The Kobayashi Maru
The stories we tell about the world help bring the world into being. The stories we tell about ourselves inform our choices.
We are, all of us, shaped by stories. Stories help us understand the world.
And yet many of the stories that shape us are not told aloud – or told so often, they have solidified into facts.
Salman Rushdie, who was exiled for his stories, notes that people need to “…have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change…”
When we can’t see the story, we are truly powerless. The hopeless feeling we get sometimes is partly because we can’t figure out the story we are living. It’s often not the story we meant to live or want to live.
Awareness of the stories that surround our lives can lead us to telling a different story. It’s not easy, because the stories that shape society are encoded in the way cities are built, in the way our social systems operate.
To know what is valued by a society, look for the tallest or most impressive buildings – in ancient China the Imperial Palace of the Emperor was the greatest structure. In medieval Europe it was the cathedral. Today it is the business high rise.
We worship the economy.
Capitalism is the great narrative of our time, and it is almost impossible to imagine the world without it.
We may not even want to, as now feels like the peak of human civilization – the rise of the stable middle class, health care and education for most, a sense of security.
Capitalism is pretty good, at least for most of us in this room. I am partial to it myself.
But it isn’t inevitable or even necessary.
As the great writer Ursula Le Guin says “we live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then so did the divine right of kings.
Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in…the art of words.”
In the art of words, in the art of story.
Capitalism with its requirement for endless growth, and need to exploit a cheap labour force, and ignorance of the cost to other creatures and the planet, doesn’t work well for many. We are starting to hear the stories of those who suffer under this global economic system. We are starting to hear the stories of those who lost out. The more I hear these stories, the less partial I am to capitalism.
And it isn’t the only factor shaping our lives, but it is the central force that is seen as a natural law rather than a human construct.
It can be hard to see any way forward. Capitalism isn’t easily untangled. But then, the divine right of kings must have been pretty tricky to shift too.
Resistance and change is possible. Just ask Captain James Tiberius Kirk.
Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise goes boldly where no one has gone before in Star Trek tv shows and films. In this fictional universe, part of the training to take command of a starship is the Kobayashi Maru exercise.
A cadet is in command, sitting in the captain’s chair, when there is a distress call from a civilian ship which is disabled and drifting.
The ship is in the neutral zone, breaking a treaty with another civilization, who have sent their battle ships to attack.
You can do nothing and watch everyone on the civilian vessel perish.
You can enter the neutral zone to try and save the civilian vessel.
Your starship now faces the battle ships, out gunned.
What do you do? Well, you die. Everyone dies.
The Kobayashi Maru is a classic no-win scenario, it’s intended to assess the cadet’s character and command skills in the face of death.
A couple of years ago, I went to a Star Trek experience in Ottawa. The final piece was the Kobayashi Maru. I tried to talk with the enemy, and everyone died. I am no Captain Kirk.
James T. Kirk is the only starship captain to have beaten the Kobayashi Maru. He did the simulation twice, dying each time. But the third time, the third time, he won.
Not by negotiating with the enemy, not by amazing flying skills, or by innovative technology.
He won by changing the story. To be precise, by changing the simulation program. Kirk rewrote the computer program so that he could take down the shields on the enemy ships and destroy them before the enemy could fire on his ship. This allowed him to rescue the people from the civilian vessel.
Kirk beat the no-win situation by changing the story.
I think we live in a time that requires some of Captain Kirk’s inventiveness. As Conal said, it has often felt this year like we’re living in a kobayashi maru world. Syria is a no-win situation. American politics is a no-win. For people of colour, women, life is often a no-win situation.
And while the dominant stories are slowly shifting, we also have to challenge the basic premises. Ursula Le Guin notes “we live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in…the art of words.”
Resistance and change often begin in art.
Culture is shaped by story, by narratives that define rules and norms. Stories give meaning and context to the world around us. Nigerian writer Ben Okri says “We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”
Stories shape our possibilities and our futures. By changing the stories, quite possibly we can change our lives.
When Jesse Wente came to speak about the history of media’s representation of indigenous people, he noted the associations between the depiction of First Nations people as savages and government policy of suppressing native culture.
It’s so much simpler to destroy people identified as having no value, as belonging to a past now gone. So First Nations people were fierce primitive savages, with no place in civilization. And sometimes they were mystical Indians, keepers of great knowledge, spiritual beings. Still with no place in white civilization. And so the government offered residential schools, as a way to “take the Indian out of the child.”
The indigenous people of this land have lived in a no-win situation for generations.
Thankfully, these stories have been challenged.
Indigenous people are resisting the stories given them. The stories of shame. The stories in which they had no humanity, no worth.
Indigenous people are reclaiming their stories, reclaiming their images. They are taking back control over the narratives that shape their lives.
“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in…the art of words.”
Resistance and change.
And slowly, white culture begins to listen. We have begun to listen to painful stories about residential schools, about life on reserves, about the loss of family history. The dominant culture is listening to the beautiful, funny cultural narratives that involve talking ravens and cunning coyotes, that show a world being created and formed by all the creatures.
And listening to those stories, the stories previously unheard by the majority, changes the larger cultural narrative. In Canada, the government is beginning to see First Nations as partners in decision making, as a nation with its own rich history.
This new story, one of mutual respect, is slow to develop. It’s being told haltingly, with many defaults to older, uglier stories. An indigenous man in Regina used the art of video to record a store employee following him around – pointing out the racial profiling. The racism is still present.
But different stories are also being told.
At school as a child in Mississauga, we made dioramas of long houses and learnt that Indians were the long ago people. Now children are taught that First Nations people are a vital part of this country, that white culture did a great injury with residential schools, that we are working towards reconciliation.
I much prefer this new story.
This – eventually – will be a win-win situation.
I prefer the stories where all people, indigenous and white and everyone else, are neither savage nor spiritual, good or bad. We are all just human beings, funny, irrational, weak at times, courageous at others, loving and failing. I prefer the stories where life is complex, rich with diversity, where we create the world together, sharing the work, sharing the stories.
These are the stories which reflect our Unitarian Universalist principles:
all people have inherent worth,
that human relations should be based in justice, equity and compassion.
Our interdependence calls us to love and justice.
Let us tell stories of connection.
John Powell suggests these new stories “requires that we recognize that we are all a part of each other and that we make all our practices reflect this. This new story requires more than words. It requires actions. It requires reaching inside ourselves and out across the gulf that threatens to divide us. This new story requires that we lean away from hate and into love. We will make mistakes and there will be setbacks, but we can collectively give birth to a new story and a new way of being.”
What is our role in creating these new stories?
How can we Captain Kirk our way out of all the no-win situations we live with?
I am going to invite you now into a five minutes of sharing with your neighbours. Turn to two or three other people.
What is the new story you want this community to tell?
What is our role in creating these new stories?
I’ll end with some final hopeful words from Captain James Tiberius Kirk: “We’re a most promising species, Mr. Spock, as predators go.
Did you know that? I frequently have my doubts. I don’t. Not any more. And maybe in a thousand years or so, we’ll be able to prove it.”
May we find ourselves telling new stories.
Stories of our common humanity, of our interdependence.
The world needs us now.
So Say We All