The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

Can there ever be a global culture?

The argument against a global culture in fiction

In a lot of science fiction media, the Earth is portrayed as a unified state. All humanity is living relatively in peace and harmony and choosing to explore the universe, or something to that effect. A byproduct of this is that humanity has a unified single culture, that being Terran or something of that ilk. Is this a feasible concept or just fiction for the sake of convenience?

In our current world, culture and identity are not even close to unified. Culture extends down to distinct local communities that live mere miles from one another. The idea of a single “Terran” culture is ridiculous. How can people think of themselves like that if, for example, Europeans back home, and Americans here, are incredibly tied to national or regional demarcations? While yes, there are large cultural groups that are similar, this does not make a Terran culture. The massive diversity across the world is worth preserving.

One reason why this “unified Earth” trope might exist is because of laziness on the part of writers. Many people who write stories like this want to explore ideas about either aliens or some part of the human condition, and fully exploring how all the different people across the world would interact with that situation is a lot of work and requires one to be very careful and knowledgeable. In their defense, doing that properly would take away from the story that they want to tell, so it is not the most egregious of tropes. But, there are good examples of media that do justice to the many diverse identities of Earth well in a futuristic context.

An example of a sci-fi world that still has clear cultural differences and interacts with aliens properly is the original “Star Trek.” The main cast was a fairly diverse group, but not amazingly representative. Given the writing staff, many of the main characters—Kirk, McCoy, Uhura and Sulu—are all Americans. However, three of arguably the best characters—Scotty, Chekov and Spock—are not only not American, but aggressively distinct in their cultural identity. Scotty is incredibly Scottish, and Chekov is consistently very Russian. This is seen through a humorous lens sometimes, there is a recurring joke that Chekov thinks all great human discoveries and inventions were done by Russians. This is an interesting display of a type of distant-future nationalism. It is not a key part of Chekov’s character, but it is exemplary of the careful hand that the writers used when constructing the characters.

This space nationalism does not take over how Chekov is viewed and does not turn him into a purely comedic character. It still pays homage and respects his cultural heritage in a way that is fairly benign and unassuming. It would be far more jarring if he were to be a vodka-drinking stereotype. If that were the case, it would take the American egoism present at the time of the show’s writing and fit it into the far future in a way that is both disagreeable in the context of the show, and as a viewer.

I think that having the characters on the show retain a strong national identity is easier to watch, as it makes the characters more real, and makes this world of the far future seem more like a plausible extension of our own rather than a pulpy mess. The show is only supposed to take place a few hundred years from the “present,” and the chances of a completely homogeneous culture appearing quickly feel ludicrous. So, it is wrong to make it appear that the world is only populated by vaguely American humans. The most interesting character on the show for examining the idea of a global Terran culture is the character of Mr. Spock.

Spock is an interesting case. Since he is half Vulcan and half human, his interaction with his human side is most exemplary of what a Terran culture would be like practically. In the few times that his mother is shown, she is an vaguely American/British woman of higher society. Given this fairly unclear and murky cultural background for Spock’s human half, he can interact with humanity as one whole without issue. This allows the writers to use the character as one of several legs from which to make the grand arguments about the nature of humanity that are common in the show. I think that Spock’s outward perspective looking into humanity allows for a lot more room to maneuver regarding how the writers can interact with the idea of unified humanity because, while all the humans on the show are distinct, broad strokes, they are all fairly similar, and Spock can point this out and work around it without patronizing the audience at all. This is because it is coming from literally an alien perspective and holds a lot less baggage than it would if a human pointed all of this out.

On the whole, the original “Star Trek” is one of the few examples of a science fiction universe trying to be culturally sensitive (it was written in the 1960s so culturally sensitive should be taken with a mountain of salt) and doing a fairly good job at it. I think that “Star Trek” presents both the most likely and most positive idea for the cultural landscape of the far future: wherein the old demarcations of Earth still exist and are still important, but people have banded together to explore the vastness of the universe. A global Terran culture is impossible and strange, but the universe of Gene Roddenberry would not be so bad as our next stop as a species.

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