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  • Ric Crossman

3.1.10 Don't Tell The Bride


Armin Shimerman is a paving slab now.
The Abzorbaloff claims another victim.

Empathy is not an easy thing to get right.

One Last Digression On Why Vulcans Are Bad

The necessity of empathy is something that has coloured IDFC since the very beginning. This has perhaps been most obvious in my criticisms of Vulcan philosophy, but it exists at least as seasoning in almost everything I write. “Haven” gives me the opportunity to be more explicit, and finally set my stall out.

So then, here goes. Empathy is essentially everything. It is a vital component of any form of social progress, which is to say any way to make the world better. Without the ability to recognise another person’s pain, to choose to help, and to think carefully about how to actually do that (spoilers: it always starts with listening), our species’ extinction is both assured and well-deserved.

There are endless different ways in which to experience, process and practice one’s empathy – this is not a call to arms that excludes any kind of brain. But some form of it has to be worked on and applied whenever possible if the world around you is ever to get better.

I have no time for people who dismiss the importance of empathy. None. Zero. You can argue that empathy alone isn’t enough. You can argue that empathy carelessly or poorly applied can actually cause more problems. And for sure I know of plenty of people on the autistic spectrum for whom a narrow definition of empathy has actually been used as a club with which to beat them. All of those points need to be kept in mind. But if you’re the sort to dismiss empathy’s usefulness out of hand, you should be reading a different Trek writer. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve nailed your colours to the mast of a sinking ship, crewed by some exceptionally unpleasant seadogs.

People, for instance, like the Vulcan ruling class.

This too has been a long-running theme of this series of posts. I think, in fact, that it’s in danger of becoming over-played. Allow me then to fold in a definitive statement on Vulcan philosophy into this, my definitive statement on empathy. After this, I’ll try to stop picking at this particular scab, at least for a while.

To fully explore my issues with Vulcan culture, I need to unpack what I mean by empathy. There are various divisions and subdivisions of empathy. The two most important forms for my purposes here are cognitive empathy, and affective empathy. The former is the intellectual process of trying to understand what leads another person to take the position they do. It’s about trying to see from a different viewpoint. Affective empathy involves experiencing an emotion within yourself in response to someone else’s feelings. It’s what makes you feel sad when you see or learn of somebody else’s suffering.

Neither form is an automatic good in its application. Cognitive empathy is a tool with a long, sharp edge. You can use your insights into others to cut them rather than to help. Affective empathy, meanwhile, is only as useful as the emotions it creates. If seeing someone suffering makes you sad and determined to help, that’s great. If it makes you uncomfortable, and all you want is to remove yourself from that discomfort, you can end up ignoring suffering rather than trying to end it. In extreme cases, you can end up blaming the sufferer for that discomfort, and trying to punish them for the way they’ve made you feel. This would be the most simple explanation for why so many people absolutely despise the poor (though I’d argue the real reason for that is simply that we’re taught to).

I should note that bastion of accuracy Wikipedia states that “no consensus” exists as to whether or not this kind of extreme negative reaction actually counts as affective empathy. In the context of this discussion, I don’t think that actually matters too much. The point that an emotional reaction to suffering can end up making that suffering worse is still a valid concern. Importantly, I think it’s the point the Vulcans believe they’re making when they talk about why emotions are bad. And yes. Fair point, lads. Reacting the way your emotions tell you to, without considering whether your response is remotely reasonable, is going to cause problems. Getting furious at a homeless woman because she’s made it harder to enjoy the stroll to buy your new 55″ inch TV is clearly Not Good.

But it’s the very obviousness of that truth that makes the Vulcan obsession with avoiding it so ridiculous. No-one wants to be stabbed, but we haven’t banned butter-knives. And the Vulcan approach results in them denying something much more important than an implement for effective jam deployment. By refusing to value emotional responses of any kind, they prevent themselves from understanding them, and thereby cripple their ability to empathise cognitively as well as affectively. This is most clear regarding the Vulcans of the Enterprise era, who are too busy criticising other’s emotions to consider seeing the situation from the perspective of the emotional.

