What International Psychology has to say about the Prime Directive

Gene Roddenberry dreamed of a peaceful and unified Earth. A world without war or hunger, a world where acceptance was the norm and not the exception. It is this mentality that started the United Federation of Planets.

One exceptional theme of Star Trek is the acknowledgement of human history, from the Original Series to the Next Generation to Deep Space Nine to Voyager and now Discovery, Star Trek has acknowledged the history of slavery, war, famine, etc. on Earth. Quark himself used Earth’s history of slavery and concentration camps to “prove” that Ferengi were better than humans. One part of human history that Star Trek has not discussed blatantly but does actively work towards not repeating with the implementation of the Prime Directive is colonialism, which the Stamford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines as “a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another.”

The Prime Directive, or Starfleet General Order 1, states that members of Starfleet are prohibited from interfering with the internal and natural development of alien civilizations. In other words, colonization of inhabited worlds is a no-go. The first step in achieving this was applying the same value to Earth’s diverse cultures. This has been demonstrated in Star Trek with the celebration of the Hindu Festival of Lights on the Enterprise-D and the fact that multiple Earth languages sill exist and are spoken throughout the galaxy (see Star Trek Discovery “An Obol for Charon” for an example). Currently the professional world has adapted a similar ethic in order to prevent neocolonialism (the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence other countries, especially former colonies) and promote effective aid without causing harm. For the purpose of this conversation, I will focus on my area of expertise: International Psychology.

Traditional psychology was developed in the Western world. When working internationally, psychologists often utilized Western techniques because this is what they learned in school. Recently, psychologists have noticed that applying Western techniques and measures in other contexts can be detrimental and is reminiscent of colonialism when Western laws were applied to colonized countries. For example, utilizing “individual therapy” in a collectivist culture can cause psychological trauma rather than healing it. In order to combat this, the fields of Cultural Psychology, Cross-Cultural Psychology, Indigenous Psychology, and International Psychology were developed.

International Psychology is a branch of psychology where the practitioners work in a country or with a culture different from their own and/or with psychologists from different countries/cultures. The work could be research, program evaluation, consulting, or mental health treatment. International Psychology stresses the importance of using research tools or psychological techniques that were developed specifically for the culture in which the international psychologist is working. Think of it in this perspective, if I were to use a human psychological technique with a Vulcan, the Vulcan would probably be confused and annoyed. Also, the technique may actually cause harm to someone from a species that trains their entire life to control emotion.  The number one ethical principle in International Psychology is to not negate the cultural beliefs and practices of a foreign country/culture by applying Western norms, sound familiar?

You can’t necessarily counsel a Vulcan the same way you would a human

However, like our favorite captains in Star Trek, international psychologists also have dilemmas they must face when dealing with cultural practices. At what point do we intervene if there is a practice that is detrimental for all or part of the population? A good example of this is the practice of arresting homosexuals in Ghana. The Ghanaian law that states homosexuality is illegal and punishable by two years in prison is a law that was written by the British when Ghana was a British colony. The law was never changed when Ghana became an independent country and is still practiced today. Is it right for the Western world to condemn Ghana for practicing a law that was forced upon them during colonialism?

The UN has stated that the practice of confining people based on their sexuality is a human rights violation and should be terminated immediately. Some would argue that the law isn’t Ghanaian so the Western world should push Ghana into changing it. Others, myself included, believe that forcing Ghana to change the law with threats of withholding aid, the UK threatening to withhold aid from Ghana if they don’t change the law, is an example of neocolonialism that could actually make the situation worse for homosexuals in Ghana due to possible retribution from the Ghanaian government. Is it right to take clean water and food from a county’s populace because they are doing something that we find abhorrent?

To be clear, I’ve been a supporter of gay rights for years and I identify as bisexual, a fact I kept well-hidden while I was working in Ghana. It just makes you realize that noninterference is not as simple as it initially seems.

Let’s put this in another more familiar context. In the Next Generation episode “The Outcast,” Soren, from the androgynous species J’naii, identified as female and fell in love with Will Riker. Although Riker tried to prevent it, Soren received psychotectic therapy and lost all traces of feminine identity. This was a practice that Riker in particular found abhorrent but the Federation did not step in to change the J’naii culture or push the idea that all J’naii have the right to identify anyway they want. The UN would probably describe the J’naii androgynous practice as a human(oid) rights violation but interfering would have interfered with the internal and natural development of the J’naii civilization, a violation of the Prime Directive. Again, noninterference is not as easy as it sounds.

Riker watches Soren speak to the arbitrator at her tribunal

I feel fortunate to be a part of a growing trend in the social sciences which acknowledges the different cultures of the world and works to preserve them. However, the line between preservation and doing the “right” thing is narrow and difficult to see sometimes. Like the Federation, we international psychologists have to make hard decision that may lead to a lose-lose situation if foreign cultures are to be preserved.

To go back to the Ghana example, if I, an international psychologist, was asked by a gay rights group in Ghana to help them in their plight to change the law, I would give them resources, I would help them secure funding, but I would do it anonymously because as Nana Addo Dankwa, the president of Ghana said, “I don’t believe that in Ghana so far a sufficiently strong coalition has emerged which is having that impact of public opinion that will say, change it.” In other words, the change must come from within Ghana and not from outsiders. Just like a Federation captain who may offer asylum for an individual but cannot actively work to change the conditions that caused the individual to seek asylum.

For further reading on the detrimental effects of applying Western psychological practices to non-Western societies read Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Watters. For further information about Cultural, Cross-Cultural, and International Psychology read Toward a Global Psychology: Theory, Research, Interventions, and Pedagogy edited by Michael J. Stevens and Uwe P. Gielen.




  2 comments for “What International Psychology has to say about the Prime Directive

  1. The Prime Directive wouldn’t just prevent the law from being imposed upon the people of Ghana, it would also prevent the aid from being sent to them. Withholding aid is not colonialism.

    • neocolonialism is “the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence other countries, especially former dependencies”
      taking away aid that ghana is dependent with the specific purpose of influencing them politically is neocolonialism.

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