’s got it.
Genuine Moral Victors
The heroes in The Next Generation represent a lot of things. They are one view of a perfected humanity; they are functional socialists; they are ‘woke,’ politically correct, or right-thinking. However much smugness saturates those terms, they accurately describe our main characters representing what some would label a socially progressive viewpoint, in most of the best ways. In the 60’s, the crew had – not just a woman, but a black woman sitting on the bridge, being treated like an equal member of the crew. After a season of lines like “There’s no response, sir,” Nichelle Nichols was ready to leave the show, until no less a figure than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped her see how important was her place on television. The lead crew also boasted an Asian man, an alien resembling a playing-card Satan, and eventually even a Russian, our then-present cold war enemies. In the 80s, TNG updated the former enemy role, replacing the Russian with a Klingon. It’s the most obvious comparison to show The Next Generation cutting from the same cloth: these really are the good people, the decent people.
The Enterprise crew’s view of the Borg race, and each of its members, comes from direct experience. They have been threatened and attacked by this very group, and its members are universally defined by their odious traits; things they have actually done, intend to keep doing, and to a one, each of them agrees with doing. There is no variety of viewpoints within the Borg. Picard and Guinan probably represent the most open-minded characters on the ship, the apex of what TNG aims to present; and yet those two, above all, are the most convinced that the Borg are unredeemable. That speaks volumes.
Our crew generally do have the right ideas and treat people well. Their contrary views on the Borg are so justifiable.
And yet, they are wrong.
“At the core of this, this isn’t really Hugh’s story. This is Picard and Guinan’s story, making that huge transition from prejudice to understanding that there’s humanity there.”
– Michael Okuda, commentary track for I, Borg
This time, even the best of them are wrong. Their awareness of their own social advancement is a blinder to their flaws. In I, Borg, some of our crew are operating out of a kind of racism which makes the show relevant to today, possibly even more than it was in 1992.
Some definitions, for clarity
In an issue such as this, words can become muddled, or even inappropriately redefined. I’m going to the online Oxford Dictionary:
1. Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.
1.1 Dislike, hostility, or unjust behaviour deriving from preconceived and unfounded opinions.
1. Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
1.1 The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
A person who is intolerant towards those holding different opinions.
That’s what these words mean. They are defined by actions performed, regardless of who does them to whom, and regardless of the greatness of the offense done. They need no modern redefinitions, and the preservation of those meanings is necessary to retain integrity in the conversation.
I say that this episode is relevant because it illustrates the acceptable racism among those who are supposed to be past racism. In our time, people are not called “it,” nor turned into weapons to infect to death their entire people group. Our present, acceptable racisms are smaller. I’m not addressing the big, hideous ones people keep making good movies about. No, in these cases people are mildly maligned, dismissively disparaged, or told that they shouldn’t have a place at the table in certain public conversations. Certain groups are, on occasion, exempted from general respect, or are deemed to owe deference to other groups, and this is decided without any regard for the present actions of either group. Not only have these people not done the bad things themselves, it’s also probable that they wouldn’t.
The acceptable prejudices of our day manifest in people not being judged by their actions, or even the actions of those with whom they agree. They are judged by who they look like, or live near, or by what they can afford, or when they were born – or where. They’re not even judged by the group they identify with, but by a group others have identified them with. So placed, they are then socially penalized for that group’s sins, mostly just verbally, often through mere comical disparagements and implied “keep your place” language. Again, no one is being sent to a concentration camp.
But this is still very much what it is, and it is done openly, publicly, often in forums where intelligence and compassion are usually the norm. It’s not even done out of self-protection, which at least the Enterprise can claim in I, Borg. It is obscene not because it is grand, but because it is tolerated. It’s approved of. It’s just fashionable.
…try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
What’s disconcerting is that things like this are often done by those who are, broadly speaking, fighting the good fight in this very area – fighting sexism, racism, various ageisms and so forth. It’s while trying to do a great, big, right thing that they step into these seemingly littler wrongs, and in the process of winning their battle, they wind up needlessly perpetuating the root cause of the war.
Treating anyone as guilty, lesser or unapproved by racial association promotes the very phenomenon of racism itself as an acceptable thing. Nazis aren’t wrong because they’re championing the wrong race. It’s because they’re championing any race.