Telling people their problems stem from not being enough like you is not empathy, it’s solipsism masquerading as advice. It’s every rich guy who gets paid to tell us everyone would be just fine if only we all agreed with him in every detail. It’s every pub bore who grins drunkenly as he insists he’s “just telling it like it is”, or “being cruel to be kind”. It all stems from the same poisoned spring, the horrifying ideas that there’s only one correct way to live, that they’ve found it, and that agreeing with them is a precondition to them giving a damn about you. Yes, plenty of Vulcans are helpful and considerate in person. But so what? So are plenty of bigots, so long as you happen to meet their awful definitions of what the right kind of person is. The Vulcan refusal to engage with the different forever limits how helpful their approach can be to others.

Cognitive empathy requires affective empathy. You can’t split one from the other, not if you want to be part of the solution. The only relevant question is how best to balance the two within ourselves. Obviously, there will be a different answer for each one of us. We could still make use of a role model, however.

Which brings us at last to the planet Haven, and to Deanna Troi.

Nuptials In The Nip

Let’s begin with what is most clear. “Haven” is the show’s first showcase episode for Counsellor Deanna Troi/Marina Sirtis. This leads us immediately into the question of what exactly this showcase is being built around, and what it tells us about the person being shown off?

Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t about Troi realising the importance of tradition. Which is probably just as well, given how difficult it is to get behind this particular custom. I hated the idea of Vulcan arranged marriages, and I’ve no more time for the Betazed iteration. In fact, this is far worse. Bad enough a society supposedly devoted to logic allows women to be emotionally blackmailed into abandoning their careers so they can marry a stranger. Now we get a planet full of people who can sense each other’s emotions, but are still down with a cultural imperative to marry someone you might not care for, or even have met. How did this even get off the ground? Who was reacting positively to wedding invitations asking them to strip naked and feel an unwilling bride’s misery plunged into their own bared chests? At least the Vulcans aren’t supposed to care whether a bride is happy on her wedding day.

(Notice by the way that both “Haven” and “Breaking The Ice” simply take it for granted that a woman’s career is incompatible with her getting married, despite the suggestion Wyatt couldn’t practice medicine on a starship being even more ridiculous than the idea Kol couldn’t draw houses on one.)

As always, I want to avoid the impression I’m criticising real-world cultures I am unfamiliar with. It’s not my place to take issue with arranged marriages per se, so long as all parties are genuinely OK with that arrangement. That clearly isn’t the case with Troi, however. She’s obviously horrified when she hears the word from silver Armin Shimmerman’s jewel-crapping paving slab. Nor is it just her. Lwaxana confesses to being far from happy about the Millers tracking her down to insist the marriage goes ahead. Picard himself, a man so committed to diplomacy he will act as a bellhop on his own starship, admits he can’t find a way to get beside this particular alien custom. That’s powerful representatives of both the Federation and Betazed suggesting they’d rather this wasn’t happening, which makes the episode’s position very clear.

In fact, the script doesn’t even bother to give us a reason for why Wyatt’s parents want the wedding to go ahead. It’s sort of faintly implied that Victoria Miller is a social climber, though even that requires giving more weight to Lwaxana’s apparent snobbery towards her than it deserves. Beyond that, the only explanation offered is that Steven Miller was Ian Troi’s closest friend. I have a closest friend too, and the idea of arranging for his son to marry my daughter has absolutely never occurred to me, and not just because my only daughter also happens to be a cat.

"A Blue Rose Case, Most Definitely"

This isn’t about Betazed society and Deanna’s place in it, then. The upcoming wedding is an obstacle, not a cultural imperative. That doesn’t make its shape irrelevant, naturally. Troi still has to navigate what’s been put in front of her. That means the specific dimensions of what stands in her way matter a great deal.

The problem she faces is simple to describe: there’s no way to keep herself and her mother and Riker and Picard and Wyatt and his parents happy all at the same time. Even the best overall solution is likely to leave a lot of people disappointed or even hurt. But it’s precisely because of that difficulty that Troi’s attempts to get as close to that solution as she can really matter. This, along with the fact she frames this as a problem about the emotions of others rather than her own, already tells a great deal about the kind of person Deanna is.

