Wednesday, October 22, 2014

When Humans Lose Their Humanity: "No Sanctuary" and the Real Horror of Terminus

The Walking Dead has been one of the most thought-provoking shows on TV in the past 5 years, and the Season Five premier showed that the writers haven’t missed a step. However, I'm not sure that every step deserves to be taken. Let me explain.

I’ve been thinking about the profoundly disturbing Episode 5.1, “No Sanctuary.” Something was bothering me on a deeper level than just the visceral reaction to the horror in the story. I finally realized that The Walking Dead is (perhaps accidentally) revealing a troubling aspect of how human nature works: We have a tremendous capacity for dehumanization.
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Dehumanization: to deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit (Merriam-Webster)
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The Walking Dead features human beings who have been dehumanized by a virus that has shut down almost everything except basic minimal brain function. Rationality, emotion, and morality are absent from this animated corpse. The Walkers are now just a thing that looks human, with none of the dignity or rights a human being deserves. If zombies like these were real, that would seem to be solid reasoning.
   
However, the dehumanization does not stop there. In The Walking Dead, people who treat the Walkers as if they are merely things increasingly treat the fully human beings around them as if they, too, are things. Pick any character in the show. They more they enjoy taunting, toying around with, or killing the dehumanized around them, the more cruel and indifferent they become to the human beings around them. They inevitably dehumanize the living in some fashion as well.

When Rick takes the time to pull ID from the pocket of a dead zombie so he can honor his memory, we recognize that he is a good man who mourns the loss of that Walker's humanity. When others giggle as they shoot sniper rifles at the Walkers,  we cringe at the fact that they don’t. Something bad is happening inside them that will eventually hurt the other survivors around them.  How we treat the dehumanized will impact how we treat our fellow humans. 

The graphic nature of "No Sanctuary" provides a great example of how this correlation plays out in the real world. The violence was unprecedented even for The Walking Dead. "No Sanctuary"is the first time I’ve seen bludgeonings and throat-slittings in all their gory detail on prime time cable, not to mention the scene with the kitchen stocked with human body parts about to provide a meal for the depraved folks of Terminus. How did The Walking Dead get away with this?

Because for four seasons, the show has highlighted the violence done to the dehumanized, going so far as to run a recap of all the deaths during the Talking Dead. It was allowed because the Walkers weren't technically human beings. If the Walkers were just things, thoroughly dehumanized by the virus, then what was the harm in desecrating them for our entertainment?

I think it was inevitable that the show would transfer the violence to the people in the show. Part of it has to do with desensitization, but I think dehumanization is at play here too. That's how the trajectory works. In the show, the attitudes and actions aimed at the Walkers spilled over into relationships with the living. In real life, the dehumanizing attitudes and actions aimed toward one group of people will inevitably escalate. Once we start dehumanizing, it's hard to stop. Think of the connection between pornography and the sex slave trade.  Think of the link between racism and genocide. Think of how ending the life of a fetus has paved the way for the infanticidal "after-birth abortion" that is now being seriously discussed. Once we dehumanize people, we tend to consume them in whatever manner we desire. 

Daniel Dennett says we are "moist robots." Dean Hamer claims we are simply chemical reactions running around in bags. In 2005, the London Zoo had a display of "Homo Sapiens" because we are "just another primate." When people are stripped of their humanity, trouble's comin'. It always does. That's just the way it works. The Walking Dead isn't telling us anything about our human tendencies we don't already know; it's just reminding us of things we should never forget.
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Check out Jonathan Maberry’s Rot and Ruin series for an excellent look at different communities in a post-zombie apocalypse world. I don’t know if he intended this, but there is strong correlation between the way in which dehumanized humanity (the 'zoms') is viewed and the way in which the fully human are treated in their respective towns.

Neil Shusterman’s Unwind series offers a dystopic vision of the complete commodification of the dehumanized.

Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies may be the best of the zombie novels. He presents a humanity that has given in to its darkest nature, mindlessly consuming physically those they once consumed relationally. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold looks to do for Dracula what Maleficent didfor its title character. What if there is more to Dracula than we thought? What if he is a hero (albeit a problematic one)? Dracula Untold suggests that he is just that – a misunderstood monster who has become what he is for love. And make no mistake, Vlad the Impaler is a monster. 

