Ethnic Conflict via Science Fiction

By Stephen Saideman

Since Joseph Young has addressed the use of science fiction for examining political violence, I thought I would use two bits of sci-fi to illustrate some evolution in our thinking about ethnic conflict: Star Trek and Babylon 5.

In a very classic episode of Star Trek, “Let That Be Your Final Battlefield,” the Enterprise encounters a fugitive and his pursuer. One’s body is black on the left side and white on the right side. The other’s is the opposite—and the two hate each other. So, the episode’s first point is that a small ethnic marker can produce hate that is neither fathomable nor flexible. These two aliens hate each other, and are willing to burn down everything around them in order to kill the other. As a result of this hatred, when the two return to their home planet they find it devastated.

The important aspect for scholars of international relations is the role played by the Enterprise crew—as bystanders. The two aliens so hate each other that there is nothing than an outsider can do, despite their best efforts and best intentions. The implication for us: ancient hatreds means outsiders can do nothing. Perhaps Bill Clinton did not need Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts on his bedside table to be reluctant to intervene in Bosnia—all he had to do was remember the classic Star Trek episode.

In the 1990s, a new sci-fi show focusing on a UN-esque space station, Babylon 5, also tackled the problem of ethnic conflict. In the episode “Geometry of Shadows,” one subplot, played mostly for laughs focused on one of the groups of aliens, the Drazi, that were mostly in the background during the series. But in this one episode, conflict breaks out among the Drazi. As the crew of the station investigated, they realized that there were two groups fighting each other. Every so often, their entire society fights. This ritual begins by members of the society randomly picking from a box a green or purple scarf. Once one has a green scarf, all greens become allies and all purples become adversaries. And then they fight. Once the fight is over, the winner gets to unify Drazi society.

This notion of identity is very distinct from Star Trek’s and much more akin to what many scholars have been arguing—that identity is constructed, that the content may not matter so much, but that social identity theory tells us that minor differences can create significant cleavages. In an era where Milosevic moved quickly from Communist to nationalist, this view of identity made a great deal of sense. This view also has implications for international relations—that one can intervene quite easily since identity is really thin and flexible. In the show, one of the station’s crew steals the scarf of one of the leaders and then is the leader of one of the factions, making it much easier to come to a settlement.

The reality, of course, is that ethnic identity is neither as fixed as Star Trek suggests nor as fluid as Babylon 5 asserts. Likewise, intervention is neither impossible nor easy. Outsiders can play a role as others have discussed in previous posts here, but intervention is neither certain nor always successful.

I am just curious about the next generation of science fiction to see if the fictional view of identity continues to evolve and whether it matches how scholars of ethnic conflict think about identity. All I know is that as long as I continue to teach about the IR of Ethnic Conflict, I will continue to show these two episodes to illustrate how we think about ethnic conflict and its implications for intervention.

  1. I was really excited to hear about this blog. But y’all are really too white for my tastes. 3 posts on poliscifi, really? What you couldn’t find a single Asian, African, Arab, or Latino poltical scientist who writes about violence without resorting to abstractions or fantasies. Disappointed.

    1. Hmmm…using one ethnic group as a pejorative, and judging the content of a blog by the ethnicity of its posters rather than the usefulness of its ideas…that alone is a statement on ethnic conflict.

      Using politically and socially relevant scifi is an excellent pedagogical tool. Students often self-censor on issues when real ethnic or racial groups are the subject, whereas these thinly disguised metaphors allow them to engage in analysis without fear of running afoul of the PC police.

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