Warning: this post contains discussion of suicide and euthanasia. Spoilers for the TNG episodes, “Ethics,” “Too Short a Season,” and “The Loss,” and for the DS9 episode, “Melora.”
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Ethics,” Mr. Worf acquires a spinal cord injury while on-duty that partially paralyzes him, leaving him unable to walk. By Klingon tradition, he is obligated to commit ritual suicide (hegh’bat) because he can no longer stand to face his enemies in battle. Dr. Crusher and a visiting doctor with a shady ethical record work to cure Worf, while Riker battles with the role Worf has asked him to play in the suicide ritual—namely handing Worf the knife. The episode comes down to Worf undergoing an experimental procedure that will either cure or kill him. The Status Quo being God (despite the promise the series made when it killed off Tasha Yar), Worf is cured and back to his able-bodied self by the end of the episode.
It’s fairly obvious what the Official Disability Rights Opinion™ on this episode would be: the Klingon tradition of hegh’bat is wrong. People with disabilities can live fulfilling lives if society lets them. Picard and Riker articulate this Opinion™ quite plainly in the episode.
And while I certainly agree that hegh’bat is wrong, this is Star Trek. The Official Disability Rights Opinion™ isn’t enough to understand what’s going on. We gotta bring in critiques of racism, colonialism, and the Western concept of the independent individual—critiques that come from the work performed by women of color in transnational feminist theory and activism.
In other words, this post is gonna acknowledge that Klingons don’t appear to have a very progressive position on disability, but mainly it’s gonna turn around and look at the hypocrisy in Picard and Riker’s moral high ground regarding hegh’bat. And to do this we have to look at one of the major problems I have with TNG…
TNG tries hard to come out from under the shadow of the Vietnam Era interstellar policy of Jim Kirk, who went to planets, overthrew governments (and gods), and rejiggered cultures to fix perceived injustices. Picard’s Enterprise follows the Prime Directive much more closely, meaning it goes to planets, perceives injustices, and tolerates them. The White Human’s Burden is now tolerating backwardness rather than fixing it. I gotta congratulate Picard on not intervening in the affairs of other cultures (most of the time), but dude’s still got the superiority complex of Kirk. Picard regularly goes, “Look, we know shit’s fucked up down there but we can’t do anything about it. Maybe in a few years that planet will progress to where we are.” Federation culture—Human culture (which is so often a metaphor for white culture) is still held up as the best, the ideal that all over planets are moving towards. This is the same logic that calls Western nations “developed countries,” and their former colonies “developing countries.” Picard even refers to planets that fall under the Prime Directive (the backwards cultures they have to tolerate and let blossom into little Terras) as “less developed civilization[s].” The Humans of today and the 24th century buy into this idea that all civilizations are on the same one-lane highway called Progress to the final destination, Developedton. Those who’ve reached Developedton are right and everyone who hasn’t gotten there is wrong. The farther a civilization is from Developedton, the longer they have to travel on Progress, the more wrong they are.
Not only is this shit fucked up, but it makes for boring television. We know when the Enterprise goes to a planet and has a conflict with its inhabitants, that it’s gonna be the inhabitants who are wrong and who are gonna come out on the other side having learned something from the Enterprise. If the Enterprise learns anything, it’s how to tolerate “exotic” cultures. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if at least some of the time it was the characters on the Enterprise we’ve grown to love and care about who were the ones to grow and change and confront their assumptions on how life should be? In “Angel One,” the female-dominated planet visited by the Enterprise is used to reiterate that Sexism is Bad, even if it’s sexism against men. But wouldn’t that message be stronger if contact with a matriarchal culture made folks on the Enterprise consider the lingering patriarchal elements in Starfleet? That’d allow some conflict amongst the main characters (e.g., the people we actually give a fuck about) instead of with some Straw Feminists we’ll never see again.
The same principle applies to “Ethics.” With regards to disability, Klingon culture is wrong and Terran culture is right. I won’t argue that Klingon culture isn’t wrong when it comes to disability, but from what we’ve seen Terran culture isn’t a shining beacon of accessibility. Terra in the 24th century (and its military arm, Starfleet, which despite including more non-Humans remains very terracentric) is ostensibly an accessible and disability accepting place. In “Ethics,” Picard says that, as Humans, he and Riker “could learn to live with that disability,” and calls the stance that Worf’s life isn’t over “a very Human perspective.”
Yet we have very little evidence that Worf’s life as Starfleet officer serving aboard the flagship wouldn’t be over. Nobody else on the Enterprise has a SCI or uses a wheelchair. The most notable (and possibly the only) wheelchair user aboard Picard’s Enterprise is Federation negotiator Admiral Mark Jameson, who, like Worf, decides that undergoing a risky medical procedure that could kill him is preferable to being disabled. Unlike Worf, Jameson dies from his “cure.” Still, Jameson is a Starfleet officer who uses a wheelchair. As is one of Picard’s teachers at the Academy.
Yet… neither of them serve aboard the flagship like Worf is when he acquires his SCI. Jameson’s short mission on the Enterprise seems to be the impetus for his fatal cure. While he continues doing ambassadorial work after his diagnosis with Iverson’s disease, he decides to go for broke with a double-dose of a mysterious alien cure once he hears he’ll be joining the Enterprise for a negotiation mission. It seems that, in Jameson’s mind at least, you can’t be in a wheelchair and work on the Enterprise. We see this idea a hundred years earlier in a different timeline when Christopher Pike is conveniently promoted from captain of the Enterprise NCC-1701 to admiral following injuries that necessitate his use of a wheelchair. Like a damaged vessel, Pike has been grounded to Earth. Could the same be said for Picard’s inspiring professor mentioned in “The Loss?” Could Starfleet have a transuniversal policy of limiting the career opportunities of wheelchair users?
