Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Star Trek Syndrome

On Star Trek, especially the original show, any new culture that the Enterprise encountered would be suprisingly monolithic. In some episodes, the new planet would have two conflicting cultures as part of the dramatic tension for that particular plot. This was a necessary expedient for an hour-long show that was trying to make fairly broad points. But it always amused me that even though our own planet has billions of people with hundreds of languages and radically different cultural behaviors, every other planet in the galaxy is monocultural.

This seems to be the way that most news media treat other countries too. Even fairly sophisticated news outlets, like NPR or The Economist, treat foreign cultures (think Iraq, Iran, China) as if the entire population has a single, collective set of opinions. For places that get extra attention these days (Iraq) you might get to hear the collective opinions of the major factions within the country (Kurdish Iraq, Sunni Iraq, Shiite Iraq). In contrast, we know that political opinions can differ widely within a given family; and within a neighborhood opinions can vary so radically that were we the subject of news analysis a civil war would be considered imminent.

I know that even with the best intentions the news media can't really provide a realistic picture of political and cultural variation; and i can know intellectually that they are applying a sort of statistical simplification much like the red state/blue state nonsense applied to our own country. But i wonder if in the end this sort of coverage is just neutral or if it's harmful. For example, it's possible for both right and left to use this sort of coverage to support their own viewpoint (think of the times you've heard a sentence start with "The Iraqi people"). More generally, i think it's just dehumanizing. It completely collapses the scope and breadth of ancient, complex, and varied cultures, which i think makes it easier for Western cultures (or at least the US) to dismiss the other cultures as small and insignificant; as if we were dealing with some isolated, anachronistic tribe.

No comments: