Two Star Treks and Some Trolleyology

Would you throw the fat guy off the bridge?

This fall there’s a new Star Trek streaming in my living room. I had great fun watching the original Star Trek and one or two of its reboots, so of course I was excited to check out Star Trek Discovery. We also tried The Orville, a new Star Trek-inspired series billed as a comedy, which surprised us by having real conflict in its episode plot structure.

Whether the take is epic drama or smart comedy, both these current Star Trek-inspired shows share a recurring theme: how people of different ethnic backgrounds can live in a united society without losing their cultural identity.

The original Star Trek explored the possibility of different cultures, represented by alien species, moving from isolation and misunderstanding to coexisting in peace. In 2017 multiculturalism is hardly a science fictional concept. Storytellers today are concerned with the conflict between defending traditional cultures and forming a universal (global) society with shared ethics and values.

Star Trek Discovery approaches this sticky conundrum via the Klingons. The Klingons detest the Federation, most specifically they loathe their motto: “we come in peace.” To the Klingons, the Federation is an organization that wipes out proud ethnic cultures by assimilating them into their juggernaut monoculture. The Klingons will fight to the death to maintain isolation from the Federation and maintain their traditional way of life.

A recent Orville episode took on cultural integrity from a different angle. An Orville crew member from an all-male species asked to perform a sex change on his “mutant” daughter. Human leadership on the Orville recoiled with outrage. Parents of the mutant female child called cultural hegemony. They insisted their cultural heritage deserved to be honored.

The Orville episode got down and dirty with how, exactly, our values originate. It immediately brought to mind The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which I read earlier this year.

Then during a discussion between the Captain and his First Officer, Captain Ed dug deeper, asking whether our innate sense of right and wrong can be trusted.

“Trolleyology!” I shouted to the characters on screen.

One way philosophers prod the borders of morality is with a conundrum called the Trolley Problem. Trolleyologists explore a variety of imaginary moral dilemmas to show that, no matter how hard we reason and justify, there comes a point where all we can say is that something “feels right” or “feels wrong” in our gut.

But what happens when those “gut instincts” contradict each other, even within  the same person? Yikes!

The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart is a great deep dive on these very real contradictions. Would you throw the fat man off the bridge to save fifty innocent people?

Your answer isn’t important, but how you get there, is. I would say the same of the Star Trek Discovery and Orville episodes. Ultimately who wins the conflict isn’t all that interesting. But the questions raised in the process definitely piqued my interest.

Cultivating compassion and my weird feet

I’ve always had weird feet. As a baby, I slept in this crazy device: saddle shoes attached to a metal bar that forced my feet apart. As I grew the bar went away, but I still had to wear orthopedic saddle shoes. My gym shoe options were restricted to the few models available in wide width, always the ugliest shoes in the store.

Barefoot, my feet are fine and never bother me. Trouble starts when I put on shoes. If I find a pair that doesn’t cause pain I wear holes in them, then keep right on walking.

A recent trial of new athletic shoes left some of my toes more blister than not. Tortured feet or the ugly shoes of my childhood? I wasn’t thrilled by either prospect.

Ever my hero, my hubby got on the Nike website and found a way to custom design a pair of shoes just for me. Not only could he make decisions on the structure of the shoe, he could fine tune the aesthetics. He designed shoes so cute I’d want to wear them.

A special pair of shoes custom-made just for me. Wow. But as soon as we placed the order I had questions. Where were my shoes being made? Who was making them? How were those people being treated?

Maybe I have a weird brain in addition to weird feet…or…maybe I’m not the only one who thinks more about the laborers making my stuff when we become collaborators building something I helped design.

I’m not a thoughtless consumer. I limit myself to vegan footwear and bags, and whenever possible look for eco-friendly products. In the grocery arena, I buy a lot of fair trade chocolate and tea. Yet until I pictured someone in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam making shoes specially for me, when it came to shoe buying I was far more worried about the wellbeing of my four-legged friends than I was about factory workers.

There are many advantages to custom-made products. Custom clothing and shoes fit better, fewer blister-inducing shoes and unflattering jeans to discard. The idea of buying what we actually want, instead of a rough approximation, sounds satisfying and fun. What if it also improved consumer consciousness about the conditions of laborers in the garment industry?

Custom design retail sites alone aren’t going to solve the problem of international working conditions, but I do think it’s worth noticing that collaboration on a unique item creates a connection between consumers and laborers. Feeling connection is how we learn to care.