We learn still more through the approach she takes to the situation. Foremost within this approach is a truly remarkable level of self-composure. One of my favourite moments of the episode comes when Wyatt hands Deanna a chameleon rose. This is one of the show’s stranger creations, a flower that changes colour to reflect the mood of the person holding it. The evolutionary and economic advantages of such a trait go unexplored, alas. Still, it manages to tell us an awful lot about Troi. First of all, we’ve got the metaphor. Deanna’s ability to experience the emotions of others, and her choice to become a counsellor and help people through their emotional problems, makes her a chameleon rose herself. You know, assuming I might be permitted to make use of the hoary cliché linking beautiful women to the family rosaceae.

Then there’s the colour the flower displays, first when held by Wyatt and then by Deanna. While in the young doctor’s hand, the rose is blue. It’s not clear if this is the case as he’s beaming in, but it certainly is from the moment he sees Deanna. Even before Picard introduces his ship’s counsellor, Wyatt can tell something is wrong. The woman he’s been dreaming of for years isn’t there to greet him. That makes him sad, and so his magic flower turns blue.

It would be perfectly understandable for the rose to stay that shade once Troi accepts it. Her reaction to the Miller’s exuberant jewellery box already made it clear that she’s distressed by what’s happening, and her conversations with Picard and Riker can’t have helped matters. Yet the flower’s reaction to her is to drain itself of colour. If the shade the plant takes is an announcement of how its holder feels, this represents unplugging the PA system. This is an astonishing act of composure. Mere hours after learning her entire life is about to be upended, and just fifteen seconds after she meets the man she’s supposed to marry, her own feelings are already too deep below the surface to be detected. And yet no-one even seems to realise what’s happened. Deanna’s astonishing self-control is shown to the world quietly, and so it goes unnoticed.

We shouldn’t make the same mistake, and miss what “Haven” is trying to say. Especially since emotional composure isn’t an easy quality to show off in television, for female characters in particular. Women are oftentimes simply expected to demonstrate composure, as bedrocks for angry, animated men who get to do all the running around and yelling. Probably related to this – or at least stemming from the same source – there’s an aggravating tendency to define female characters only through their composure, with entire plots revolving around putting them through the wringer in circumstances where they’re not allowed to break. Navigating these problems is difficult, and we should give credit to what the episode is attempting.

(There's a counter to this, which is that Deanna owes Wyatt nothing, it shouldn't have to be her job to keep him or anyone else involved in this farce happy, and by suggesting otherwise the episode, and I, are reinforcing the idea that keeping men happy is simply what women are supposed to do. It's a criticism to take seriously, and it's not one that can be fully answered by pointing out that helping people feel better is Troi's job. In the context of this first episode to really bother exploring her at all, though, I think the conflation has some narrative use, especially since Wyatt isn't actually any happier about the situation than she is.)

It’s not just the chameleon rose which reflects Deanna’s worth in circumstances where she can’t do so herself. Picard describes her as a “fine counsellor” to her mother, and shows some disappointment when she tells him she won’t stay with the ship. With Picard still in his earliest iteration as a detached, understated captain, both of these are fairly clear indications of how much he values Troi and her role. As well he should. Hiding her feelings from the rose so as to avoid upsetting Wyatt demonstrates just how effective Troi is at her job. A dedication to composure in the interests of better helping other people feel better is after all literally what she does. Her composure also demonstrates that the reason she’s so good at that role is about more than her Betazed powers – a form of empathy far closer to affective than cognitive. It’s clear those abilities are of use to her, but contrary to pieces of nonsense like “The Loss”, it isn’t the reason she excels. What makes her the best damn counsellor in the fleet is her commitment to cognitive empathy. She’s devoted a professional lifetime to de-centring herself and simply listening, and gotten so good at it she’s become a bridge officer on the Federation flagship.

It’s this that the episode is showcasing, however quietly. It’s also what has always given me such admiration for Deanna Troi. She strives continually to balance her cognitive and affective empathy so they complement each other, harnessed in the pursuit of making the community – making the galaxy – a better place. She’s doing exactly what we all should be doing, to whatever extent we can.

