Sunday, September 06, 2015

Nome, IDIC, and the Future That Could Still Be

In my last post I outed myself as a longtime Trekkie, something that's no secret to any of my close friends. In fact, the Star Trek original series (ST:TOS) has guided quite a lot of my life. It's the reason I work in technology... I want a hand, however slight, in bringing that sort of world about. And in this post I'm assuming you know quite a bit about the series, but I'll go back through it and add hyperlinks for those who haven't caught up. BTW, all of the referenced episodes are available on

And I'm sticking with the original series because the Next Generation and its successors had very little to do with the ideals of the Star Trek of the 1960s, but I'll invite you to read this explanation of that.

Now, that doesn't mean I'm blind to certain illogicalities and shortcomings of the scripts. But those who criticize these often forget that, for all its social commentary and forward thinking, it was still a product of its time, as well as the product of a limited budget. So for every 'Amok Time' or 'Journey to Babel' you're bound to have a 'Spock's Brain' or 'Turnabout Intruder'. And sometimes, it's deliberate. In order to comment on a thing, you have to portray that thing. And they didn't always hit it.

But one of the things that was done right was the Vulcan philosophy of Nome, meaning "All", symbolized by the stylized triangle-in-a-circle called the IDIC. Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations. Despite the fact that Gene Roddenberry did want to introduce an item as something to sell through his mail-order business, there is a well-thought-out philosophy behind it.

The IDIC as it appeared on Spock's dress uniform

The IDIC was introduced in the 3rd season episode, 'Is There in Truth No Beauty?', and it is the concept more than the design that is worth noting. The infinite combinations found in the universe being more valuable than the sum of their individual parts.

Later, in 'The Savage Curtain', we're treated to this dialogue between the crew of the Enterprise and a faux "Abraham Lincoln":
Uhura: Excuse me, Captain Kirk
Kirk: Yes, Lieutenant?
Uhura: Mr. Scott...
Lincoln [interrupting]: What a charming negress. Oh. Forgive me, my dear. I know that in my time some used that term as a description of property.
Uhura: But why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we've learned not to fear words.
Kirk: May I present our communications officer, Lt. Uhura.
Lincoln: The foolishness of my century had me apologizing where no offense was given.
Kirk: We've each learned to be delighted with what we are. The Vulcans learned that centuries before we did.
Spock: It is basic to the Vulcan philosophy, sir. The combination of a number of things to make existence worthwhile.
Uhura meets Lincoln
There are so very many things to like in that exchange; chief among them, Uhura's perfectly frank and innocent explanation that "in our century we've learned not to fear words". I wish that subsequent generations had even an infinitesimal fraction of the wisdom behind that statement. Keep in mind that this was filmed in the midst of the civil rights movement, by people who believed in it vehemently, and it portrays a deliberate statement of their ideals for a utopian future... in which words have lost their negative connotations as people embrace their diversity and take ownership of their lives and future.

Got that?

A Vulcan "kiss"
It's one-half of the salute.
Surak's Construct explains
But it was fandom that really ran with the idea. An entire subculture of fan fiction sprang up to explore the concepts. One such exploration is Jacqueline Lichtenberg's monograph "Surak's Construct". I introduce it here because it is chronologically very close to the source material and very accurately reflects the expectations for the future that were held at that time. From a few sparse symbols depicted in the show -- the IDIC, the Vulcan salute, the Vulcan "kiss", and identification of "the philosophy of 'Nome', meaning 'all'" -- Lichtenberg deduces a robust history and philosophy of the Vulcan culture, and explored it in an "alternate universe" of fan fiction called Kraith.

If you read "Surak's Construct", you see that Lichtenberg basically nailed it. This is perfectly consistent with the original series, which offers Vulcan society as a utopian Way. This Way is one that is, in the words of Spock's mother Amanda in 'Amok Time', "Better than ours". As we progress in the series we learn that far from being "unemotional", Vulcans are very deeply emotional. But they reserve their emotions for those things that matter. I dare you to watch 'Journey to Babel' and conclude that Sarek does not love Amanda. I double dare you.

