Sometimes it’s difficult not to talk about happenings in other parts of the world. The recent horror in Orlando is just one such tragedy. It seems every time something like this happens in the United States, I feel anything I say would be unhelpful, for the simple reason that it’s another country. Who am I to comment on how any other nation deals with its own affairs? It’d be the height of hypocrisy to do so, given my own cause.
Yet at the same time, this is more than an American issue: it’s a human issue. We are all human beings, and this calamity affects every sensitive, empathetic person in an increasingly globalised world, where news spreads within tens of thousands of miles in a matter of seconds. I don’t deal well with death. I keep thinking, one day, I’ll be desensitised; I’ll get used to it; I won’t let it bother me so much any more. The day never comes.
Much of social media is talking about the response to the tragedy from mainstream media, and what some claim is a whitewashing of the anti-homosexual motivations of the crime. Others say that this is a human tragedy of which no-one can claim exclusive ownership. I can see where both points are coming from.
I think the UK media’s history of reactionary sensationalism when it comes to dealing with homosexuality and related issues is a sordid and depressing one, even in this century. I cannot fault those within that group for being emotional in these circumstances at the best of times, and they aren’t helped when misrepresented, unintentionally or not. The UK media has a lot to answer for in many respects – their bias towards the UK establishment, elitism, metrocentrism, and tradition – and I think a challenging tone can often lead to a spirited debate.
At the same time, we are responsible for our own emotions: we may not control how we feel, but we do control how we express them. I know that there are times when I have a terrible emotional reaction to news events, but I have the presence of mind to acknowledge that emotion. There is nothing wrong with it: there are some issues which I will not – or rather, cannot – consider to think, or speak, or write, in moderation. But being emotional is not an excuse in and of itself: you have to defend your stance regardless of your emotional state.
In any situation of volatile change, there are always going to be those who are resistant to it: much as it may frustrate those who want the change to happen as soon as possible, change is something that can be more painful the older you are.
Take the Cold War. So much in literature, cinema, and other media relating to war focuses on the lurid horror, intricate strategy, and exhilarating tactics: comparatively little is spent exploring what happened after the guns fell silent. There are thousands of films set during the Second World War, but not so many set during the pivotal years following peace. In so many stories, we want to know what happened next: did the people whose lives we followed live happily ever after? Did they find peace? Did they succeed in their goals?
One of my favourite Star Trek films is the sixth and final for the original crew, The Undiscovered Country. It isn’t perfect by any means, but speaking as a child who grew up in the final years of the Cold War, I found it immensely powerful on a personal level. Although TUC has a fair bit of action in it, it is notable for being set after a decades-long period of hostility between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. When one of the Klingons’ major energy production centres explodes, the Empire is thrown into nothing short of an existential crisis (it isn’t subtle, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t earnest – this is Star Trek, after all). Both the Federation and Empire are wearied by decades of conflict, intrigue, and schemes. But the fear of mutually assured destruction in a costly and devastating war has made trust and peace almost as difficult.
This was not least due to people like Kirk himself. Captain Kirk has spent decades fighting the Klingons in border skirmishes, planetary disputes, and outright invasions. – and since TUC came out 25 years after the original series’ debut, it really felt like we lived those 25 years. All he has known with the Klingons is conflict and hatred: they are treacherous, bloodthirsty, antithetical to civilisation. They killed members of his people, his crew – his only son. How could he be expected to broker peace?
Captain’s log, Stardate: 9522.6. I’ve never trusted Klingons, and I never will. I could never forgive them for the death of my boy. It seems to me our mission to escort the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council to a peace summit is problematic at best. Spock says this could be an historic occasion, and I’d like to believe him, but how on earth can history get past people like me?
How on earth can history get past people like me. Of all Cpt Kirk’s memorable quotes, this is possibly the saddest, as he realises that he has finally become the past. All throughout his Starfleet career, he sought to advance humanity as it advanced through the stars – always forward, into the future – technologically, intellectually, philosophically. In times past, he was the voice of enlightenment challenging prejudice, elitism, demonisation, brainwashing, bigotry, and propaganda – but now he finds that it is people like him who are holding progress back.
That Kirk has the self-awareness to realise this is a testament to his character, and that of his opposite number, Chancellor Gorkon:
You don’t trust me, do you? I don’t blame you. If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.
It is unfortunate that so few of the “Kirks” in our time are so unaware of their complicity in holding human progress back. This is the nub of the “young versus old” debate: we are living in different countries. Of course older people will vote differently from younger people: they have lived entirely different lives from the young. They lived before the internet, mobile phones, affordable personal computers, and the access to information and communication that we have today. They remember the Second World War firsthand, survived it, even served, and experienced the turmoil of the postwar period. They experienced a world completely and utterly different from ours – a world that simply doesn’t exist anymore. And because more people are living well into old age, there are even more children born in this lost country joining us in the present.
Change is difficult, frightening, uncertain. But it is not impossible. “The old” are not a monolithic block of uniform thinking any more than “the young” are. And so there are plenty of people who’ve lived a long life who are more radical than I am: conversely, I’ve met teenagers more economically right-wing than I thought possible for Greenockians. So when I see the response to yet another mass murder yet again leading to a debate on guns or immigration or religion, it sometimes seems as if it’s just a merry-go-round: the horses look like they’re moving, but they never gallop free from the rotating platform. Yet that’s the thing: whatever happens, history does carry on. Perhaps it’s imperceptibly moving forward even now; perhaps it is just approaching a tipping point leading to a cascade of change.
Even Star Trek itself is not immune to this: many Trekkies are have noticed that a series which was so pioneering in racial, sexual, humanist, cultural, and national politics did not do the same in regards to homosexuality. This was one thing in the 1960s, when all but one US state still criminalised same-sex relationships, but even though there were multiple assurances by Gene Roddenberry and a well-received script from David Gerrold in the works during The Next Generation, there was no LGBT equivalent of Uhura or Chekhov or Sulu. Nonetheless, the Star Trek fandom provided their own solution: the fan series New Voyages/Phase II produced Gerrold’s script themselves. Sometimes you can’t wait for the people in charge to make the decisions you want: you have to do it yourself. (It’s a really good episode, too, give it a watch).
I remember growing up during the Cold War, thinking this was going to be my life: constantly worrying about impending nuclear attack. Yet the Soviet Union dissolved; the Berlin Wall was torn down; the states became nations again. The Cold War ended. Life changed. History may not have gotten fully past the Cold War, or slavery, or bigotry, in every part of the world – but in progress, it’s leaving those things further and further behind. Think how different the reaction to this tragedy could’ve been had it happened in the early 2000s; the 1990s; the 1980s. Think how far we’ve come, as well as how far we’ve yet to go.
We’re all walking the same road, but you can’t make people walk at the same pace. The best we can do is walk on regardless. Those behind us will catch up; some will ask for a hand. Others will be left behind. But we must keep going forward to that undiscovered country: without the journey, we’ll never get there.
Let’s boldly go.