Saturday, 21 January 2012

Lost in translation?

One of my favourite episodes from the Star Trek series is "Darmok" from Star Trek: the next generation. It is an episode where Captain Picard is taken by the "children of Tama" whose language is "incomprehensible" to the Federation because they speak in purely "metaphorical" imagery from their native legends: "Rai and Jiri at Lungha - Rai of Lowani; Lowani under two moons; Jiri of Ubaya; Ubaya of crossroads. At Lungha. Lungha, her sky grey." opens the Tamarian Captain to Captain Picard at their first meeting.

Everyone in the Enterprise's bridge is clearly perplexed by the Tamarians' overtures. The uncertain Picard suggests to the Tamarians that they and the Tamarians should strike a non-agression treaty possibly leading to a trade agreements and cultural interchange. The lack of comprehension on both sides makes the Tamarian underlings giggle at Picard's attempts to respond. But their captain says to them: "The River Temarc in winter!" and puts his hand up to silence them.

The story progresses and Picard is abducted and taken to the surface of a planet where he and the Tamarian Captain have to cooperate and fight against a shimmering entity. Through a series of misunderstandings on part of Picard's crew and their quickness to react, the Tamarian Captain is fatally injured and dies but not before demonstrating honour and bravery in the face of danger and death and winning Picard's respect.

In the beginning of the episode Picard says, "In my experience, communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe that these are qualities we have in sufficient measure," in response to the concerns expressed by some of his crew about the strange incomprehensible Tamarians. Picard's willingness to be open-minded and to allow trust and reason to inform and direct his actions is certainly something of a rare quality in intercultural relations where humanist values (let alone spiritual values) are already difficult if not impossible or futile to try and observe and practice.

As a believer in the humanizing aspects of a "liberal arts education", the storyline of the Star Trek episode above is something I value greatly. The inevitable power dynamics at play in all human relations (whether personal, social or professional relations) seem always in default setting where the one who feels in no need for accomodation and understanding decides the outcome of the relationship. As a humanist and someone of "colour" I'm forever vigilant and sensitive to try and not play the role of either the "dominated"/"dominant" in all of my relations (ie, try to be equal instead of either/or). But perhaps because I'm too impatient or immature, I've acquired a nasty reputation for "inflexibility" and being an "iconoclast", which is sweetly perversed and ironic to me personally.

Having seen oodles of examples in history how dangerous unexamined, dogmatic and received values can be - or how dated and parochial they can become - I'm aversed to conservatism and dogma of all kinds. But I try and live by humanist principles, accomodation and reasonableness, and the lessons from my ancestors and spiritual beliefs I try and embrace whole-heartedly as long as living by them do not impact anyone unduly or take anyone's dignity away.

I believe in science but not the kind that is appealed to to try and control and administer the lives of others in a coercive fashion. Take "science" as practiced selectively by governments. The wildlife management discourse is somewhat heartening to me - the past hubris and certainty of social development ideology has slowly begun to give way to a willingness to listen and consider IQ knowledge of climate, ecology and wildlife. I hope this enlightenment process continues and expands.

The Harper government and those climate-change deniers do not believe in "science" 'til they want it to direct the findings of environmental review process in their favour. This is what aboriginal peoples see, and they become "anti-science" because they come from traditions that still consider hypocrisy and underhandedness as sinful and destructive to social relations (ie, those traditions that have not been co-opted by corporatism and rational-legalism).

Jay

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