The concepts are simple and clear:
  • Respect logic. That is, employ reason, as passion has no regard for consequences. But understand passion, so that reason doesn't result in oppression. When reason is employed, use it well, without fallacy. When passion is employed, use it constructively.
  • Respect life. It is not possible to demand respect for your own life if you are not willing to reciprocate. Your life has only the value you place upon others. 
  • Respect commonality. "All". Recognize yourself in others. People are fundamentally similar. What you think of yourself is true of almost everyone. One of the themes of Star Trek is the utter sameness of our needs, masked by our apparent differences. Even something as totally alien as a Horta was found to share our basic values. The upshot is that if you search yourself with complete honesty, you already know what those values are. You should learn to recognize those points of commonality and value them without demanding complete accord. Furthermore, what we expect of others is largely a projection of what we think of ourselves. Thus, "there is no honor among thieves." You may never learn more about yourself than when you realize that your expectations of strangers tell you nothing about them and everything about you
  • Respect individuality. Love yourself. In so doing, treasure your privacy, and spend your emotional capital on that which does not destroy and denigrate. Do not take offense lightly; for to do so is to deny that the views of others have value, and in so doing validate that others are justified in holding your views in similar low regard.
  • Respect diversity. Love others as you love yourself. In so doing, allow them their unique opinions, especially when they are in opposition to your own. It is not only easy, but meaningless to be "tolerant" of people who are only superficially different from you; the only true test of tolerance is for those with whom you deeply disagree. Allow others their dignity, so that you may require the same from them. Do not take offense lightly, as this is a license to cause offense just as easily. 
Where Kirk offers a counter-balance of Human emotionality, it must balance these basic principles. You have to have some pretty damned good reason for violating the Prime Directive... not liking a culture just doesn't cut it. And in 'The City at the Edge of Forever', to preserve history Edith Keeler had to die. Sometimes love doesn't conquer all. Sometimes love must be sacrificed. But you'll see in the original series that Vulcans make valuable advisors and poor leaders. When Spock is in a position of command by himself, he is not so effective as his Captain. Kirk brings with him a moral objectivism and certainty that is largely lacking from the Vulcan's philosophy. Spock's philosophy is relativistic, and renders him inactive. While he and Kirk would likely not disagree on any particular point of the IDIC, Kirk's own philosophy (should he ever utter it) raises respect for individual liberty above all other points. For Kirk, the needs of the many do not outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.

And while Vulcans are an ancient race with much experience, it is Humans who built and maintain the Federation. The Vulcans contribute an ideal; Humanity makes it work.

--==//FREE SPEECH ZONE\\==--

Now think of how badly our present society mishandles these concepts. And yes, this is about to get political, because like it or not, while being non-partisan, Star Trek has always been political. It has always been a commentary on the human condition. I would be shirking a duty if I didn't point out the very real historical and current problems that this philosophy of Nome addresses.

It was created in the 1960s: a time when laws were imposed upon people to segregate them and degrade them. In that time IDIC was offered as a pretty straightforward message that we can acknowledge and embrace the differences of others without erasing those differences. We can discard the bad and choose the good, and that -- significantly -- as this is a philosophy, not a law, it can be done individually, by acceptance. In the real world the path to acceptance has been slow. But parallel to that, attempts were made to impose acceptance. We instituted more laws to correct the bad laws, and are now seeing the limits of those laws, which unavoidably preserve and extend those same divisions while creating entirely new problems.

An actual "Free Speech Zone"
Today, people have not only learned to fear words, but our universities deliberately pander to and promote such fears. They sift innocent actions in search of new fears, and label them "microagressions". They actively train people to search for and take offense at these innocent actions while simultaneously claiming that they are better qualified than you to expound on what heinous insult you really meant by a polite act. They issue trigger warnings so you know when to be fearful. They provide safe spaces in which you can fear and engage in retaliatory hate from afar. They designate free speech zone ghettos where students must go to express opinions that should properly be expressed and discussed intelligently in classrooms; so that other students do not have to exercise the tolerance that is a duty of citizenship. They foment division by celebrating and amplifying negative emotion that they themselves have created through the fear of words. They have utterly wasted the time and effort of a generation on that which does not, will not, and can not work.

In the bright future of Star Trek, James Kirk explains, "We've each learned to be delighted with what we are." 

