The Worf effect and NGO rhetoric

Today is a good day to fight poverty!

It is a huge challenge for TV writers to convincingly put their characters in peril. On a show like Star Trek, every new alien threat has to be at least temporarily convincing, even though we all know the crew of the Enterprise will eventually prevail at the end of the day.

One way to convince the audience that a threat is plausible is to let the toughest character on the show be easily defeated by this new threat. If the biggest badass on the show can be conquered so quickly, we suddenly have good reason to believe that the new threat is very real and very credible.

As this is a particularly effective way of creating tension, writers abuse it all the time. However, over time this has the unfortunate side effect of undermining the tough character’s credibility, as audiences rationally update their beliefs about the character’s badassery. Eventually, this `tough’ character ends up appearing comically ineffectual, which itself cripple’s the writer’s attempt to convince the audience that anyone is under any real threat.

This is called the Worf effect, named after the Klingon security officer from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who is repeatedly and effortlessly knocked around by everyone else on the show, despite being renowned for his martial prowess.

Let’s think a little bit about the rhetoric over poverty, charity and aid. NGOs (and many donors) face a credibility problem – they need to convince us that they are effective, bat’lethwielding badasses. Yet at the same time, they want to keep attention on the great challenge of global poverty. There are a number of ways to do this, but quite often, advocates depend on depressing statistics (number of children who die every second), poverty porn and grave warnings.

As one shots – these can be effective at convincing us that the fight against poverty is deadly serious, but over time, we begin to notice that the statistics are still depressing, despite the efforts of well-wishers. We begin to doubt the efficacy of institutions that constantly tell us that things are awful out there – if they were more capable, wouldn’t things be getting better more rapidly?

The answer? Focus on showing your effectiveness, not just telling us about it. Another TV trope term is the informed ability – one we as the audience are supposed to take for granted, but that we never really see in action. We’re supposed to take the efficacy of all these organisations for granted when we donate. This is bound to undermine everything in the long run – Worf needs to win every now and then if we’re going to continue to take him seriously.


One thought on “The Worf effect and NGO rhetoric

  1. Rowan Emslie

    February 27, 2012 at 5:24pm

    I don’t really understand why agencies continue to pitch battle against POVERTY or HEALTH as enormous things – human interest stories, specific to an actual project they’re implementing are, just as news/tv has also discovered, just as affecting. Making grand promises about sweeping problems is almost guaranteed to promote ‘compassion fatigue’ in the eyes of the general public: not just the Western/Global North public either.

Comments are closed.