George Takei, the actor who played the original Sulu in Star Trek, has some enviable qualities. Takei is likable, he has a gift for social media, and he possesses a wonderfully deep voice. However, he is not the smartest person in the world. This was recently confirmed, when Takei used an obviously racist slur to lambast a senior judge. Takei followed-up by arguing it was not racist to refer to the judge as a ‘clown in blackface’. A wiser man would have hastily admitted his faults, and apologized. Takei has now apologized, though the apology is so indirect and self-regarding that it only makes Takei seem even more conceited. But we should thank Takei for his flaws. Takei’s fame depends on his role in science fiction culture. Some treat science fiction like the path to enlightenment pursued by a misty-eyed seer, able to diagnose the illnesses of the present and chart the course to a utopian future. Takei has reminded us that SF culture also includes its fair share of stupid buggers.
Takei’s comical brouhaha began when he was asked, on a news channel, what he thought of the judgement of US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The court determined that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right following a 5-4 vote of the judges, but Thomas was in the dissenting minority. Perhaps we should stop and reflect at this point. Takei, a man who is famous because he pushed pretend buttons on a 1960’s television show, was asked to review the legal opinion of one of the top judges in the USA, as given in a tricky case of historical significance. Maybe the USA’s legal system is imperfect, but I struggle to understand how a more utopian future will be realized by asking aging actors for their opinion on everything. Undaunted, Takei held forth. In particular, Takei objected to Thomas’ legal opinion on the grounds of too much ‘blackface’.
In a way, Takei was right about one thing, because Thomas does have a black face, or rather a dark brown face which people in some societies describe as ‘black’, as compared to paler skins. Thomas is the only Supreme Court judge who is black. But the intelligent amongst us know that judges should be chosen because of their skill at reaching a judgement, not because of their color. So, by any normal understanding of racism, Takei was being racist.
Realizing that he had committed a terrible faux pas, which would alienate him from many right-thinking, word-policing fans, Takei needed to excuse himself. He did this by pointing out that ‘blackface’ describes how actors applied make-up in order to play characters with different racial characteristics to their own. By that logic, highlighting how a black judge has a black face is not racist, because only a white judge could put on a real blackface.
I find Takei’s logic to be desperately contrived. It is certainly not of a calibre I would want from somebody who reviews the decisions of top judges. Instead of just leaving his insult with the assertion that Thomas is black – an accurate if irrelevant statement – Takei reinvented it as a much more racist slur than we first imagined. Thomas is black. But Takei tells us he meant to compare Thomas to a white man who is pretending to be black. It was one thing to needlessly refer to Thomas’ race, but it is something else to imply Thomas is a traitor to his race. And hence, we progressively learn that Takei’s deep voice is not evidence of deep thought.
There is no point bashing Takei. He is not smart enough to be worth it. He said something stupid and offensive in the heat of the moment. Then he slowly and carefully considered how to backtrack without losing face, and so wrote something even more stupid and offensive. When William Shatner came to Takei’s defence, I think he was being sincere.
My guess is that Takei is not a racist, in a malign or systematic way. His racism was of the easy, casual, everyday variety. Thomas wrote an opinion that came to a conclusion that Takei did not like, so instead of addressing Thomas’ argument, Takei started talking about the color of Thomas’ skin. Many people are prone to such irregular leaps in their thinking. They feel a logical argument has reached the wrong conclusion, but being unable to express what was wrong with the argument, they attack the individual instead. That was what Takei did. We should thank him for doing this, because it shows that policing thought will never succeed, because some people are not thoughtful enough to be worth policing.
Takei’s argument was especially misjudged because Thomas’ argument had a certain beauty to it. These are the words that Thomas wrote, and which prompted Takei’s diva meltdown.
Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.
The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.
You do not have to agree with Thomas’ conclusion to see that he presents an elegant and attractive argument. If a slave suffered the worst indignities, but still felt they were dignified in themselves, or that they were dignified in the eyes of God, then who should argue the slave was wrong to think that way?
Takei vehemently rejected Thomas’ point of view. As a result, he reveals the narrowness of his own thinking.
To deny a group the rights and privileges of others is to strip them of human dignity…
Takei’s thinking is narrow because it has not occurred to him that some believe human beings have immortal souls. It is not necessary to agree that humans have souls, to understand what a difference this would make to a person’s outlook. A slave has no less spirituality than any other person, and the role of the spiritual in your life will profoundly influence your understanding of a concept like dignity.
Thomas’ argument follows tracks laid down by ancient thinkers. This is not surprising: those same thinkers also influenced the original writers of the US constitution. Socrates believed we have souls, and that the soul could not be harmed by the actions of others. The only way an individual can damage a soul is by doing harm to themselves. Boethius, in The Consolation of Philosophy, concludes that the suffering caused by his own unjust imprisonment is of no importance, because the gifts of fortune are unreliable. Temporal assets, like health, wealth, or power, can be taken away, so soul and the intellect must be the route to true happiness. In the Bible, the character of Job comes to a similar understanding. After he is beset by disasters, Job better appreciates God’s design:
My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.
