Klingon culture is not as different as we think it is. They value social ties just as humans do. As a result, Klingon culture starts with immediate family, friends, and citizenship. These values give the Klingons a deep sense of belonging and purpose. So, these are the foundation building blocks of Klingon culture.
The Family Unit
The immediate members of a Klingon family share a set of beliefs. If the head of the household behaves in a way that is converse to the major belief system and those actions cause harm, especially to the Empire, the entire family must be held accountable, as seen in Sins of the Father.
Family members who are not heads of families or houses that perform converse actions to the major belief system or cause harm are expected to answer to the head of their respective family or house. Depending on the crime, the family or the minor/major house head will decide whether an action constitutes punishment.
This may include: the loss of titles, land holds, ships, resources, demotion, blackball (rejecting someone typically by means of a secret ballot), shunning, exile, or death. Major infractions move up the chain of command. The punishment is then filtered back down the chain of command until everyone knows who, why, and what. Social pressure is what keeps everyone on their best behavior.
In Klingon families, there are members of a house that are not blood-related. These individuals may not even be Klingon, just part of the Empire. Individuals give an oath of fealty to a family. This verbal contract establishes them as blood relations. Thus, individuals will also feel the effects of converse actions made by the head of the family. This is why Worf’s nanny, Kahlest, is not only socially “dead” but also bears dishonor.
The actions of a family can earn them respect. This respect attracts individual Klingons who have no family to follow due to death, disease, war, and so on. Also, non-Klingon individuals who are a part of the Empire and want to serve it in some way. It is in this way, the family can grow bigger without the excessive need for procreation. This increases the family’s “Human Resources Dept” (no pun intended). More resources means noble actions are easier to achieve. These actions become bigger and bigger. Victories accrue over time and the deeds of a line of ancestry begin to stack. This is what makes a family attractive to a House.
What happens with other species that are not Klingon but are still within the Empire? Klingons recognize the autonomy of other species but it isn’t as important as Klingon autonomy. Much like the Roman Empire, Klingons believe that they are superior. Not because of their physiology or technical prowess, but because Klingons fought for their autonomy and believe that superiority must be earned just as they earned it.
It is in this respect that the Klingon belief system comes in direct conflict with the Federation. It is also why Klingons look down on the Federation, specifically Terrans (Earth humans). Klingons feel that Terrans did not “earn” their place in space, but rather the Vulcans gave it to the Terrans. Klingons view humans as weak and child-like in comparison to the rich history of their own species and how they spread their Empire. This idea is established by the Klingon Empire in TOS. As the Terrans combat the Klingons over time, they begin to respect Terrans and their place in space.
Some worlds in the Empire hold the same belief system or adopted that belief as a result of the Klingons’ hold over their world. Klingon citizenship is not given automatically, it must be earned and proven over time.
If a being, group or civilization chooses citizenship, they could ally or prove themselves in several ways. Groups or civilizations could offer tribute in resources or technology. Individuals could make an oath of service to a family or house. They could provide service to the Empire as an “officer” on the planet of origin, like a “police force for the Klingons.” If an individual or group wants to be in the Empire as equals, they have to earn it through noble actions and, sometimes, blood. “Earn your place” is for everyone in the Empire. This belief is Klingon equality and why humans do not understand it.
Earn Your Place
Klingons test each other on this level quite frequently. All conflict is settled through personal combat. Fighting between friends, family, and individuals is how they bond, settle disputes, and keep their skills at peak condition. Losing in this way, however, doesn’t mean the loss of your place.
If a Klingon or non-Klingon fights well and performs honorably, that is what is important, not the victory. It proves to those who are watching that you have respect for their way of life, your heart holds the beliefs strongly enough to satisfy social demands, and you honor the Way of the Warrior. Klingons value consistent shows of value within their belief structure, not words or contracts – the things Ferengi and Humans are known to wiggle out of with technicalities. A Klingon won’t talk about it; a Klingon acts. Then, they boast about it with blood wine and buddies. This is the Klingon way.
The negative part of this philosophy is that this is usually where major disputes begin. A Klingon can hold a grudge beyond death through his family or house, whether he is the head or not. Any disputes between minor or major houses happen here under the disguise of individual or small group arguments. This mirrors the houses of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, specifically in Act 1 and 2. Whether we are talking about a house, family, or individual, there is strict adherence to laws and traditions.
Assassination by poison is extremely taboo in Klingon culture. The essence and meaning of the law and tradition is paramount. No being can defend themselves through poison. Any Klingon caught using poison, will cause the death of everyone he has aligned himself with. Assassination through personal combat, on the other hand, is completely fine, even if it is your superior officer or your family. The idea is that the two had an opportunity to defend themselves. The one who fails the combat was weak in some manner. Earn your place is a continual part of life for every Klingon.
Not so Alien
The loyalty of family and the fealty of friends are the iron foundation of the Klingon culture. It is these ideas that establish the strong sense of belonging and are not all that different from the human condition. Whether we are talking about martial or civil, modern or ancient, it doesn’t matter. Klingons are not as alien as we think they are.