A few years after “Ethics” takes place, it appears Starfleet is assigning wheelchair users to prime missions off-planet and is at least trying to accommodate their disability. We see this when Melora joins Deep Space 9 (Worf’s future place of employment) in season 2 of the series. Melora is an Elaysian, a species that evolved on a low-gravity planet and now has difficulty moving around in what Starfleet would call “normal gravity” (aka Earth normal gravity—another sign of Starfleet being a terracentric organization). When she leaves her homeworld to join Starfleet, she begins using a wheelchair to navigate spaces with normal gravity, including Deep Space 9. Miles O’Brien retrofits the station to be accessible to Melora as per her specifications, but portions of the station remain off limits to her due to her wheelchair. At one point, a lack of ramps causes her to fall to the ground where she remains for several hours until someone comes looking for her. What’s notable here is that Starfleet tries to make the station wheelchair accessible—after a wheelchair user is assigned there.
I know what you’re thinking (its true; I have that power), Deep Space 9 was originally a Cardassian space station during their occupation of Bajor. And Cardassians are the Bad Guys, so obviously accessibility isn’t one of their main concerns. True, Starfleet didn’t build DS9. Buuuuut, by the time Melora arrives, DS9 has been under the control of Starfleet and the Bajoran provisional government for over a year. A year Miles O’Brien spends personally unfucking the station. Wheelchair accessibility, at least in the personnel-only portions of the station, isn’t one of Starfleet’s main concerns if it takes them a year to implement it—and only then when a wheelchair user is assigned there and provides the design specifications.
That’s bullshit. It’s not as big o’ bullshit as hegh’bat, but it’s bullshit nonetheless. And it comes from the same place as hegh’bat. People don’t want to see cripples. We’re scary. We’re what could happen to them. A weak Klingon who can’t meet his enemies in battle. A Human who relies on others for help—who can’t function as the pure autonomous individual that Humans prize so much on the frontiers of space. What to do? We gotta get these gimps out of sight somehow. For Klingons, for Worf, this means getting cured or getting dead. The simple cure-or-kill principle. But for Humans it’s a bit more complicated, falling into a wider category Rosemarie Garland-Thompson calls, “The Cultural Logic of Euthanasia,” which encompasses the cure-or-kill principle along with other forms of systemic ableist oppression that get disabled people out of sight, like segregation in institutions. Under the Cultural Logic of Euthanasia, disabled people are given two social roles: a patient striving for a cure or a hopeless case who can be shoved off to the side. Either you can work to overcome your disability to fit society’s expectations or you can get the fuck out of society. In Starfleet, that GTFO notice is issued whenever a wheelchair user is denied promotions, taken out of their field, or confronts an inaccessible work environment.
Picard says he and Riker could adjust to living with Worf’s impairment because they grew up culturally Human. But they would not be living the same life as before. How quickly do you think Picard would be promoted off the bridge of the Enterprise? When do you think their frustration at the inaccessibility of their ship and their position would drive them to quit? To go back to Alaska? To take a command position planetside? To go home to La Barre and take an old friend up on a job offer? If Melora is any indication, they wouldn’t last an episode. After rejecting the cure offered by Bashir, Melora is never seen again in the canon universe. Picard and Riker are unable to imagine Starfleet as being unaccommodating of their hypothetical disabilities, because it is the Klingons who are the wrong ones—the ableist relics—not Terrans and their pet project, Starfleet. Like the progressive martyrs they are, they’ll have to tolerate the Klingons’ backwardness.
Hopped up on imperialism, Riker and Picard can’t perceive their own culture for what it really is, because they’re too busy gazing at the savages they created in their own minds. And for being the ones with the scientific objectivity to understand other cultures they encounter/discover/colonize, Riker and Picard aren’t doing too good a job understanding Klingon culture. Because of colonialism, they take for granted as true the single story told about Klingons in the accepted literature and, in this case, by their native informant Worf—whose understanding of Klingon culture was no doubt influenced by being raised on Earth. Not that Worf’s idea of what constitutes Klingon culture is wrong or invalid. But it’s only one person’s—one Klingon’s version of their culture. And by trusting Worf’s opinion (and the books he most likely got that opinion from) as the Word of God on what Klingon is, Picard and Riker reduce Klingon culture to a monolith—one single culture with one single opinion on disability. They erase even the possibility of disability-positive Klingon cultures (or even less disability-murderous Klingon cultures), and disabled Klingons living fulfilling lives.
In “The Loss,” when Deanna Troi temporarily loses her empathic abilities, Picard starts to tell her a story about his wheelchair-using teacher at the Academy, trying to show Troi that there can be life after disability. Riker could’ve done the same thing with Worf if, instead of researching the dominant Klingon stance on disability, he found an actual Klingon with a disability for Worf to talk to. Worf might’ve found that there can be life after disability for a Klingon.
(Quick disclaimer: I’m not saying Picard and Riker should continually second guess Worf’s expertise on Klingon culture—that would just be another expression of their Terran privilege—but when a friend is going to kill himself because that’s what disabled Klingons do, you might want to help him find other examples of how to be a disabled Klingon.)
But Riker doesn’t do that, because that would mean challenging the colonial gaze that reduces “savage races” to single stories devoid of nuance. It would also mean Riker would have to give up his position of authority as the objective Human expert and all-knowing able-bodied person to a Klingon with a disability—someone with actual lived experience. With no model of how he, as a Klingon, could live with a disability, Worf falls back into the cure-or-kill model and the episode ends as we all expected it would: with Worf back on his feet…
And not a single status quo in the universe challenged.