Monday, February 27, 2006

So what does this episode say about evil? It suggests that it comes from outside, yet its effects are expressed by human (or Klingon) behavior. In a sense, where evil is located doesn’t matter: it’s the resulting behavior that counts. Because people, at least theoretically, have control over their behavior.

Psychologists and mythologists such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and James Hillman, have emphasized the power of certain forces and ideas that most human cultures---and most humans---have in common. In other times and places, cultures gave these forces names, and represented them as beings---gods, demons, heroes. These are also called “archetypes.” And they are real, whether or not one believes that Zeus or Saturn, Satan or the Raven spirit exist in the world, separate from the human soul or psyche.

They are real because they are part of us and can captivate us, motivate us, inhabit us at various times, and may even in a sense possess us. We may think we are acting with total control, that we have sound reasons for what we do, but we’re mistaken.

These archetypes may not be entirely evil; they may even be mostly good, or have good and evil qualities, as humans do. But they are powerful, just as our instincts are---instincts our species developed to survive, but which aren’t always appropriate to situations that evoke them. That’s when they can become destructive, and indulging them becomes evil.

In this Star Trek episode, you might say that the men and women are possessed by the devil, or more specifically, by Mars. They believe they were unjustly attacked and violently injured, and challenged to respond in kind. The term “war fever” is very accurate. It may even be understated. People are possessed by it. When war kicks in, it takes over---and we don’t have to think back more than a few years to see that as plain as day.

In this episode, “the dogs of war” are loosed, and they are like wild animals within people. We see and hear the outrage at injury become the lust for violence. The adversary becomes the enemy, and is immediately demonized---they are inhuman butchers: therefore violence is justified not only to repel aggression but in revenge.

War sparks the Us Versus Them fire within us, and when adversaries become enemies, there can be nothing good about them. Every act (even if it is the mirror image of our own acts) is evil; all differences between Us and Them, especially visible and racial differences, become part of our rationale for hatred.

We see all of this happen in this story, but we also see that it is based on illusions and delusions. Kirk and Spock see this almost immediately. They apply consciousness to the workings of unconsciousness, whether the automatic reactions are thoughts or feelings. They see there is no basis for these feelings, and they see they are being manipulated.

Is it manipulation from the outside? Yes, in this story, it is an alien entity. But Star Trek stories are also symbolic, and allegorical. The alien may be the devil, or even if we “have no devil” we know how one behaves.

If you believe with Scott Peck that evil is the lie, then there are two expressions of evil in this episode. The people in this story are deceived, and deception is evil. If they refuse to listen to consciousness, to consider that their feelings may not be justified by reality, they are engaging in self-deception, and that is evil.

In Scott Peck’s terms, even if the alien entity is the originator of evil, those that are “enthralled” and follow the leader are also guilty of evil.

This sense of group responsibility, or the responsibility of the follower, is made specific when Kirk says: “Be a pawn, be a toy, be a good soldier who never questions orders.” “Never questions orders” has a specific historical echo—which William Shatner, for one, could not fail to catch.

When Nazis were put on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at Nuremberg and elsewhere, they tried to excuse their conduct in the death camps as “only following orders.” These tribunals specifically denied this claim as valid—these soldiers and underlings were personally responsible for what they did, no matter what their orders.

Though the Nuremberg trials were in 1948, Americans were newly aware of them from the 1961 Hollywood movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, starring Spencer Tracy, and featuring William Shatner.

Individual responsibility was also an issue in the Vietnam war, partly because of the draft. Some believed draft resistance was a moral imperative, a way to refuse to cooperate with evil. The moral responsibility of individual soldiers was the theme of a song by Buffy Sainte Marie, made popular by Donovan, called “The Universal Soldier” (It had nothing to do with the later movie of that title.)

The issue came to worldwide public attention again when American soldiers slaughtered 400 to 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in what became known as the MyLai Massacre. (Scott Peck devotes a long chapter to it in People of the Lie.) Although it didn’t hit the news for over a year, it actually occurred in 1968, several months before this episode aired.

In the final analysis, evil is as evil does. People can have all kinds of thoughts and feelings, but how do they behave? In this story, the emphasis is on the cause of war---especially of what Vietnam became, a war that fed on itself. (Robert MacNamara, who was Secretary of Defense at the time, now says that he had long concluded that the Vietnam war couldn’t be won and probably should not have been fought; nevertheless, it continued, and he helped continue it.) The solution is recognizing the realities, including the fever that deceives us.

In terms of behavior, an alternative to war is presented: cooperation and mutual aid. Many Star Trek stories would dramatize this, and show that while it is difficult, it is not impossible. But this story is about group and individual behavior. “Those who hate and fight must stop themselves,” Spock says, “otherwise it is not stopped.” But how do you do that?

In this story, Bixby presents the problem finally as a choice---much as he did in Mirror, Mirror when Kirk presents the mirror universe Spock with the choice of steering his Enterprise towards a better, more ethical future. But how do you make the choice?

The simple answer is consciousness---not lying to yourself-- and taking responsibility. Of course it's easier said than done, but it can be done, and there are ways of doing it. A big step is simply being aware of the possibility of self-deception, and of the habits of self-deception and evil such as projecting evil unfairly or inaccurately on others, and scapegoating (blaming someone else, usually weaker).

"Our burgeoning interest in the existence and source of our prejudices, hidden hostilities, irrational fears, perceptual blind spots, mental ruts, and resistance to growth is the start of an evolutionary leap," Scott Peck writes. Of course, sometimes we are confronted with real evil and real danger. But knowing the difference between reality and illusion, wherever it comes from, helps us act more effectively.

How else is it done? There’s a more specific answer in a first season Star Trek episode, “ A Taste of Armageddon.” I’ll take a look at that, and what it says about dealing with evil within and without, next time. With any luck, next week: same time, same station.

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