No Fiction Friday this week. Probably none next week. Book-related stuff is heating up.
So, before I start, let me be very clear: I am, generally and overall, a Star Trek fan. Further–and perhaps unusually, given some of the stances I’ve taken on other works of which I’m a fan–most of my views on Star Trek more or less coincide with the general consensus of the fandom or, in cases where there is no consensus, at least within the Overton window. For example, I like TOS, TNG, and DS9; I think VOY and ENT are crap and the Abrams reboot movies are Star Trek in name only. I think Picard is the best captain, DS9 the best series overall, TOS the strongest on humor and interplay between the characters.
But I have one opinion that I’ve only slowly become aware of, which assuredly places me on the lunatic fringe of Trek fans: the more I think about it, the more I realize I really dislike Spock.
First off, I’m just going to come out swinging at Vulcan culture in general: the whole “emotions are bad and need to be controlled” thing is a crock of shit. Why? Because that feeling that emotions are bad is itself an emotional response. The backstory for the Vulcans establishes that they established a philosophy of strict “logic”* because they disliked how violent their culture was and preferred a more peaceful one. Those are both emotional reactions too. There is no logical basis to prefer any situation over any other, because to have a preference is to be emotional. As such, it is impossible to make a decision without including some degree of emotional consideration.
Which, of course, the Vulcans do. Now, I’m not going to assume they have the same emotions as humans. In humans, a distaste for violence is generally some combination of fear of being hurt, emotional empathy for others getting hurt, and aesthetics. In Vulcans, it may very well be a combination of scvetznarg and b’foth. But the simple fact that they do prefer to avoid violence, that they try to minimize it, proves that they have preferences and are acting on them, which is to say that they are emotional beings.**
Yet Spock insists he is motivated by pure logic, in contrast to inferior human emotionality. Bullshit. Logic is not, on its own, a decision-making mechanism. Logic is a system for deriving justified conclusions from already-established premises, nothing more or less. Logic cannot tell you which of two courses of action is better unless the premises already contain some definition of “better”–a concept which is, in itself, inherently derived from emotion. We can tell some of what Spock considers “better”: he wants to survive, and for others to survive, but in a pinch he values the survival of the Enterprise crew, and Kirk and Bones in particular, above the survival of all others. There is no logical reason to prefer living over dying unless you establish in the premises that some aspect of living is desirable or some aspect of dying is not. Spock is loyal; he has friends; he has a moral code. None of these are things which can exist without the inherently emotional preference of some state of being over some other state of being. Vulcans are not dedicated to logic; they are dedicated to rationality, which is to say to using a combination of evidence and logic to choose the best course of action, where “best” is defined as “likeliest to achieve my [emotionally] preferred outcomes.”
Which wouldn’t be so bad–it’s not inherently bad writing to have a character who is self-contradictory or hypocritical–if not for the fact that Spock is frequently held up as an object of admiration. (Admittedly, more by fans than the show, which correctly depicts Spock as smug, self-satisfied, and almost always wrong about anything other than matters of pure fact.) Unfortunately, Spocks are quite common in real life, especially online where obscuring one’s kneejerk emotional responses is easier. I cannot tell you how many discussions I have been in about ethics, politics, or aesthetics–all fields which are fundamentally about identifying and pursuing preferences, and therefore necessarily contain a strong element of emotion–where someone tries to pretend that a façade of apathy (or even the genuine thing) somehow makes their opinions more valid than the opinions of people who passionately care about the issue at hand.
Remember, a purely rational being is necessarily an amoral being. They might fake having a moral code in order to achieve their preferred outcomes, for example if they have to deal with gatekeepers who aren’t amoral, but ultimately there is no principle that a fully rational being won’t betray if it’s the best way to achieve their preferred outcomes. A moral being will necessarily sometimes choose to forego a preferred outcome if it requires immoral behavior to achieve.
So basically, Spock is a hypocritical racist who espouses an amoral philosophy while holding himself up as superior, and reflects neatly one of the more obnoxious forms of GIFT. Which may even be partially inspired by him–I have definitely met people who reference childhood viewing of Star Trek as formative in their pursuit of and insistence on their own superior rationality.
To be honest, he’s pretty much an asshole.***
*We’ll get to why that’s in scare quotes in a minute.
**But, you protest, plants and amoebae are able to exhibit behaviors without having emotions! Why can’t Vulcans? Because unlike plants and amoebae, Vulcans are conscious. They are able to observe their own thought processes leading up to their behaviors (which we know, because a major part of their culture–and ours, for that matter–is deliberately monitoring and seeking to alter those processes). That’s what emotion is–an awareness (in humans, possibly subconscious) of one’s own motivations for behavior. And yes, this also means that Data had emotions from the start. He is, for starters, envious of humans.
***Until Wrath of Khan, when he all of a sudden embraces his emotional side and becomes awesome just in time to die. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is not only an emotional statement, it’s an irrational one. It would be one thing if he expressed it as preferring the rest of the crew survive more than his own survival, but the way he phrases it places something ahead of his own preferred outcomes, which for a purely rational being are the only things that better. What it actually is, is a moral judgment, and therefore fundamentally irrational. Positive character growth!