Mr Spock from Star Trek was the first rationalist in my life. The late great Leonard Nimoy was able to imbue the pointy-eared alien with bits from his own personality; the Vulcan neck pinch was his contribution, apparently. Though completely fiction, Spock came to represent so much more. Why did Spock become such an icon? When so little reason is available to repair the human condition, propped up on crutches like religion, humans will yearn for it. Through Spock, we began to appreciate the crucial function of logic—to bring us back from the brink. As humans, we are perpetually on a cliff-edge needing to be pulled back. Spock’s cool logic was one of those life-savers. It saved us from ourselves.
The word ‘rationalist’ up over in the first line is now almost an Indianism. Thanks to the strange context in which we reside, the word has been popping up in our local newspapers of late. Rationalists are being killed off in my country. The fact that we began to use this old terminology to describe an extremely small number of people, really local activists working to rid society of far too many everyday delusions, says a lot about the rest of us absurdists. They are an isolated group surrounded by the threatening majority of religionists of all shapes and creeds.
Rationalists in India speak out against crazy superstition, religious and caste dogma. This would seem simple enough, but it is an extremely brave and difficult thing to do in a sub-continent, where men and women from religious groups hold people in such thrall that they either get elected to parliament or influence parliamentarians in policy decisions. Rationalists who speak out live in constant danger. It is not unusual for them to be arrested for ‘insulting the sentiments’ of the majority. They have been shot at and most recently hacked to death with machetes. Some of them have had to seek refuge in other countries.
What did the great fictional Vulcan teach us in essence? Though half human and he too suffered from it from time to time, Spock was wary of human sentiment and emotion. Behind every war and dispute lies an emotion, which skews logic every single time and twists it out of shape. It is possible to justify the most specious argument by employing emotion. A lot of people are misguided in the belief that being emotional is a positive character-marker that makes them excusably fallible and basically loving, ordinary human beings. But more often than not, people use their emotional fallibility to justify extra-ordinary heinousness. When they will invariably seek amnesty, they put forward their emotional state as a mitigating circumstance. Sadly, there is never any amnesty for victims left in limbo, forever arguing their case, while perpetrators get let off for time served. To stand up for what is just, and this is counter-intuitive to most, especially India’s hysterical 9 pm news anchors, you need to use Vulcan logic. Good arguments will not stand the test of time if they come sputtering with emotion. They will last, if and only if they make sense.
When the rationalist argues with logic, there will always be an emotional counter that goes like this: oh…don’t you love your family? Or you don’t love your country, where is your patriotism? Or how dare you? Et cetera. These are volatile, emotional responses and when answered with detaching logic, the hot-headed questioner is usually angered by the seemingly frosty Vulcan reply. Emotion is useful in binding people together and generating bonds of loyalty. But you need to keep your wits about you as people around you are capable of using sentiment as a tool to get you to do what they want. Emotion can upturn reason by wrapping you in the cozy embrace of family, caste, class, religion and country.
The famous Vulcan greeting ‘Live long and Prosper’ says so much about what life could be if only we were a little less melodramatic, and didn’t need our infantile ego to top everyone else’s all the time. It is almost an idyll that could have been a line in John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. In most epic literature from the great languages, lessons from which attach to the collective mind, hot emotion triumphs over cold reason. The hero is always passionate and in search of the ultimate love. And as a species we subscribe to this particular creed of the fire-breathing hero. Spock is almost an anti-hero, the foil to that other great epic protagonist Captain Kirk.
J J Abrams rebooted Spock for the millennials in 2009. But in his new avatar, Spock is ever-so slightly altered, more intense, human half having gained precedence over the Vulcan side. When the young Spock played by Zachary Quinto meets Nimoy’s Spock in the final scenes of Star Trek (2009), we notice a contrast that shouldn’t have been. In Abrams’ defence, perhaps the young new simmering Spock is what the audience wants from Spock in the new millennium, or perhaps he will mellow as he gets older, become more Vulcan, less human. If you have been following the moulding of J J Abrams and his writers from the time of epic television series like Alias, then Lost, you will have figured out that Abrams reckons he knows how to manipulate the viewer’s human condition for heart-rending epiphany with just the right emotion at the appropriate juncture. This makes for great television, cinema, but not life. The original Star Trek, and Star Trek, The Next Generation, also employed passion in moderate doses, but there was always the salve of science, Spock, or Brent Spiner’s Data (Star Trek, The Next Generation) to get you through. The fictional Spock was willing to look upon his own half-human condition, and learn from it, something we as human beings never managed to do.