This March I had the privilege of attending the first Latinx Visions conference at the University of New Mexico that brought together scholars, artists, film makers and more who engage with Latinx speculative fiction. One of the panels, “Latinx Technologies and Remediation,” featured the Star Trek franchise. Scholar Emily Rauber Rodriguez presented part of her doctoral thesis exploring Latinidad in Trek and Professor José-Antonio Orosco summarized the inspirations and intended outcomes of his 2022 Bloomsbury Academic publication, Star Trek’s Philosophy of Peace and Justice: A Global Anti-Racist Approach. As a fellow academic and Trekkie, I could not pass up the opportunity to interview Dr. Orosco further about his insights incorporating Star Trek into his scholarship and pedagogy.
Dr. José-Antonio Orosco is a professor of philosophy and director of the Peace Studies program at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Personally, Orosco stated Star Trek had always been in the background of his life. Orosco nostalgically recalled watching reruns of The Original Series (TOS) with his mother growing up. Later series like Deep Space Nine (DS9) became more influential and Star Trek continued to be an important part of his adult life. Now, he laughs that he has leaned even more into geekdom, “I even considered wearing one of my [Star Trek] uniforms for the presentation. I have nearly one from each series now.” For Orosco, Star Trek was a natural choice to help his students approach Peace Studies, as Star Trek takes a clear position on moral issues that can be critically analyzed. Unlike other science fiction franchises, Orosco contends the Star Trek universe uniquely presents hope for a more just society.
Citing 2021 PEW Research Center survey findings, Orosco emphasized young people are more fearful of the future than previous generations. There is a particularly high amount of anxiety surrounding the climate crisis and distrust of government and other civil authorities. Orosco found that his students were widely pessimistic about the future and felt that college is failing to prepare them to engage with larger systemic issues. In 2016, Orosco organized a university course centering Star Trek as way of approaching social justice issues and applying the corresponding Peace Studies concepts. Orocsco’s pedagogical text, Star Trek’s Philosophy of Peace and Justice: A Global Anti-Racist Approach, represents the culmination of his experiences teaching the course including student discussion. Orosco intends for his textbook to serve as a resource for educators within Peace Studies and beyond, showcasing how science fiction can be an invaluable teaching tool. Moreover, Orosco emphasizes the uniqueness of Star Trek within the genre in that it not only illustrates a rarely seen utopic future, but also provides a constructive way of approaching current challenges to realize that future.
Though this is an academic publication, I found Orosco’s work to be engaging as a Trekkie as well as an academic, challenging a broader audience of science fiction enthusiasts to analytically approach popular culture for social justice.
Broken into six parts, Orosco’s text centers Peace Studies fundamental concepts for understanding violence, racism and justice utilizing examples from across the Star Trek franchise. Orosco highlights a plethora of philosophers and civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez, connecting past concepts of peace and justice to current events such as the George Floyd murder protests. He then leads readers to imagine how these systems of oppression may be understood and surmounted as they have been depicted in Star Trek’s vision of the future. Seamlessly, Orosco interconnects schools of thought for how to combat racism in scholarship to the illustrations of an anti-racist future in Trek.
For instance, TOS models a colorblind ideal that racial differences should have no bearing on how an individual is perceived in society, mirroring Martin Luther King Jr’s sentiments in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. More recent iterations of Star Trek such as Discovery and Picard not only recognize but also celebrate cultural differences. Orosco uplifts Cristobal Rios’ Latino character as an example of this multicultural ideal that recognizes how the cultural gifts from a diverse society benefits the whole of humanity. In our discussion, Orosco brought up a more recent example from Strange New Worlds’ episode “Children of the Comet” where Cadet Nyota Uhura employs a song from her childhood in Kenya to communicate with a sentient comet. In sharing her culture, Uhura helps save a planet and the Enterprise.
More than illustrating various concepts from Peace Studies, Orosco outlines Star Trek’s unique features as a popular science fiction franchise that provides an anti-racist approach for a more just future. He asserts part of Trek’s DNA is collaboration. Unlike the vast majority of media, Star Trek champions cooperation, bringing individuals together to solve problems. Orosco explains there is a conference room scene in almost every episode of Trek, even though Lower Decks pokes fun at this formula, the importance of bringing everyone to the table is highlighted. Each character brings diverse backgrounds and expertise to resolve an issue. This spirit of collaboration underlines the multicultural ideal, inclusion of diverse perspectives is an invaluable asset for the wellbeing of the entire crew.
Another unique feature to the Star Trek universe is that there is no true evil. Antagonists may first appear villainous and/or commit evil acts. However, Orosco points out, as the narrative unfolds the protagonists seek to uncover why the antagonist behaves in this way and that understanding diminishes the threat. Orosco gives the example of Spock determining the motivations behind the Horta’s attacks in TOS episode “Devil in the Dark” to be less malicious against the minors and more the reactions of a mother protecting her young. Orosco contends uncovering the root causes of surface level, spectacular acts of violence essential for achieving positive peace, not only the absence of violence but also the presence of justice. Beyond superficial conflicts of good versus evil, Star Trek models ways in which we can approach nuanced systems of oppression in our own societies like racism and capitalism in hopes of realizing a future more like that depicted in the Federation.
The overall message of hope and finding a way forward towards that more just society resonated with me as a scholar and global citizen. Especially living in the United States with perpetual far-right attacks on marginalized groups and civil liberties, it is difficult to imagine a bright future. Tragically it is often easier to become submersed in the polarizing violent rhetoric in media and blatant hatred from elected officials Though it is by no means an easy path to follow, Orosco’s analysis of Star Trek reminds us that although humanity makes mistakes and we enter into dark places now as in our history, it is also within our nature to overcome challenges together. By identifying the systems of oppression to dismantle and recognizing the strength of diversity in collaboration, there is hope that we can realize a just society and achieve positive peace. Orosco concludes: Star Trek does not give us a blueprint for utopia, but it presents us with integral tools to map our own way to the future.