Interference by Default: The Hegemony and Hypocrisy of the Prime Directive

Is the non-interference mandated by the Prime Directive worse than the interference that it tries to prevent?

[Enjoy this guest post by Jon Tyktor. -Ed]

There are few guidelines that members of Starfleet hold as dear as the Prime Directive. (Though I’m Not Just A Doctor: On-the-Job Flexibility and You may come in second, and Contraceptive Techniques for When Warp Ten Makes You a Lizard gets an honorable mention.)

The Directive is the closest thing that Star Trek has to a central dogma. Disavowing the exploitation that has so often riddled human history, the Federation decides to keep its hands off of any societies that have not yet attained interstellar travel. In the words of the original Enterprise crew, this involves “No identification of self or mission… No interference with the social development of said planet… No References to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.”

This was expanded greatly during the breadth of the Trek franchise, malleable in the hands of different writers. The central idea of mucking about in a less-advanced planet’s affairs being bad stayed the same, creating plots both interesting and contrived. On TOS, though, it was usually an excuse to raid the network wardrobe department.

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The fear behind the Prime Directive was one oft used in science fiction in the latter half of the Twentieth Century: if a less technologically developed species got their hands on highly developed technology, then they would promptly use it to destroy themselves in some way. So Star Trek argues that it is far better for the race to develop technologically on its own, so that they can attain the technology that can be used to destroy themselves without cheating. Which is better, somehow.

Given the historical context of the Cold War, it’s understandable why the Prime Directive came about. When TOS was in production, the major world powers on both sides extended their policy by subversively manipulating countries and regions deemed strategic. And, in many cases, this interference led to damage in terms of political extremism, economic stagnation, and countless human lives through state sponsored violence and war.

Wouldn’t it be nice, thought ol’ Gene, to have everyone just mind their own stinkin’ business for once?

On the whole, that’s an admirable notion. Let everyone tend to themselves, and together we can make a better world (or galaxy or whatever) that is defined by our own terms. It’s good that Roddenberry wanted to make room for that sort of view in his unique vision of the future, and it serves as a timely commentary on issues we still face today.

Too bad that, the way it’s portrayed, the Prime Directive is even worse than interfering in the first place, and it’s even a little space elitist.

I know, I know. That’s a pretty hefty critique to lay at the feet of a revered TV franchise, but I wouldn’t say it if I couldn’t back it up. And I don’t just mean the whole “we’ll wait for you to make the technology that can kill you” stuff. The real problem has to do with a theory in political science known as ‘developmental theory.’

This theory tries to explain the changes of states over time, and can be characterized as “path dependent.” Path dependency maintains that development in any sort of system is the result of a series of choices that accumulates returns over time. A country’s development from the past is therefore dependent on its, er, path. This theory is heavily informed by the notion of a telos, which means “destination” in Greek (not to be confused with the second home of the Cybermen, different franchise). Thus, a teleological frame of thinking is one that involves a linear progression with an ultimate goal at its end.

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Combine the two ideas, and you have something like this: at the beginning of development, you have the “State of Nature” where anarchy reigns and individuals will attempt to control or share basic resources. From here societies will develop around deciding where those resources go, with growing levels of sophistication as time continues. At some point along this line, the society changes so much from its previous form that it experiences what social theorist Max Weber called a “disenchantment” with its past self.

This theory works out fine, until we come to the part that often comes under fire: some hold that the beginning of “true” modernity for all states (the telos) is linked directly to certain events in European history, such as the Enlightenment or the Romantic Movement. This view is often criticized for treating Europe as an isolated entity, without taking into account the effect that Europe and the rest of the world had on each other at the time. Recent analyses suggest that the relative early rise of Europe was due to cultural organization in the West versus that found in the rest of the world, with Europe not as deterministically ‘special’ as was once thought.

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The parallel between developmental theory and the Prime Directive make themselves quite clear. In both cases, there is a select group of states which say that others that have not yet attained certain characteristics (read: the same as their own) are not as modern or sophisticated. And until those “lower” cultures take on the characteristics of the “sophisticates,” they will be forever confined to a pre-modern existence. The Prime Directive, however, maintains that it is necessary for the different societies to achieve their telos on their own, and any external influence will forever taint their progress to that noble goal.

