Since the start of the global Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the shameful death of George Floyd, I’ve been trying to process my feelings on the subject. And as an introverted, middle-class, white male American, I didn’t feel it was my place to speak up at first. But this nascent awakening of our society can only succeed if everyone participates. That means speaking up and sharing my thoughts and support, even when it might feel trite or hollow. Because good words can help.
That’s where ideas begin.
Over the decades, Star Trek fans have had a mostly well-earned reputation for being open-minded and accepting. From classics like “Devil in the Dark” and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” to the heartfelt relationship between Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber, the philosophy of embracing other cultures, other people, and other ideas is deeply ingrained in the franchise. This philosophy is best summarized by the Vulcan principle of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, better known as IDIC. Propounded by Gene Roddenberry himself, IDIC incorporates many ideas, but at its core it is “an ideal based on learning to delight in our essential differences as well as learning to recognize our similarities”.
Though not explicitly defined in-universe until several years later, the core of IDIC was evident from the very beginning of Star Trek—not only in the racial diversity of the main characters, but in the stories which emphasized peace, understanding, and coexistence. This was part of what made the show so special, demonstrating by example that Humanity need not be doomed to a perpetual cycle of hatred and violence, as seemed likely in the 1960s. Over the decades, the manifestation of this message evolved to fit the times, but it was always present. Our definitions of what might constitute “life” expanded to include vibrant new characters like Data, Odo, and The Doctor, and as always, Star Trek showed how accepting those new people could enrich everyone around them, too.
IDIC is a principle that is simple in concept, but difficult to identify and practice. For one thing, the sheer concept of “infinite” is difficult for us Humans to comprehend. But let’s try to dissect the name. “Infinite diversity”, to me, refers to the incredible variety of life that one can find in the universe—or even just on Earth. There are people, creatures, and inanimate objects of vastly different shapes, sizes, colors, experiences, and beliefs. Each one has qualities that set them apart from the others... and just as importantly, other qualities that they share with others. “Diversity” does not just mean “different.” True diversity refers to the spectrum of both similarities and differences.
Then there’s “infinite combinations”, which takes the idea of diversity even further. As you take diverse elements and then combine them together, you come up with something new. This is basically the core of all Human artistic creativity, but it’s applied to our culture and society. How many beautiful and interesting things have been created because of the combination of different things? Like mixed media art, or odd but delicious food combinations, or memorable partnerships between people? In many cases, it’s the differences in each contributor that enhance the other.
Taken together, “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” means that not only does diversity strengthen us, but creating ever-newer combinations from that diversity results in things that can be beautiful, unexpected, and better. We can only do that by actively seeking out and embracing things that are different in some way.
(Note that IDIC does not mean tolerating intolerance. This is a philosophical concept called the paradox of tolerance. That’s a different rabbit hole of an argument, which has been eloquently discussed elsewhere.)
“I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.”
— Image of Surak, in “The Savage Curtain”
Examples of IDIC in Star Trek
There are so many different examples relating to IDIC that could be selected from the fifty-plus-year history of Star Trek. Some of them are blindingly obvious, because Star Trek has rarely had a reputation for subtle allegory. But there are other examples that are more understated, yet no less impactful. I’ve chosen three examples that resonate with me concerning the present state of affairs.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the second season Enterprise episode “The Breach”, in which Phlox encounters an Antaran patient who refuses treatment based on centuries-old wars with the Denobulans. Of all the crew on the NX-01, Phlox always seemed to embody the ideals of IDIC the most. He reveled in experiencing different cultures, meeting new people, and trying different foods. Yet we learn through his intense dialogue with Hudak that Phlox didn’t effortlessly develop his open attitude. He had been raised on stories about the “evil” Antarans by family members who were clearly afraid of other cultures. Yet Phlox rejected those stories, and tried to teach his children to embrace other cultures as well. His determined earnestness convinced Hudak, perhaps not to overcome all of his prejudices, but at the very least to overcome his fear at being cared for by a Denobulan doctor. And at the end of the episode, Hudak was willing to at least be on the same ship with some Denobulan passengers, and Phlox reached out to his estranged son, hoping to reconnect and share his experiences.
The second example is from the first season of Voyager, particularly the episodes “Parallax” and “Eye of the Needle”, in which Kes develops a friendly relationship with, and becomes an advocate for, the Emergency Medical Hologram. The EMH was originally only viewed as a non-sentient computer program, despite his (admittedly abrasive) personality and vast knowledge. Yet Kes, who embodied pure innocence, immediately treated The Doctor as a thinking, feeling being. She encouraged him to speak up for himself, and raised awareness of his treatment by the crew with Captain Janeway. By the third season, The Doctor was effectively a fully equal member of Voyager’s crew. How different would Voyager’s journey have been without his contributions? He literally saved the entire crew on multiple occasions, with the episodes “Basics”, “Message in a Bottle”, and “Workforce” being the most notable examples. If Kes hadn’t intuitively treated The Doctor with empathy and respect, he might never have discovered his potential as a sentient being.