His childhood is tragic. He and 999 other kids were impressed into the service of the Sultan of Turkey, who brutally turned them into killer devoid of moral or a conscience. Vlad eventually made his reputation by impaling entire villages of people (much like the real Vlad, who apparently skewered 20,000 people - in one day).

When the film begins, he has apparently put that behind him. He’s now a prince of Transylvania, a tribute country of Turkey.  He has a beautiful wife and child and a populace who believes in him. When the Turks return and ask for another 1,000 kids, he’s not about to let that happen. Unfortunately, his army is vastly outnumbered. If he is going to save his people, he needs the kind of power that brings armies to its knees.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Starks, Dothrakis, and Terminus: Are All Cultures Morally Equal?

As previously noted, the writers for the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series (such as The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy) offer an array of essays over a number of thought-provoking topics.

 My first post from Game of Thrones and Philosophy covered several essays on politics; the second post looked at competing ethical theories; the third addressed our ability to know anything. This post will  highlight Katherine Tullmann's "Dany's Encounter With The Wild: Cultural Relativism in A Game Of Thrones."Let's start with a brief quiz.

  • Between Tyrion's relationships with prostitutes, Cersei and Jamie's incestuous relationship, Jon Snow's brief affair beyond the Wall, and the marriage of Ned and Catelyn Stark, which one do you think is better or worse than the others?
  • The Dothrakis embrace pillage, rape and murder while the Starks attempt to fight with honor. Are they morally equivalent in their approach?   
  • The Dothraki weddings turn into orgies; the Red Wedding ends in bloodshed; other weddings involve food, celebration, laughter and life. If I say the third scenario is clearly better, is that simply a personal opinion with no moral ground?
  • Is it good or bad that Essos allows slavery and Westeros does not? 

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Equalizer: Gotta Be Who You Are In This World

Robert McCall is a nice guy. He challenges people to succeed with "Progress, not perfection" and doesn't shame them for their failures. He befriends people whom others reject or ignore, like an overweight employee and a young prostitute named Teri. He's a great boss, a good neighbor, and a voracious reader of classic literature. He's also - unbeknownst to them - a mix of Repairman Jack, Jack Reacher, and Liam "I Have A Very Particular Set Of Skills" Neeson.

One night, during one of the frequent times his path crosses with Teri's at a diner, Robert asks her why she hasn't pursued a music career.
"You and I know what I really am."
"I think you can be anything you want to be."
"Maybe in your world, Robert. It doesn't really happen that way in mine."
"Change your world."
If only life were that simple. When it becomes painfully clear that her world will kill her, he decides to change it for her. The bad guys drag other people for whom he cares into the conflict, and he unleashes a one-man war of vigilante justice. In spite of his anger, he gives those deserving of judgment a chance to do the right thing. He might do justice, but he offers mercy. Most of them refuse it. It's a bad call on their part, because Robert is going to make sure they sow what they reaped. He stays true to his life philosophy: "When somebody does something unspeakable, you do something about it, 'cause you can."

He's a vigilante knight in shining but tarnished armor, fighting for good in a world that believes his kind of noble warrior only appears in fictional books. Teri sure doesn't think men like him exist when she meets him. She believes by the end of the movie.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Why Jon Snow Knows Nothing (from Game of Thrones and Philosophy)

The writers for the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series (such as The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy) offer an array of essays over a number of thought-provoking topics .

 My first post from Game of Thrones and Philosophy covered several essays on politics; the second post looked at competing ethical theories.This post will highlight the pursuit of knowledge as discussed in Abraham Schwab's “’You Know Nothing, Jon Snow’: Epistemic Humility Beyond The Wall.”

Epistemology is the study of what we know and how we know. Epistemic humility is when we recognize what we don’t know. So how confident can we be that we know anything? A popular candidate is something called justified true belief. In order to have JTB, at least three criteria must be met:
  • One has to believe it’s true (Jon refuses to believe Benjen is dead)
  •  It must actually be true (I can know that George R.R. Martin will finish the series only if Martin finishes the series)
  •  It must be justified (A guess is not knowledge. Sam could not have given a reason why Dragonglass worked on the Other because he didn't know why it did. He was lucky, that's all.)
Unfortunately, even justified beliefs might be false. The Night Watch is certainly justified in believing dead people stay dead – at least until some of them come back as Wights. So what theories have been offered to help us see if we are justified in our belief that we actually have knowledge about anything?*

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Ethics of Virtue and Consequence (from Game of Thrones and Philosophy)

Game of Thrones presents Eddard Stark as a good, heroic protagonist, while Cersei stands out among many characters who fit the mold of the classic evil antagonist. Is this too simplistic and judgmental? Is it unfair to think of people in such stark moral distinctions? Should words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ even be used in the conversation?