That is the real hypocrisy (and space elitism) of the Prime Directive. While they apparently want societies to flourish without any external variables, almost like the observers of an experiment, the Federation fails to recognize (or admit to recognize) that there exists within the universe certain limitations that could potentially restrict a huge percentage of the universal population.

Here’s what I mean by that: A corollary to the Fermi Paradox suggests that it’s possible for intelligent life to exist in the universe, but certain factors would limit them from access to our sort of technological development. A hypothetical species could have their means of interstellar travel and communication on a mass scale severely depreciated, with the rest of the universe totally unaware of them.

That said, it would still be possible for them to achieve a socio-political disenchantment similar to any other Federation member, or even for their scientific knowledge to excel in relation to their restrictions. However, they would never be eligible for membership in the Federation due to systemic factors that are entirely out of their control.

The Federation seems to think this is the way things should be, and why wouldn’t they when it works so well in their favor? Doing this allows them to retain a greater share of the universe’s prosperity, only doling it out to those that mimic their own successes exactly.

Through this developmental self-selection, the Federation’s membership becomes homogenized and enforces a technological hegemony on the universe that ironically keeps many underprivileged groups from reaching their potential within the universe’s socio-political ecosystem. This hegemony becomes so important that some societies are allowed to fall by the wayside through total extinction events in order to protect it.

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Now, you can argue all you like that this isn’t the true intent of the Prime Directive, but you sure can’t say that this isn’t the effect. Differences between the member races are usually arbitrary and one-note, doing nothing to counter the Federation’s human-lead policies. Rarely are there signs of discord, with the organization acting in concert throughout its affairs. New members never really seem to stir the pot when they come along, and this self-selection is more than likely the culprit.

This raises the question, what good does the Prime Directive actually do for anyone involved? We’ve already established that it’s harmful to the development of the universe at large, and that it makes out the Federation to be a culturally stagnant hypocrite. Where’s the good, other than the pat on the back the Federation gives itself because they’re one of the “good guys?”

There is none. It is a logical back alley designed only as a political statement against imperialist or interventionist histories. As a piece of art and storytelling meant to make comment on the Cold War and conflicts like it, I suppose that’s fine, even if it doesn’t very well reflect how societies have historically interacted with each other in the past.

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I think this is why I prefer the sort of science fiction like Stargate: SG-1 or the relatively new Falling Skies, which portrays interactions between alien races at varying technological levels with a great amount of nuance. The races in these stories exchange all sorts of things, even weaponry. Sometimes the interactions are good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes just indifferent.

There are no absolutes, as there are none in real life. Exploring where the consequences of those actions go, and the “disenchantment” that they bring about, is much more compelling than holding onto a blind fear of the past’s mistakes.

Jon Tyktor is a writer of many types, none of them professional, who is currently a co-host on a little podcast called Tell Don’t Show that may just change your life if you’re not careful.

18 Comments on “Interference by Default: The Hegemony and Hypocrisy of the Prime Directive”

  1. Mike #

    According to the summary

    “Exploring where the consequences of those actions go, and the “disenchantment” that they bring about, is much more compelling”

    it boils down to which is more cinematic, and which is more realistic/ethical. Of course you take the safe road when billions of lives and planets are at risk. But if you want unknown “consequences” then you do away with the prime directive.

    You seem to be having it both ways. PD for ethics, and no PD to make the show more interesting is my conclusion. But as you stated, there are plenty of shows without a PD – StarTrek might be unique in that regard. So for variety in shows, yes to PD on both accounts.

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  2. Mark #

    I think the desire to avoid “tainting” a developing civilization by introducing technology it’s not “ready” for is only one goal of the Prime Directive, and not the main one.

    Another aspect, one that is more informed by actual human history, is that interactions between civilizations at different technological levels often leads to the destruction or at least marginalization of the less-developed civilization (see, e.g., the histories of the native people of Australia and the Americas, or just read “Guns, Germs, and Steel”). By experience, the Federation knows that even the best intentions of contact (e.g., ameliorating suffering through medical and resource advances) eventually lead to exploitation, enslavement, forced conversion, displacement, and, in the end, homogenization.