The third, and possibly most impactful, example is the ongoing and eventually romantic relationship between Kira Nerys and Odo, most deeply explored in the seventh season Deep Space Nine episode “Chimera”. I argued in a previous blog entry that Changelings could be seen as among the most alien beings encountered in Star Trek, due to their fundamental nature as shape-shifting, liquid-like life. Yet despite their notable physical differences, Odo and Nerys formed a meaningful personal relationship, which over the years became an unlikely romance. This relationship was not entirely symmetrical; each person had needs that didn’t quite fit with what the other could fill or provide. Their relationship was challenged by the presence of Laas, another Changeling who had been sent out to explore the galaxy like Odo. While Laas seemed jaded (at best) about his interactions with non-Changelings, Odo reciprocated the trust, loyalty, and love that he had been given by the rest of the crew of DS9. The image of Nerys standing in the middle of a glowing cloud of energy (the form that Odo has taken) demonstrates how meaningful and emotional their connection is, just as powerful yet completely different from biological sex. In the end, I believe those positive experiences are what gave Odo the ability to convince the Founders to end the Dominion War.
These three relationships have many differences between them, but they also carry a thread of similarity: the willingness to embrace that which is different. Furthermore, those relationships are demonstrated by actions.
Applying IDIC to Life on Earth
From its very conception, Star Trek has always been intended to teach by demonstration: to show a world where differences are accepted without hesitation, or even without consideration at all. Part of the need for this is that our world, sadly, does not embrace differences in the way that many of Star Trek’s characters do. The message that most people seem to have taken from Star Trek is that such a world is possible. But that’s an easy, passive lesson to take. There are also lessons in what we can do to make our world one where IDIC is more prevalent.
(If you’ve been reading other opinions and reactions to this month’s Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations, you’ll probably find a lot of similar ideas. I offer no pretense that these ideas are original. But they need to be shared, again and again.)
First, it’s easy to embrace IDIC when everyone around you embraces it too. What’s harder is to encourage it in others, and to look out for times that you may not exhibit it yourself. Phlox had to fight his antipathy and anger, despite his generally accepting attitude, when he first spoke with Hudak. His behavior was not uniformly pleasant, but he fought his instincts to share his personal experiences and encourage just a small change in the beliefs of another. Similarly, Kira had to recognize how difficult it was for Odo to reach out to her and maintain an unequal relationship.
Second, we must take the time to observe and listen. Listening is not a passive skill. It’s active. That means observing, asking, and prompting. Sometimes it means just being present, to demonstrate that you’re available and engaged. Kes took the time to ask The Doctor what he needed. Kira and Odo had numerous conversations about their feelings and needs, especially about Odo’s conflicting wishes to be with others like him and his feelings for his friends and loved ones.
Finally, don’t accept things the way they are. Little problems may seem unimportant, but lots of little problems are just as harmful as one big problem. Addressing a little problem is still meaningful. And for one person, your actions could be a lot more meaningful. Phlox didn’t change his whole species’ perspective, but he made a momentary connection with one other person, would had the opportunity to share what he learned with others. Kes’ connection with The Doctor inspired a sentient being to recognize his potential, and he became an important member of his crew. Little changes and little actions can still have huge impact.
I’ve struggled to do these things myself over the past three weeks. I’ve been fortunate to have been in multiple conversations with friends and coworkers, in an open and welcoming environment hosted by my employer. These conversations have still been very uncomfortable for me, but when is change is ever comfortable? I need to be aware of the problems in the world before I can start to help address them. In some ways, I feel like Kes, who never seemed to consider The Doctor as anything other than a fully-sentient being, yet was taken aback by how many of the rest of the crew treated him. I am certainly nowhere near that innocent, but recent events have snapped me out of my silence.
I’ve always treated the philosophies of Star Trek as perfectly natural. Maybe I learned the lessons so well I was able to overlook some of the injustices in the world today. But thanks to current events, it’s provided an opportunity to gain some awareness of the world. I can’t change the whole world, but I can change how I behave, and hopefully inspire a few others around me in the bargain. And to do that, I need to seek out people and ideas that are different from me. That’s an ambitious goal, easier said than done, but important nonetheless. And when more people choose to reach out to each other, to explore our differences and our similarities, and to learn from them, we all benefit.
From what I’ve seen over the past few weeks, there are a lot of people who feel this way. The more we speak up and actively profess our beliefs in IDIC and similar philosophies, and follow up those beliefs with actions (both big and small), the more we’ll be able to change our world for the better. Because it’s never too late for self-reflection and change.
“If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
— Gene Roddenberry
Postscript: A Non-Exhaustive and Highly Subjective List of Episodes to Watch
I’ve gone back and taken a second look at some of my favorite episodes, and found a couple new ones that I’d overlooked. (ENT’s “The Breach” being a good example of a meaningful episode that I’d completely forgotten about.) Here’s a good (but certainly not exhaustive) list of shows that exemplify some aspect of IDIC:
- TOS: “The Corbomite Maneuver”
- TOS: “The Devil in the Dark”
- TOS: “Day of the Dove”
- TOS: “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”
- TAS: “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”
- TNG: “Home Soil”
- TNG: “The Measure of a Man”
- TNG: “Half a Life”
- TNG: “The Quality of Life”
- TNG: “Liaisons”
- DS9: “The Forsaken”
- DS9: “The House of Quark”
- DS9: “Rejoined”
- DS9: “Far Beyond the Stars”
- DS9: “Chimera”
- VOY: “Eye of the Needle”
- VOY: “Remember”
- VOY: “The Disease”
- VOY: “Muse”
- VOY: “Lineage”
- ENT: “Dear Doctor”
- ENT: “Stigma”
- ENT: “The Breach”
- ENT: “Cogenitor”
- ENT: “North Star”
- DIS: “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum”
- DIS: “The Sound of Thunder”
- PIC: “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1” and Part 2