Heresy of the Week – Starfleet’s whistleblowing policy is awful


spock star trek

Heresy of the Week is a (mostly) weekly spot in which I entertain some of the unthinkable notions of geek-culture. The arguments I put forward are not always things I personally agree with, but often rhetorical devices designed to force myself (and maybe readers) out of the boxes which fan discussions can get caught in. But that aside, feel free to get yourselves worked up and your knickers in a twist if you really want to.

This week’s heresy:

“As well as having a promotions policy epitomising the worst of the nepotistic and arbitrary, Starfleet as depicted on screen has a disciplinary system which actively discourages whistleblowing and the promotion of best practice.”

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the profound stupidity of Starfleet’s promotions policy — as shown in Star Trek XI — was. If you thought that was self-indulgent nonsense, then you’re really not going to like this…

In my day job, I work a lot with Employee Relations and Human Resources cases, disciplinary cases, grievances, etc. It is in this light that I say that the internal disciplinary processes shown in Starfleet make less than no sense.

Witness the disciplinary hearing of Cadet James T. Kirk, in Star Trek XI. It takes place just at the end of the first act, where he is dragged before a committee to answer charges of  having cheated on the unwinnable Kobayashi Maru test. It further characterises Kirk as the unconventional rebel, unable to follow the same rules of anyone else.

But the way it is done makes no sense at all.

Firstly, he is in front of his entire class at the Academy. All of them, just sat there, watching as he is brought up on charges. Where’s the confidentiality? What would happen were he to be found innocent of all charges? The Academy board have just slandered his name to all of his peers.

And then there’s the cross-contamination aspect. Kirk’s fellow cadets played his crew in the simulation. They are surely prime witnesses to the alleged offence. And the first rule of any quasi-judicial situation is to keep your witnesses separate, so they can’t confer amongst themselves. Here they get to witness, confer, and their eventual statements are unduly influenced by the prosecution case.

But if the unfairness to Kirk would surely result in any decision against him being overturned by any proper court worth its salt, that is nothing, nothing compared to the wanton abuse suffered by Mr Spock in this whole palaver.

Admiral Barnett: Is there anything you care to say before we begin, sir?

Cadet Kirk: Yes. I believe I have the right to face my accuser directly?

Admiral Barnett: Step forward please.

[Spock steps forward]

Admiral Barnett: This is commander Spock. He is one of our most distinguished graduates. He’s programmed the Kobayashi Maru exam for the last 4 years.

Yes, they not only divulge from whom the complaint has come, but they actually make the complainant, the whistleblower, face the person he is accusing directly. What sort of backwards-facing right leads to this? Spock is at risk of reprisals from Kirk and co. In the circumstances this is probably unlikely, but what if Spock had been blowing the whistle on a peer? Or a captain? Or an admiral?

Starfleet is meant to be the best of the Federation, a supposedly utopian and post-scarcity society. Maybe they’d say that they are beyond such petty emotions as revenge — but even if that wasn’t proved completely wrong by decades of Star Trek TV and film, then why have the disciplinary processes in the first place?

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