    An interesting question is what threshold could a historical “Prime Directive” have used, analogous to the warp technology threshold in Star Trek. Agriculture and a sedentary population? Writing? Formation of a modern nation state? Sea-faring capability? Gunpowder and firearms? I guess the threshold would always be changing based on the technology of the more-developed civilization, with the main criteria being that the less-developed civilization not be “too far behind.”

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    • Rob Northrup #

      “…eventually lead to exploitation, enslavement, forced conversion, displacement, and, in the end, homogenization.”

      I was going to say the Federation could just prohibit exploitation, enslavement, forced conversion and displacement. I don’t quite understand why homogenization is a problem that would need such a drastic prohibition though. If two consenting adults or cultures feel like mixing things up together, who is the Federation to stand between them?

      I do like your thought experiment about where we might have drawn the line in the past, or today. Does the Prime Directive make so much sense that we should avoid contact with people in the Amazon for example who haven’t seen our technology, or not much of it?

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      • Jon #

        “If two consenting adults or cultures feel like mixing things up together, who is the Federation to stand between them?”

        See, this guy gets it.

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      • Mark #

        I added homogenization to the list because the original article says that homogenization and technological hegemony are the ultimate, negative consequences of the Prime Directive.

        My argument is that NOT having something like the Prime Directive eventually leads to non-consensual homogenization, due to the power disparity between the cultures. The Prime Directive isn’t about “consenting adults,” it’s about protecting “underage” cultures (and therefore, I guess the warp drive threshold represents the statutory “age of consent” in the Federation).

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        • Rob Northrup #

          Then we’re back to the “space elitism” that Tyktor describes in the article. The premise of the Prime Directive is that some cultures are more mature than others, or higher or more sophisticated. What we see from studying our own history and contemporary culture clashes is that almost everyone thinks their culture is the most civilized or sophisticated, and thinks other cultures are barbarians, lower, unsophisticated. The benchmarks they use to measure levels of civilization are arbitrary, like attaining warp drive technology.

          I think we can set reasonable restrictions on mistreatment of individuals (enslavement, exploitation, forced conversion, ethnic cleansing), but how do we decide what direction is right for a whole culture to move, whether it should change or not? How can we judge whether two cultures merging is a good or bad thing? If the people are fair to each other, then cultural changes would be almost organic.

          It’s not that we can or should prevent cultures from coming in contact with each other just because they have a disparity in power. We would just have to stop people with more power from exercising it over others, like we do right now by outlawing slavery, forced conversion, displacement (i.e. ethnic cleansing?), etc. We could do a better job addressing disparity in power within our own culture by ending capitalism, but that’s a whole other can of worms. ;) Imagine applying the Prime Directive to the problem of power disparities within US culture! That would be called segregation, or gated communities.

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          • Mark #

            I’m enjoying this discussion :)

            The issue with calling the Prime Directive “space elitism” is that you’re conflating moral maturity (not the best term, but it serves) with technological maturity. Moral maturity, which I’ll use to mean the idea that you think your culture is better or higher than another, is subjective but it is how cultures have always thought about themselves. If the Prime Directive is based on the idea that the Federation is better than the less-advanced cultures, then I’d agree that it is fundamentally flawed.

            But history doesn’t care what cultures think about themselves. Technological “maturity” is an objective scale, and largely a progression in one direction (with isolated exceptions, e.g., Tokugawa Japan, which are usually temporary). Cultures don’t have to tick every box in the same order based on their unique circumstances, but there is a general coherent progression.

            I think the Prime Directive ignores the question of whose culture is “better” and reflects the historical reality of what happens when cultures at different stages of technology interact. It’s much more practical and realistic than relying on a suite of laws to restrict all the various types of exploitation. Exploitation in this sense doesn’t even require intentional mistreatment; historical displacement often occurred just because new people moved in and out-competed the original population through their technological advantages. The natives either adapt or die out, but either way the original culture is largely lost.