These missteps are understandable, even if they are wrong. Those with big hearts for the downtrodden are right to become angry when they see injustice, and very angry when they see big ones, and anger has a privilege. Anger means that I must be listened to. It means that I must be given some ground, the freedom to intensify my attack through what might otherwise be recognized as meanness. “This isn’t meanness; I’m angry.” Or, “I should get the freedom to widen my attack beyond the actual perpetrators, and add to it those I can associate with them, by their wealth, sex or skin color,” let’s say. “That’s not racism, and I’m angry, so you back off.”
“Anger has a privilege.” It sure feels like it comes with entitlements, doesn’t it. But that’s not scripture, and it’s not really true. It’s Shakespeare, and to top it off, one of the points of King Lear is how wrong the titular Lear was about that. What anger has is a place. It can be right to feel it, even to act out of it, but we may not do so carelessly, meting out small wrongs while we fight the big ones. That’s a failing that arises when giving the philosophy “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one” a simplistic primacy.
We don’t balance injustice by spreading it around. Racism is never right, in any situation. It shouldn’t matter to whom anything like this is ever done. It’s wrong to do it – by anyone, to anyone. There are no justifications for it.
“Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”
If someone can be grouped with former enemies or wrong-doers, or if someone is not in a specific class of individuals we currently make sure to treat with due respect, does that make it open season on that group? Are those in protected classes the only ones we are to treat with common decency? Who today owes for the sins of those they resemble? How do we decide? By their sex? Their wealth? Their race?
If we can take a set of offenses and group them by one of those categories, can we be excused for applying the blame across that category, to anyone within it? Just for being… born that way?
Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?
The Christian scriptures have a good lead on how to judge people, should the need actually arise. In his letter to the church in Rome, the Christian apostle, Paul, wrote about who he felt comfortable denouncing:
“…they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
If you need to condemn someone, he may be condemned for his actions, or for his philosophies. Any modern Nazi clearly did not orchestrate or operate the death camps during WWII, but if he agrees with them, fully identifies with Nazis, then he really does have some things to answer for; supporting their beliefs and intentions at the very least.
But that would be a Nazi, not a German. Even if in their origin most Nazis were German, and at the Nazis’ most powerful, most Germans were Nazis, that confusion cannot be excused.
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry..”
We have to get the necessary facts before we assign blame to anyone. It is not enough to say of a situation that only might be a terrible one, “Well, yeah, but how does this look?” When something looks bad, we don’t have a result, we have a responsibility. We are to examine it carefully before we decide anything about it. We Christians are not allowed to jump to conclusions, nor to hop onto social bandwagons, even if they seem to be our bandwagons. We may not engage in the kinds of public shaming and discriminate rage that many have recently come to find acceptable.
…now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”
It’s 2017, and some of us have become Picard. In the episode, the philosophy of the Federation is progressiveness, and Picard is not meeting that standard.
GUINAN: If you’re going to use this person-
PICARD: It’s not a person, damn it, it’s a Borg!
GUINAN: (pointedly, slowly) If you are going to use this person to destroy his race, you should at least look him in the eye once before you do it. Because I am not sure he is still a Borg.
Hugh is a person, not a policy. He is not accountable for the definition that has been assigned to him, neither by his own heritage nor by this crew. Picard meets him and finally acts on this truth. Hugh no longer represents the Borg collective when he no longer agrees with what they do, and no longer wants to be a part of it. It’s what Christians call ‘repenting’. He still looks like them, and he was raised in their culture, but he is no longer one of them in the way which matters in this situation, and at last, Picard looks past Hugh’s appearance and heritage as his factors of judgment. A Borg sympathizer among the regular crew would now be more answerable for them than Hugh would.
Here’s the rub though. Hugh still has a history of personal participation in their activities. Sure, one could argue that he was brainwashed, but there is little question that he was an active participant.
Conversely many of today’s targets of the socially acceptable biases:
- Had no participation in the historical crimes of their designated groups,
- whether they have done anything applicably rotten in their lives cannot be known from their appearance,
- nor can it be known whether they agree with those with whom they are being grouped.
…you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.
Ezekiel 18:19-20 …the whole chapter is on this issue
Deferred retribution is a pernicious result of bigotry, yet it can become fashionable to almost anyone at almost any time. Is there a group who it is okay to belittle? To joke about? To unthinkingly refer to as ‘the problem’ today? Who do we think doesn’t get a place at the table in certain public conversations, but rather owes their silence and a listening ear while the favored group talks, all because of an externally applied association we can make – their skin is the wrong color?