Which makes it more than a little interesting that the threat to that balance here isn’t really her upcoming wedding. Obviously she’s not thrilled about being shanghaied over Haven, but the episode makes it clear that she’s genuinely attracted to Wyatt, a decent, thoughtful man with a similar commitment to helping others. This isn’t a story about a woman being forced to marry a man she despises, which is how you’d expect the episode to play out if the wedding itself was supposed to be the crisis at its heart. Instead, it’s clear from the ending that whilst she might not have wanted to marry him just a few days after meeting him, Deanna still feels sadness at the fact she’ll never see Wyatt again.

It isn’t Wyatt that represents the threat to Deanna’s balance. It’s her own mother. Lwaxana Troi is on a mission to break her daughter’s composure, along with everyone else’s, at every possible opportunity.

But why?

“I Was Not Amused”

The question might be obvious, but the answer is anything but. Lwaxana Troi is far too complex a character for there to be a simple solution to her apparently problematic behaviour.

Let’s start off by considering how she fits into the discussion on empathy in Star Trek. Lwaxana Troi is a Vulcan’s worst nightmare – affective empathy without restraint. She behaves as though nothing matters beyond how it affects her; the opulently-dressed avatar of swirling solipsism. This is someone who acknowledges emotional insight only when she can wield it like a weapon. She seems almost completely unwilling or unable to employ cognitive empathy – if Deanna has become an expert in not centring herself, Lwaxana has mastered the exact opposite manoeuvre. I idly wonder if this is part of the reason Deanna chose the career she did, actually, but I’m hardly going to play armchair psychiatrist to an actual real one.

We might therefore want to see Lwaxana Troi as one of two extremes for Deanna to fall between, and thereby demonstrate the value of her approach. This is an angle that works quite well, in that it simultaneously highlights Deanna’s strengths, and further undermines the Vulcan position.

So, then, Lwaxana is the anti-Vulcan, at least by their own lights, a pure fizzing ball of reactive self-involvement. So who takes up the opposite position? Without any actual followers of Surak in the episode, the best candidate is surely Data. He’s already been compared to a Vulcan by no less an authority than Admiral McCoy. Later episodes such as “Reunification Part II” will further highlight the similarity. There are many ways in which Data would seem to give weight to the Vulcan approach, too. Certainly, he demonstrates that a life-form without emotion can go far in the 24th century. He’s risen to being third-in-command of the most important starship in an organisation dedicated to understanding, valuing and helping all forms of life wherever possible. It’s clear he can’t lack the ability to intellectually empathise. He’s a genuine benevolent AI.

All that said, his behaviour is regularly a problem. Just in this episode he insults Mr Homn by asking if he’s part-human (and how I adore the idea mankind has cultivated an interstellar reputation for drunkenness in a galaxy where Klingons exist). He irritates Picard by “circling the room like a buzzard”. Finally, he shows a total inability to grasp why the wedding party’s “petty bickering” might be upsetting – even after Deanna leaves the room close to tears – when he asks they resume simply for his benefit.

In doing so, Data demonstrates the difference between not allowing affective empathy to impair the cognitive variety, and causing similar problems by not using affective empathy at all. Data doesn’t have a choice in that, though. The Vulcans do. They’re deliberately crippling their ability to fully engage in an empathetic way, and both Data’s limitations and Deanna’s brilliance make this very clear.

So yes, there’s some mileage in the idea that Deanna, by sitting somewhere in the middle between her mother and her android friend, is doing better than either of them. It would be a huge disservice to Lwaxana to suggest that’s her only role in the narrative, however. There are too many indications that her self-absorbed hair-whirlwind act is exactly that. To begin with, there’s Mr Homn suddenly breaking his silence as he walks to the transporter pad. This is a development that doesn’t even faze Lwaxana, but leaves everyone else questioning how much of what they thought they knew about these visitors was ever actually true.

