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Orson Scott Card has become one of my favourite authors. I appreciate the way in which he tackles significant moral issues while also exploring fundamental educational questions, particularly in relation to gifted and talented children. Certainly Ender’s Game seeks to explore the reality of young people for whom the adult/child divide as envisioned in the modern West bears little resemblance to their sense of self. And while the film doesn’t really do that justice, perhaps it will push people in the book’s direction.
This post, though, is a reflection on reading the Homecoming series. (My copies are published by Orbit.) I find them an engaging discussion of typical Card concerns. Of these, the question of what it means to be a leader particular piques my interest. When I sat down to first write this, I wasn’t sure how Card was going to resolve the dilemma he created, but I wanted to reflect on it before I knew the answer.
We have the alpha male – Elemak. Perhaps one of my least favourite characters, not just of this series but of all literature, Elemak equates leadership with control. His ability to control himself is largely dependent on his ability to control others because ultimately self-control and the application of fear is the way in which he does control others. Once others slip from his control he loses his sense of value and the structure in which he controls himself. Disagreement with him is an indication of weakness and incompetence as well as a personal attack on him. Take all the awful, stereotypical traits of the two-year-old, place them in a physically hardened adult, and you have Elemak. The only injustice is that two-year-olds really aren’t like the stereotype; Elemak is.
Nafai is the foil. For a considerable part of the series, self-control is not his forte. This appears to change over time, but I am left wondering whether it is particularly healthy. Part of Nafai’s problem is that he craves Elemak’s approval and love, neither of which he is ever going to get. At the stage I first reflected on this, because I hadn’t read the whole series, the question Nafai raised for me was the culpability of leadership that refuses to use force to protect itself when not protecting itself places others in danger. This is a little like the Ender series. Nafai refuses to be an Elemak, which is a good thing, but he also refuses to take responsibility for the harm Elemak wreaks because Nafai allows himself to be neutralised. What is seeing the day through is a sophisticated supercomputer with God-like powers of perception and persuasion which is using Nafai to further its own agenda. Thus, the question of responsibility in the context of supreme (God) authority is added to the equation. Is Nafai strong because he will not be drawn into a power struggle with Elemak? Or is Nafai in fact engaging in the power struggle and winning through the idea of powerlessness? If the latter, to what extent is he responsible for the suffering of others and even if he is responsible, is that the same as moral culpability? Ultimately, is the idea that we are responsible for our own decisions and not the decisions of others the high moral ground or a cop-out? In the conclusion of the series, Elemak and Nafai become the leaders of two opposing species on a post-apocalyptic Earth far into the future. These two species were in conflict before Elemak and Nafai arrived, but their presence becomes a means of escalating the strife. If Elemak had been neutralised before arriving on Earth, Nafai may have been able to mediate an end to the conflict. But that is speulation. However, eventually Nafai does become the means of empowering his ‘side’ to withstand Elemak and his followers.
Another series to explore a similar question is Star Trek. The Prime Directive demands that Star Fleet, and so the crew of the Enterprise (or Voyager or …) not interfere in the progress of other cultures, particularly if they do not yet have warp capability – the capacity for faster-than-light space travel. The moral status of this law is thrown into question in a variety of ways: when a world is faced with destruction which, because of their technical superiority, the crew can overt; when a member of the crew can only be saved by exposing the existence of the space travellers, thus altering the less technologically developed culture’s perception of reality; when a member of the crew is threatened by a morally repugnant action on the part of the people of such a culture.
These conundrums bring to light the perpetual tension between different ethical systems which, in terms of this little discussion, can be divided into those which demand we consider the future and those which, if not allowing us to ignore the future, weight the present as being more significant. The question can be framed in terms of my personal responsibility – what is the weight of my responsibility to the present versus my responsibility to the future? In Into Darkness, the second of the Kelvin Timeline films, Kirk (Chris Pine) makes a revealing moral observation: “I have no idea what I should do. I only know what I can do.” Underlying the morality of his decision making are two important principles: presence and proximity.
Kirk focuses on the here-and-now of event. He sees himself as being called upon to act as he is able in the moment. While cognisant that his present actions will have future consequences, he does not base what he does on attempting to guess the outcomes in a distant future. Rather, he acts to bring about immediate positive outcomes. He sees himself as owing responsibility first to the present, secondly to the future.
The other guiding principle is proximity. This is the idea that we owe a greater moral responsibility to those closer to us, with whom we have present relationship. This is one critique of Peter Singer’s moral argument that the ethical responsibility we owe those suffering in places relationally and geographically remote to ourselves is identical to that we owe to those close to us. Proximity suggests that our primary moral obligation lies with those closest to us, first in terms of relationship and then geographically. Kirk sees his primary moral obligation lying with his crew. The spheres of his responsibility radiate out from here. This tends to run him into trouble with authority, but allows him to act decisively in the present and is generally vindicated in the plot outcomes.
To have real, healthy, safe leadership, the discussions must be had. If we are to trust ourselves and others as leaders, we need to be transparent in our decision making, and we can’t be that if we don’t know what underlies our decisions. This isn’t ethereal philosophy – counting the dancing angels on a pin head. It has real-time, real-world consequences. In the classrooms and cafes we need to promote open, civil reflection.