            I agree that the Prime Directive isn’t applicable within a culture, but that’s not what it’s for. It’s a directive governing interactions between cultures.

          • An Inside Joke #

            “Technological “maturity” is an objective scale, and largely a progression in one direction”

            I’m not sure I agree with that argument. Maybe if the Prime Directive was dependent on several technological achievements (such as warp drive technology, clean sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture that could feed the entire planet’s population, for example) that might make sense, but by making warp drive the only standard, the Prime Directive seems pretty arbitrary. A society could advance its technology in every other fiend, but still never invent warp technology (as the article touched on).

            Also, and this might be moving too far outside the realm of metaphor, but Star Trek is, after all, a show about space travel. Until the human race actually makes contact with an alien species, we can never anticipate the cultural/biological/neurological differences between humans and aliens. If a species evolved under fundamentally different circumstances and never evolved brains with the ability to, say, process complex laws of physics (but they can do everything else we consider to be a standard of intelligence as good or better than humans), or they don’t have an innate to explore, that particular field could go neglected even if other social factors reach a point where a species would not be harmed by interaction with the Federation.

  3. Josie M. #

    The thing is, I find the idea that there is any kind of telos to history to be a really damaging notion in itself, whether we’re talking liberal development theory or Marxist dialectical materialism.

    This of course is at odds with Star Trek in general. Internally at least, the Federation is portrayed as an actual utopia worthy of having as a telos (and I don’t recall anyone but villains thinking that the Prime Directive let to stagnation, and that’s a pretty big assertion to make). The problem is that the Prime Directive actually does make sense but only if you posit a different kind of universe than the one actually shown in Star Trek. By which I mean – noninterference makes a lot more sense as a philosophy if you don’t believe in a teleology of history by which all societies naturally strive to a state of utopian perfection, and don’t believe your own society to be superior to others. Then it ceases to be elitism and becomes cultural relativism.

    The twin fantasies of Star Trek are that it’s possible to have a powerful, expansionist, technological society without being an exploitative empire, and that it’s possible to reach a point economically where everybody is so well taken care of that some of the traditional questions of ethics become moot.

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    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      Let me disagree with one of your points – that “noninterference makes a lot of sense if you DON’T believe your own society to be superior to others.”

      I think that noninterference REQUIRES the belief that your society is superior to others. The guiding assumption is that “if we tell these primitives about all this cool stuff we have, they are going to want some too. Because of course they will. IT’S REALLY COOL.” (And by “cool,” I mean it cures diseases, kills your enemies, predicts when it will rain, and allows you to experience the wonders of the universe).

      Noninterference is not the pose taken in a society of equals – if you truly believe that your society is no better or worse than any other society, you throw your doors open and let other cultures take and leave what they will. This is doubly true where at least some of what they might “take” is things like “pennicillin.” Artificially limiting that flow of culture is a deeply paternalistic way of thinking.

      (All of this assumes a distinction between “non-interference” and what we might call “non-intervention” – we can non-paternalistically adopt rules like “don’t use military force”)

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  4. Connor Moran #

    One kind of hidden way in which the Prime Directive is pretty human-centric is the fairly arbitrary warp drive threshold for advanced society status. Set aside for a moment the fact that all technological development is a response to local issues rather than a ticking off of boxes on a Civilization-style “tech tree” (not having wheels didn’t mean that the Incan Empire was primitive, it means they lived on big damn mountains you’d be a fool to pull a wagon up). If you accept the ideology that there is a coherent order to tech development, why have warp drive become the threshold?

    Because, as depicted in Star Trek First Contact, it was immediately after *humans* developed warp drive that they were contacted by an alien race. The text is a bit vague on this, but it doesn’t appear that the Vulcans had been avoiding Earth because of a pre-existing prime directive but rather because “They aren’t interested in Earth. Too primitive” (Did I mention I can probably recite ST:FC? ‘Cause I probably could). So from the perspective of a human it’s “natural” for a race to first meet aliens after they get warp drive and “unnatural” before. Thus, an accident of human history is imposed as intergalactic law.