Games of Thrones and Philosophy, one of many books in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, offers an array of essays over a number of thought-provoking topics (see my reviews on The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy).

My first post in this series covered several essays on politics as seen through the eyes of Hobbes and Machiavelli. This post will look at ethical systems discussed in “Lord Eddard Stark, Queen Cersei Lannister: Moral Judgments From Different Perspectives”(Albert F. F. Anglberger and Alexander Heike), and “No One Dances The Water Dance” (Henry Jacoby). 

If we are going to talk about what’s good or evil, we will need at least some idea about what these terms mean.

Aristotle used the the term ‘virtue’ to talk about the good. He claimed that virtues (honesty, courage, justice, etc) were character traits that brought about eudaimonia, or well-being, in the people who had them. In eudaimonia, rationality controls the desires and appetites. Any time people let their appetites override their rationality, they were going to get into trouble. People not controlled by reason may find pleasure in the indulgence of their appetites, but they will never find true happiness since that can only be found in the goodness of virtue. The Big Three – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – all agreed on this point.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"You Win Or Your Die" (from Game of Thrones and Philosophy)

Considering the popularity of the Game of Thrones series, it’s probably worth considering the worldviews and philosophies that emerge throughout the story. Games of Thrones and Philosophy, one of many books in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, gives an array of essays that are helpful in at least starting the discussion. (For similar posts, see my reviews on The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy).

The book begins by looking at the game of politics through the eyes of Hobbes and Machiavelli in “Maester Hobbes goes to King’s Landing” (Greg Littmann),“Playing the Game of Thrones: Some Lessons from Machiavelli” (Marcus Schulzke), and “The Death of Lord Stark: The Perils of Idealism” (David Hahn).

Thomas Hobbes, famous for his Leviathan, lived through a real-life version of Game of Thrones when the Stuarts fell to a civil uprising then rose to power again. Hobbes observed that this kind of conflict arose because of three key reasons: greed, self-defense, and glory. These three base drives bring about a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” No one is safe. Even champions like Clegane can be killed by the lowly Samwell Tarleys of the world.

Eventually, people tire of this violent and chaotic “state of nature” and agree to societal rules, willingly giving up some measure of freedom and comfort for the sake of stability. When that happens, someone will need to enforce the rules. This enforcer will be the king, a sovereign power that will keep us from returning to brutish anarchy and to whom everyone must give complete allegiance. This is the Leviathan. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Rebellion, Freedom and Art

From Paul Gregory Alm's "Songs Without Borders" (in the September/October 2014 edition of Touchstone Magazine):

"This is the great irony in the popular art of the last sixty years. Its forms thrive on rebellion and the overturning of conventional limits and expectations and even of morality. Popular art often seeks to break conventional patterns and to ignore what society expects. Singers cry out for personal freedom. Painters disregard normal rules of color and perspective and form in order to transgress a boundary. Writers sketch narratives that investigate the immoral or amoral, or sometimes abandon standard narrative altogether.

But the irony is that for such art to work, in order for it to make a statement, such rules and boundaries and markers have to be in place. If one wishes to deface a wall with graffiti or some other outrageous markings, the wall must be there to be defaced… If one wishes to scale a barbed-wire fence marked "no trespassing" and wave his arms and say, "Look at me," there must be a fence to scale. If one wants to sneer at conventional rules of behavior, there must actually be rules that govern how most people act… 

Those boundaries and rules are increasingly absent in today's society. But without such restrictions, popular music and art more and more become a rebellion in search of something to rebel against." 

I'm not sure I fully agree with the entirety of this author's analysis - surely some conventional patterns and expectations are worth challenging - but I find his broader idea thought-provoking. What happens as the rebellion against all the moral walls created by social, moral and legal boundaries becomes increasingly successful? After all, there is more than one kind of wall. Some keep us prisoner; others keep us safe. We may think we are destroying our captor when we are actually destroying our protector.