But in today's society, built by the children of the people who first dreamed of that utopia, people have been taught to hate what they are. On the one hand, people who are bright and capable now firmly believe that they need lower standards to compensate for the inadequacies they have been told they have. So we admit people into universities for which they are not prepared on the basis of superficialities and use the unsurprising drop-out rates of these unprepared people to justify a further lowering of the standards. All the while we ignore the plain fact that anybody of any race or class who was admitted with similar lack of preparation would also fail. We blame "racism" for these failures while simultaneously insisting that race does not exist, and denouncing those who agree.

On the other hand, some others are taught to blame themselves for past injustices in which they had no hand. They are held to be guilty for the sins of previous generations. They are taught that they are the undeserving recipients of privilege while at the same time being held to objectively higher standards. This results in a higher success rate for those relative few who meet the higher standards, ironically caused by the fundamentally bigoted nature of the selection process. Meanwhile, the fact of their numerical majority masks the vast quantity who have been excluded. Our attention is drawn from the fact that they not only succeed, but fail in greater numbers. We encourage adults to live as children well past the age where their parents themselves became parents. To a great degree this is due to our failure as a society to value diversity in occupation. Though there is genuine value and dignity in an honest trade, the sellers of education have consistently insisted that "success" must be measured "by degree". Of course, this success is achieved by buying their product.

We have been taught to weigh ourselves against the value of others rather than search for the intrinsic value within ourselves.

We have flushed Logic down the toilet.

--==\\FREE SPEECH ZONE//==--

In the bright future of Star Trek, the IDIC is a celebration of diversity.

IDIC is a celebration of those combinations that you would not have chosen for yourself. It is also a celebration of those combinations that you would have chosen. It's not just your "right to be weird", but equally someone else's right not to be. Regarding diversity, if you can't be content with the knowledge that someone else does not want to embrace your way of life then you are doing it wrong.

Let that sink in. It's not about them accepting you. That's not within your control; thus it's completely useless as a practical philosophy. Rather, it's about you accepting you, and allowing that others have the right to accept you or not, as they desire. It's about knowing that whatever their desire may be, it does not affect what you are. Your rights are unchanged. IDIC means that no matter who you are, others are not required to like what you like, think what you think, or feel what you feel.  It is the not-you-ness that makes it IDIC,

Likewise, you are free to follow your own principles. It is a personal philosophy over which you have control. You don't have to convince anyone else to do this. The philosophy can be shared, but the practice can not. It cannot be imposed, only accepted. It is this completeness of personal control that makes it Nome.
Kirk recalls to the Spock-clone the philosophy of the Vulcan IDIC and what it means. He also asks if an army of Spocks could impose peace on the galaxy and make other beings accept the Phylosian philosophy in defiance of the Vulcan IDIC concept.  The Spock-clone decides that it cannot be done. ("The Infinite Vulcan")  -- from The Star Trek Concordance by Bjo Trimble
Despite being uniquely individual, IDIC is objectively better than what we've been doing. Its application at the individual level provides a means of finding contentment that is not dependent on others. And as more practice it, that contentment can only grow exponentially, even among those who do not yet practice it. It is not dependent upon any established religion or culture... nor is contrary to the same, except those cultures that do not respect logic, life, commonality, individuality, and diversity. In such situations, where a relativist might sit back and observe injustice, we take the Human course of action and oppose that injustice.

Look, this is a made-up philosophy. They all are. It may seem to you to be quite silly for a person to seriously hold out the fictional culture of a fictional race and ask you to look at it seriously... not to adopt it, but to adapt it. But I'm doing that because a concept may be found to have value no matter where it originates. And this is not faddish or superficial. It requires thought to balance respect for the five points, and a complex morality emerges. 
  • My thoughts and feelings are mine to control
  • I can choose to not take offense at our differences
  • I can choose to treat others with dignity
  • I can choose to allow others their privacy
  • I can maintain my own privacy about things that are no one else's business
Do I do all of these things?  Usually... by which I mean the great majority of the time. Sometimes I choose not to. Not only do I deem it prudent at times, but it validates that these things are choices. But I must admit that I am dismayed by people who honestly believe that they are "liberal" and wish to impose on others, silence others, compel others to their bidding, spy on others, punish others for differing opinions, and demand "acceptance" where a reverence for diversity requires tolerance. I am equally dismayed by people who honestly believe they are "conservative" and wish to do the very same, who violate privacy and property, and who practice exclusion in the name of freedom. They are both so very far removed from the ideals that we dreamed of. And if they do not abandon their present delusions, we will never, ever achieve that society.

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