Dune and the Ethical Challenges of Cultural Diversity

Dune makes valiant attempts to portray diversity, but, much like our society, still falls short. What does it say about us?

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This weekend is Halloween, and I don’t know if this column on cultural psychiatry issues on Dune is going to be received as a trick or treat! It feels like bracing and entering a haunted house with cancel culture, wokeness, and fear of the other around every corner. Maybe I need to put on one of my masks to hide my identity! However, that is part of what psychiatry is about: the scariest parts of our humanity and how to work with them.

Adding to the difficulty of identifying diversity in Dune is that it is not always easy to determine the characters' culture eons later. Perhaps that is intentional, suggesting that it doesn’t matter so much in this distant future.

To me, the ruling and warring parties still look like “white” men and have “white privilege” in their conflict over the psychedelic spice. However, people that seem to be from other cultures (as we know and identify them) also have important roles.

It looks like someone of Asian ancestry is portraying the physician for the Atreides family. He also has great psychiatric insight powers, but ends up in an ethical conflict, betraying that family to unsuccessfully save his wife and himself. A very dark-skinned woman plays the chief planetologist and Judge of Change; this in itself is a change from a light-skinned male in the book. She has a crucial and deadly role in trying to navigate and choose between her own underground Middle Eastern-looking people and their colonizers. One group that did not seem to be represented is anybody of Hispanic or Latino background.

Having those from our minority cultures take on such important ethical challenges may seem like advances in Dune, but doesn’t it still seem that there are striking remnants of many of our current cultural diversity problems?

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM.