If you haven’t seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, then I’m actually kind of jealous of you. You still get to watch it all for the first time. Most people agree that it didn’t hit its stride until 2-3 seasons in, but it’s all classic TV, which focused on moral dilemmas and placed character development over special effects and cliffhanging endings. Its episodic nature might not be en vogue right now, but it’s a gold mine of life lessons nonetheless.
The TNG adventure, which would last seven seasons, begins with “Encounter at Farpoint”. We’re introduced to the USS Enterprise and its crew, and we get to watch their first mission. Get ready for an inspiring vision of human future, where the clothes are crease-less, the exploration endless, and where men wear revealing skirts (though not as revealing as Troi’s).
Here’s are a couple of things we can learn from the encounter at Farpoint station…
Insist on specificity
One could write an entire book on negotiation and debate based on Picard’s experiences through TNG. And he started flaunting his stuff right from the first episode.
In debates, people often switch from the specific thing you’re discussing, to a more general point. I call this “the retreat to the general”. By moving from the specific to the general, they make the topic more vague, more open to interpretation. Don’t let them do this – keep them focused on the specific topic at hand.
We see Picard do this in an interaction with Q – an omnipotent being who has visited the Enterprise to cast judgement on the human race. Q accuses humans of being excessively cruel and war-like, and on that basis, they should not explore space any further (which would have made for a pretty short series).
Here’s how one of their interactions happened:
Q: You will now answer to the grievous savagery charge against humanity.
Picard: We’ll be happy to answer specific charges. “Grievous savagery” could mean anything.
The term “grievous savagery” could indeed mean anything – it’s completely open to interpretation. It would be foolish of Picard to try to debate on these terms, because as soon as he started to win the argument, Q could subtly change the definition of “grievous savagery” to negate his point.
Here’s another way the retreat to the general strategy can play out. Let’s say Alice and Bob are debating climate change:
Alice: Yes of course I believe climate change is real – there’s a huge scientific consensus.
Bob: But scientists have been wrong before. Are you going to argue that scientists are always right?
Here Alice argues that the majority of scientific evidence suggests climate change is real. But Bob retreats to the general – he’s no longer talking about climate change, but science in general. If Alice were to allow this subtle topic shift, she’d be forced to concede that, yes, scientists are not always wrong, and they do make mistakes.
Of course, this concession would have no logical bearing on the climate change debate. But, it would change the energy of the discussion. It would feel like Alice had just conceded a point – especially to people listening in. Instead, just like Picard, Alice should insist on specificity. Maybe she’d say something like this:
Alice: What makes you think the scientists are wrong in this case? What specific aspects of the evidence do you think are wrong?
Once you become aware of this “retreat to the general” strategy, you’ll start to see it everywhere. Don’t let people do it! Insist on specificity.
The past does not equal the future
One of Picard’s defences against Q’s accusation, is that there have indeed been times in the past that humans have acted in unsavoury ways. But the past does not equal the future – “Test us!”, he implores.
Q is making an old argument that has been around since the times of ancient Greece “The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children”.
Picard argues, correctly, that humans as a species should not be judged based on the actions committed by their ancestors. Why should we, since our species is capable of learning from the past?
The same is true on an individual level. I’m not talking about the whole punishment vs rehabilitation thing in regards to the penal system. I mean on a more daily life sort of level – haven’t we all made mistakes, or messed up from time-to-time? Some of our mistakes are small, some are large. Some are harmless but embarrassing, others have further reaching consequences.
But whatever they are, they are in the past, and we can’t change them. All we can do is take steps to make up for them, do what we can to learn from them, to try not to make the same mistakes again in the future.
So when it comes to our own mistakes, or anything we feel guilt or embarrassment about, we should try to judge ourselves based the degree to which we have taken such steps – and not on the mistake we had originally made.
Know when to take drastic action… and when not to
This the main thrust of the two episodes.
Q wanted to prove that the human race was violent and savage. He’s not saying there’s never a cause for violence (he does a little of the old ultra-violence himself in this episode, freezing Yar at one point). He’s saying that humans resort to violence too quickly. Picard argues that they no longer do.
While the episode focused on violence (perhaps to separate the more measured Picard from his gung-ho predecessor), the point applies to any form of drastic action. In general, the harder an action is to take back, the surer you should be about it.
We see early on that Picard isn’t opposed to taking drastic action when warranted, as he splits the saucer section of the ship at high warp. But later in the episode when the alien ship approaches, he opts not to attack, despite Q’s goading, and even puts the ship between it and Farpoint station, risking his own crew rather than potentially escalate the violence.
To know when to take drastic action, and when not to, is the tricky part. This can only come from experience, careful deliberation, testing/seeking evidence, and seeking counsel from other people.