This is the most public clue that not all is as it seems, but it isn’t the most obvious one. That would be her comment that humanity would be much better off if they would say what they actually mean. Whether this is true for the real world strikes me as debatable – I personally think the secret is to think very carefully about what you mean before you decide to say anything at all. Right now, though, this isn’t reality; this is fantasy. For a Betazed who already knows what you truly want, needling you until you can’t hide it anymore has obvious upsides. You can tear away artifice, for one thing. More importantly, you can smash apart someone’s capacity for self-deception.

And, leaving aside qualms about how Lwaxana approaches matters, that seems like something worth doing, at least some of the time. If you can’t be honest about yourself, you can’t be honest in how you process the emotional input of others. The signal gets through, but the translation gets hopelessly garbled. Empathy breaks down. And that can end up with people hurt. Potentially quite a lot of people, and quite badly hurt, depending on who you are and how much power you have.

Perhaps this is why Lwaxana is willing to upset pretty much everybody around her. The message has to get though. And until it does? Until the people around her start genuinely taking seriously the task of understanding themselves, and through that, understanding each other? Lwaxana doesn’t have the slightest amount of time for any of you. There are a lot of different ways to process and experience empathy – lots of different ways to receive, read, and respond to these messages. But if you’re not going to commit to one of them, then to hell with you.

It’s no coincidence then that the only human Lwaxana offers anything approximating a sympathetic ear to is Wyatt. This isn’t one of those tired stories about a parent sure that no-one is good enough to marry their daughter. Wyatt seems to be the only human on the Enterprise Lwaxana considers more than a speed-bump in shoes. Because he gets it. He understands on a subconscious level that everyone is connected. Not necessarily on some spiritual plane or via magical twine or interstellar spores or bloody midichlorians, but because we all improve or damage ourselves depending on how we treat those around us. We rise or fall together. That’s what prompted Wyatt to go into medicine - like Deanna - and what eventually leads to him dedicating himself to the well-being of a single ship’s complement - also like Deanna. Wyatt takes this even further, of course, voluntarily condemning himself to lifelong exile so he can tend to the last eight survivors of a functionally extinct race. Because it’s what they needed him to do.

It isn’t that he saves Haven. The Tarellians are very clear that the planet itself is in no danger. What Wyatt does is offer Tarellians help, when all they were hoping for was to be given a scrap of land, and then be ignored. He gives them back their voice. He empathises with their predicament, rather than simply pitying it. He starts off by listening.

In doing so, he not only demonstrates he was truly worthy of someone like Deanna Troi, but he reminds us through their similarity how exceptional she is herself. She doesn’t make a big deal about what she does. She doesn’t insist everyone around her bend into new shapes as she passes by. Instead, she just gets on with the quiet, difficult and absolutely vital task of listening to and helping others. Like I say, it would be easy to assume that she’s dedicated to that role at least in part due to her mother’s total refusal to do anything of the kind. But it’s that very refusal which highlights the worthiness and difficulty of Deanna’s approach. It might seem that Lwaxana is here to watch her daughter give up her career in favour of marriage, but the reality is very different. It’s not just that it’s her counsel that give Wyatt the push he needs to leave the Enterprise – Deanna’s own haven, in some sense – and thereby allows her daughter to continue doing her important work. It’s that everything she does simply further demonstrates how remarkable her daughter is.

There are worse things for a mother to do than remind everyone how glorious her quiet, composed daughter truly is. There are worse ways to practice empathy. Lwaxana Troi leaves the Enterprise-D having achieved two vital objectives – demonstrating what the show has in Deanna Troi, and committing the franchise once more to the principles of communications and consideration. We will not be continuing of the petty squabbling, thank you. Star Trek is past that now, or at least it damn well should be. What separates the explorer from the imperialist is empathy.

This is absolutely the right position to take, and the fact the franchise remembered this lesson for at least the next six years is testament to Lwaxana’s success. There cannot be light without shadow, however. We can’t fully understand what we’re being shown here without considering the sheer unpleasantness of its negative image. We’ve seen the brilliant tumbling chaos of the franchise’s matriarch of empathy. It’s time now to be visited by the patriarch of selfishness.

It’s time to meet the Nagus.


1. Haven

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