Monday, October 27, 2014

Finding The 'Hallow' in Halloween

As a child, I was raised in a Mennonite community that did not observe Halloween. From its roots to its current form, we saw nothing compelling or good about it. We gave treats to oddly arrayed children on our doorstep, but we never dressed up, never went out, and did our best not to support the holiday financially or emotionally. I didn't really care; my mom didn't let us kids eat much candy anyway.

I later moved out of that community and for the first time came in contact with a lot of sincere Christians who viewed Halloween as just another holiday. They experienced it as an exercise of imagination, a sort of exorcism of the spirits of fear from which we Christians have been freed. God had not redeemed us so that we would cringe in the face of evil, so they boldly subverted Halloween with a freedom foreign to my upbringing.

These very different experiences have given me plenty to ponder over the years. Though I have more to understand, I have several observations that I hope contain wisdom.

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.

Dehumanization: to deprive of human qualities, personality, or spirit (Merriam-Webster)

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.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold looks to do for Dracula what Maleficent did for 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 killers 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 he 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 reap what they sowed. 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.