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
God may seem to dissociate direct culpability from responsibility, but He sees deeper into things than we do, and for us to do that would be presumptuous at the very best. We do not know another person’s life. We do not know if she has benefitted from any privilege we might like to charge her with. As followers of Christ, these are assumptions we dare not make.
I’ll give a direct, contemporary example. If I say things like, “White people have no place in this conversation,” then I am a big part of the problem with race in America. It’s a racist statement, by definition, and by intent. It has no other description, and we cannot excuse it by citing white supremacists and associating this fact with their abuses of it. We do not get to pretend that this form of racism is defensible in light of other forms of it, even if that’s the direction the tide is turning.
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
Look at that second one. We are not warned to not favor the rich, but to not favor either the rich or the poor. If we show the rich favoritism, we pervert justice, but if we show the poor partiality, we also pervert justice. I’m sorry if it makes us feel like we’re standing on the right side of a public line, but Christians don’t get to do either. Leviticus is not discussing who we do help, but who we do not malign to lift others above them – and it’s everybody. None of us get to cavalierly dispense the epithet, “Stupid rich guy,” nor anything approaching it. The boost that statements like those can give one’s social ego needs to be let go of. If the same words or actions would offend us if the players were reversed, then we have the only clue we need to know that we are doing the wrong thing.
“…in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
We should only tolerate statements like “stupid rich guy” as much as we would “stupid poor woman,” an obviously unacceptable thing to say. It should be disapproved of simply for our being human, but in this space I’ll only speak for what is common ground to this site: if you’re a Christian, this is not allowed. We must have some integrity. Don’t be racist. Don’t be sexist. Don’t be prejudiced, and don’t ignore bigotry, even the little, acceptable varieties of it, anywhere, with anyone.
“Oh. I have found that, as a Caucasian, if I enter into any kind of debate like this, the non-Caucasians yell at me as if I represent all white people.”
– Dr. Temperence Brennan, Bones
We also can’t let ourselves off the hook by proclaiming, “We’re all racist,” which is something no one could know. All I really learn from that accusation is that the speaker is one, and may be unwilling, or thinks he is unable, to choose to stop being one. It says very little about anyone else. It’s a way to plunder a bit of social currency, and we must not let ourselves try to get away with this form of nonsense, even when is ubiquitous.
“The lesser of two evils is still evil.”
– Solomon Short, a fictional witticist created by Star Trek writer David Gerrold
We can target any injustices we want to correct – social, personal, political – and do so as selectively as we like, supporting only those we feel called to help. You can’t personally right every wrong, so right the ones that you can, and that you most care about. There, our passions are a great guide, but we must do it without creating new injustices of our own. The greater good does not excuse little miscarriages. Can we help the poor without eating the rich? Can we lift up the vulnerable without creating all new casualties of our own? Can we right a wrong without wronging others? Is social collateral damage okay if the big picture plan is a worthy one?
It’s regrettable that many think this cannot even be done, or that avoiding injustice just with every individual shouldn’t have to be be a focus. Maybe it’s not easy, but it is right, and for some of us that makes it a requirement.
And to go back to the episode,
…this is exactly what Picard accomplishes at the end of the episode. He gets right something which is very hard to get right.
One of the things that marks this as such smart writing is that in I, Borg, wrong-headed people are right sometimes, and vice-versa.
PICARD: It comes down to this. We’re faced with an enemy who are determined to destroy us, and we have no hope of negotiating a peace. Unless that changes, we are justified in doing anything we can to survive.
He’s exactly correct about that. There are times when we can’t even let a determined opponent make the first strike, because it would also be the last one; and in such cases we probably can’t let any opportunity go by to stop them. He wants to cripple the Borg. He may even need to, yet he refuses to put their weight onto Hugh’s shoulders.
He stops the plan to put an invasive program into Hugh’s circuits. He even denies the option of erasing Hugh’s memory of this encounter, which would keep the Enterprise safe, but also eliminate the individuality Hugh has developed in their midst. He does consider that the mere fact of Hugh’s having developed individuality after already living as a Borg, that who Hugh is as a person, may be the very thing which rescues the Borg from their stark collectivism.