On the other hand, if you think that humans are purely physical beings, then it is easier to sympathize with Takei’s point of view. If humans do not have a soul, then there is nothing more important than their day-to-day treatment and comfort. If dignity has no spiritual aspect, it can only be understood in terms of the material and the legal.
Some may point out that Takei is a Buddhist. I am not a Buddhist, but I am forced to wonder if Takei’s understanding of Buddhism is as malformed as his views on race, and his grasp of law. Buddhists are conscious of the role of suffering in this world, and how personal enlightenment is the only escape from that suffering. Whilst Thomas was clearly following a Christian tradition, his view of the inviolability of human dignity is easier to reconcile with Buddhism than Takei’s argument that dignity depends on law.
Whether right, wrong, or confused, Takei is entitled to his opinions. As nobody has scientifically proven the existence of souls, Takei’s position has some merit. Maybe there is nothing more important than governments, and laws, and how they work in practice. But Takei was wrong to describe Thomas as a ‘clown’. A more thoughtful person would have understood that their difference of opinion is founded on a genuine and sincere disagreement about the nature of this universe. It is conceited to deride others for their spiritual beliefs. And Takei made a fool of himself by questioning Thomas’ competence as a judge.
Why am I analyzing this minor episode in such depth? Because there are so many parallels to debates that consume science fiction ‘fandom’. Small, petty, and unimaginative people like George Takei can sincerely believe they are as wise as Solomon. Idiots can be popular and successful. They can gather many followers. Chanting the tropes that define them, a community’s repeated confirmation of its own bias will lead its weaker members to conclude they are much wiser than they really are. Four legs good, two legs bad. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. With great power comes great responsibility. Pop fiction can deliver the same lines as great philosophy, but that does not make Stan Lee the equal of Voltaire. At the same time, audiences can behave like a mirror. When they perceive depth in others, they may only be witnessing their own superficiality.
There will always be some who mindlessly repeat slogans and mottos, whilst castigating, alienating, and demonizing anyone with a different outlook. Science fiction is not immune to this disease. When warriors like Takei start calling people names, they will insist this is forgivable, natural, and even desirable. That was why Takei felt entitled to lose his temper and racially abuse an intelligent and successful African-American, then deploy indignation and misdirection to retain an ill-deserved sense of moral superiority.
George Takei is convinced he is morally good. Takei’s belief in himself allowed him to do something morally wrong, and then to excuse his behavior afterwards. He is not the only person to suffer this combination of failings.
Because science fiction deals with the future, and alternative possibilities, it will encourage some people to believe they are smarter than they really are. They think that by consuming science fiction, they have a better understanding of the world than others. They are mistaken. Science fiction is a form of entertainment. It is not a division of science or philosophy. The best science fiction may complement science and philosophy, but the relationship is not infallible. It is easy to remember how Clarke contributed to the development of artificial satellites. It is even easier to forget that Asimov thought positronics would be commonplace long before medicine learned the secret of artificial insemination. And yet, the world has witnessed many more test tube babies than walking, talking robots.
Even good science fiction will often have a wayward understanding of how the universe works, or of the nature of human beings. The worst science fiction will fall much shorter. And because tastes vary, some will prefer the worst to the best. Fans with poor taste are still fans, but we should be wary of their pomposity. They should always be discouraged from believing they define taste, no matter how many of them believe it. Defining taste is a way to control people by bullying them, little different to arguing that the color of a judge’s skin should influence his decisions.
I hope that George Takei’s embarrassment will remind others to be more humble, and more respectful of genuine differences of opinion, and taste. Better still, it may discourage some of the lazy knee-jerk name-calling which dominate the outpourings of people who, like George Takei, consider themselves to be social justice activists. It is easy to use words like ‘racist’ to unfairly smear others. Takei’s racist outburst, which deserves to be described that way, begs the question of how honestly and consistently such pejorative epithets are used.
I have hope… but I am not wildly optimistic. As Bertrand Russell pointed out:
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
The community of science fiction fans probably has the same proportion of fools and fanatics as the general population. We might fear that science fiction attracts even more than its fair share; fools and fanatics like stories that confirm their point of view, especially if the real world stubbornly refuses to yield to their fantasies. The answer is not to respond to fanaticism with equal and opposing extremism. Such tactics only encourage the true fanatics. It is better to wait for them to embarrass themselves. We can then politely identify the failings of the fanatics, whilst expressing our faith in the even-handed skepticism of the majority of the audience.