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    • Mark #

      I like your in-universe theory for the warp drive threshold, but it probably went the other way, i.e., the writers wrote ‘First Contact’ to conform to the Prime Directive, not that they intended to portray that the Prime Directive was based on the events in ‘First Contact.’

      To me the warp drive threshold makes sense to some extent because it provides a barrier behind which it’s plausible for a culture to develop in isolation. So once a culture develops warp drive, they are soon going to encounter other cultures on their own no matter what you want to do. Interstellar space represents a natural geographical boundary. The Earth-bound analogy would be the isolated pacific islanders developing sea-faring boat technology, or the African bushmen developing going-on-a-long-journey-to-return-a-Coke-bottle technology.

      That said, other thresholds are totally possible, even within the Star Trek universe. For instance, if a culture developed subspace communications before warp drive, they’d start picking up all sorts of messages from advanced cultures and would no longer be isolated. This would be like the pacific islanders inventing the radio and suddenly they’re overwhelmed with broadcasts from all over (what would you actually pick up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? J-Pop Top 40 and International Weather Service typhoon warnings?).

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      • Connor Moran #

        Obviously I don’t think the writers of TOS were thinking of the events of First Contact, though I think it’s just possible that these kinds of issues were in the back of Ronald D. Moore’s mind when he and Brannon Braga wore First Contact–Moore is certainly a writer willing to question Trek’s utopian assumptions. Also, I think as an out-of-universe explanation there’s still a background assumption that goes back to TOS that we won’t meet aliens until we make a warp drive that might inform the idea.

        While we’re discussing real-world cultures it’s worth noting that there are uncontacted peoples on our own earth to this day. As I understand it the general thinking is that it is not ethical to attempt to contact them. That sounds kind of prime-directive ish until you start thinking about what it would mean to impose a rule that said that as soon as a society develops the technology to navigate on an ocean, say, we go ahead and barge in. In reality the basis of non contact with uncontacted peoples is that the impacts of globalized civilization are so ubiquitous that it is understood that uncontacted peoples are choosing not to contact us and that should be respected.

        That actually suggests one defense of the Directive–making warp drive manifests an interest in contact. But it’s still pretty crappy that your society is jus SOL if you al reeeeealy want to go to space and you are super “advanced” in every way, but your planet happens not to have enough dilithium or whatever to build a working warp drive (or what if, like the ancient Bajorans as established in that awesome Kon Tiki In Space episode of DS , you discover a way to travel between the stars without warp. Why would you even try to build a warp drive?)

        Here’s my proposed spin on the Directive: no interference unless and until a society demonstrates a desire for contact. So if a society develops SETI, boom, Federation pops up. But if we’ve been running our Galaxy-Class ships around your solar system for fifty years and you ignore us, we’ll take a hint and move on.

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    • Rambler Member #

      This article made me think of 1st Contact as well, with 2 possible scenarios;
      1) the “natural” threshold theory Connor expresses

      2) the possibility that the Vulcan’s had a similar mandate that they passed on to humans

      What’s fun to speculate on is the Vulcan perspective. I can fully imagine the Vulcans being presented with all of the “negative” aspects described in this article and saying “Yes, we thought this purpose of our directive was obvious at the outset.”

      Incidentally a quick search points at 2 separate originating points for the Prime Directive.
      One is human, Cpt. Archer’s musings in ENT: “Dear Doctor”.
      The other is Vulcan (only referenced in the ST novels apparently).

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  5. Rob Northrup #

    Hi Mark. We seem to have hit the bottom of the site’s threading capability, so I’m starting with a fresh comment, replying to your comment from Oct 22nd 2014 4:18 pm. I’m not sure if that’s your local timezone or if we’re in Overthinking It time.

    I don’t think it’s a conflation of moral maturity with technological maturity — or if it is, then it’s the Federation who is guilty of it, not me. (Or Roddenberry and whichever authors created a consensus on what the Prime Directive means.) I’d say it’s only an issue of morality, because they’re questioning whether a low tech civilization is morally capable of handling higher tech in a “responsible” way.