Still, the Borg have consumed many individualists in their history. This is only a possibility, not an inevitability, yet even here, he still puts Hugh as a person ahead of his Borgness:
LAFORGE: Do you want to go back with the Borg or stay with us?
HUGH: I could stay with you?
PICARD: We could grant you asylum, Hugh.
HUGH: Choose what I want? I would choose to stay with Geordi, but it is too dangerous. They will follow. Return me to the crash site. It is the only way.
LAFORGE: Hugh, think about this. Are you sure?
If Hugh had said so, Picard would not have even sent him away. He no longer saw Hugh as his tool to use for great gain simply because Hugh was a Borg. Hugh no longer agreed with The Borg. Whatever he was physically, philosophically he was no longer one of them, and Picard refused to treat him as if he was a lesser person, no matter what he looked like – what he *was* in some very real ways – possibly even what he had participated in within his lifetime.
Here is a time when the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the few, or the many. Defending the weak against a greedy aggressor is always just, but Picard makes a great sacrifice of justice he could do for the many in order not to be the cause of injustice to one, Hugh. He folds a winning hand.
And yet, in the end, through what the show would never label as providence, Picard has been able to fight his enemies, the Borg as a whole evil, while doing no injustice to Hugh, the individual. In Star Trek, we will never find “Trust in the Lord” presented directly, but in terms of applicability, we have here the actions of a person who would trust in his Lord.
If we really believe that our God is just, and that He has everything in hand, then we will not need to allow collateral injustices in our pursuits of larger, just goals. Those are signposts that we are doing the wrong thing, and we need to rethink. Even if that just stops us from doing anything in a situation which needs attention, whose attention does it need, ours or God’s? Can we trust Him with it? Or do we need to proceed, and knowingly step on one while helping another? God honors those who put His perspective first.
“…let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Galatians 6:9-10 ESV
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.
Christians don’t get to punish, belittle, use, or group away people, however minimally done, due to which target set they think a person fits into. We’re not qualified to make those determinations, and even if we were so capable, we still don’t get to judge individuals by their groups. At all:
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
That’s Paul again, writing on behalf of God, putting the kibosh on that practice. Those who claim to believe in our God and His word owe Him the duty of following along with it, even if the cool kids are still doing the other thing. We always get to choose who we want to help, anyone, any group, even if we draw those lines by race, creed, class, sex, you name it. We get to deliver whoever we want to work to deliver, to assist anyone we feel called to assist, even when we can’t assist everyone equally. Help genuinely needed belittles no one but the arrogant (and perhaps they may need humbling, so that’s a double-tap of benefit).
But we are not allowed to create new villains, a new class whose members may be trodden upon. Even if our reason is that we think they can be considered representatives of the abusers. We don’t chop off someone’s head to make another look tall. The little guy matters, and whoever we think we get to malign, to any degree, that is our little person. Don’t give yourself anymore excuses there.
And yet, even if we could be correct about the designation and the guilt, we still wouldn’t be allowed to do some of the negative things I’ve brought up.
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.”
“See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”
I Thessalonians 5:15
Unfortunately for our angry natures, the people who genuinely perpetrate the wrongs we hate, they are actual people, real and full human beings. They’re redeemable in God’s eyes. How about ours? Do we have an enemy? What are we to do with our enemies?
We are to pray for them. This does not mean to pray an imprecatory Psalm at them either, we must pray for them, the kind of prayer we would make for our friends, or that they would ask for in their most honest moments – for their health, their blessing, and because it is loving, also for their coming around to the truths they’re missing. That’s our version of treating Hugh, the perpetrator, like the person he is, though we have to do this even before he repents.
Fight their crimes, stand against their prejudices, correct their wrongs, but instead of socially shaming them out of being able to feed themselves by having their employers fire them – attacking their humanity – pray that those you call out for their sins will do their jobs well, while you’re praying that God will set them straight, for their good, and the good of others.
…whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
• • •
Thank you for reading Redeeming Culture! David Lichty sticks around to take us to The Next Phase tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
• • •
David Lichty is a movie buff and staff writer for Redeeming Culture. You’ve heard his voice in several podcast episodes, and you’ll hear more from him before Trektember is over! He’s also writing the ongoing Trek Backstory miniseries, which explores the behind-the-scenes production parables of TNG.