    I agree that it’s absurd for the Federation (the authors of the Federation) to use technology to measure a culture’s level of morality. They’re saying that people who reach the level of creating warp drive without outside assistance are at a point where they will use it responsibly, and they’ll be responsible with even higher technology given to them by other Federation cultures — or else they’re saying the Federation gives up after that point because the genie’s out of the bottle. They probably wouldn’t be able to contain it if they wanted to after that point. Or maybe when they want to contain it beyond that point, they’d just think of it in terms of going to war with that other civilization.

    “Exploitation in this sense doesn’t even require intentional mistreatment; historical displacement often occurred just because new people moved in and out-competed the original population through their technological advantages.”

    I would argue that the historical examples we could find were an intentional policy, but these gentle conquistadors would say it’s not “mistreatment” to bring savages to civilization, to replace a lower culture with a superior culture. They were guided by colonialism, imperialism or capitalism. The Federation seems to have removed the last of those problems, more or less. I just think the Prime Directive is way too broad in trying to address the potential problems of colonialism or imperialism.

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    • Mark #

      The time stamps look like U.S. eastern time (which is 6 hours behind me; I’m just up now because the baby wanted to be up now).

      I agree that the Prime Directive reflects a moral judgement on the part of the Federation. That’s the reason that any law is made: saying that this action or behavior is preferable to that one. So what does the Federation value, as evidenced by the Prime Directive? One possibility (to attempt to paraphrase you and the original article): the Federation uses the Prime Directive to maintain its hegemony/superiority over potential competitors. Another possibility (my position): the Federation uses the Prime Directive to ensure the survival of diverse cultures until they are capable of ensuring their own survival, if that is their choice.

      In the short term, both goals are met, so we come to the question of Federation intention, and that’s more a question of faith than fact. I find myself wondering whether I am acting as the Federation apologist because it’s what I actually believe or because I love Star Trek and fear the personal crisis that would occur if I allowed that Picard may have been wrong on such a fundamental issue. :) (I would have to start wondering if there really were just 4 lights.)

      A compromise position could be that Picard and others may have personally believed in the positive intentions, while there may have been Federation elites using the Prime Directive to maintain their own power differential (there’s your connection to capitalism).

      In the long run, I think the Prime Directive results in greater cultural diversity in the galaxy than would exist without it, and I maintain that human history supports this position. And I again maintain that the intention of the “conquistadors” is not particularly relevant: the greatest vector for cultural displacement has historically been disease (with the purposeful disease-spreading of the smallpox-blanket type a negligible fraction of the whole).

      In Star Trek, an example of galactic homogenization in a Prime Directive-less scenario is presented at an accelerated rate by the Borg (among many other things that the Borg represent).

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  6. Richard #

    Consider the “Prime Directive” from the viewpoint of the non-Federation cultures that it covers. It’s a way to prevent “culture shock”. What if an advanced alien race came to earth tomorrow, saying, “Hi! We’re the Galactic Federation! Welcome!” Sure, there’d be all the technological benefits and all that good stuff…. but it wouldn’t be *ours*. Rather than discovering and developing it on our own, it would be a gift. What would it do to our psyche as humans to know that some of our greatest dreams have already been invented? That the whole galaxy in our area has been explored, mapped, and settled? That there is nothing left for us to achieve, because someone’s beaten us to it?

    Think of Sitting Bull, traveling throughout the Eastern US and Europe as a special celebrity guest of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. What did seeing Western Civilization in all its power and pride and splendor do to him?

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  7. Grim_ungainly #

    totally great discussion guys. I don’t know much about Star Trek, but we still face the same questions here on Earth now and again. There has been a spate of recent news about uncontacted tribes in the Amazon:
    http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10446

    The consensus in the real world for cultures that have not yet had much contact with our global civilization seems to be “non-interference, except when they come to you” which seems pretty sensible and more flexible than the prime directive. The diseases that these people have no immunity towards is obviously a big factor, that you could probably ignore in a interstellar setting.
    Before looking at the wikipedia article, I had no idea the number of uncontacted groups out there:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncontacted_peoples#United_States

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