Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Zombie Thread: Extinction Event Ethics

    I am a fan of The Walking Dead (the series, not the comic).  I don't care for the gore, but it's not really the heart of the show. The writers are using extinction event drama as a sobering backdrop for a serious tour de force through an pockmarked ethical landscape.

    After last week's episode of The Walking Dead, Karl Meszaros (a friend and a comic book genius extraordinaire) started an email discussion about this show with Scott Smith and I.  Karl reads the comics; Scott and I watch the show. What follows is a discussion covering worldviews, ethics and morality, parenting, the Iraq war, and the Kardashians.  I hope at least some of it is insightful. If you like this topic, feel free to keep the thread going in the comments section.

 Karl Meszaros: Tell me what you think of this -

Scott Smith: Couldn't agree more.

AW: I don't agree with all of the article.  They were going to execute a man; Dale should have been the gadfly he was.  He was the only voice on that side of the argument - and he was right.
     I thought the vote, the almost execution, and the decision to imprison were awkward plotting. No way was Rick going to be willing to execute somebody that quickly.  The show should have given a couple more episodes to Rick becoming hardened, or desperate to keep his wife and put Shane in his place.

SS: I don't think it was that clear cut an issue. Not that executions should be such an easy option, but saving a bad guy without any consideration of the consequences is equally idiotic. If they really wanted to do this issue justice, it could have been handled much better by actually presenting  arguments. Like the article said - go straight into group discussion rather than all this junior high nonsense.
     What drives me nuts is that many of these issues are their own creation. This wouldn't be an issue if Rick wasn't so indecisive and weak.

KM: Just remember, this is comic book show.  One of the main rules in comics is “heroes don’t kill.”  Rick is the hero.  Shane is the villain.

SS: That's good to keep in mind (even though it's a silly rule - and one Rick has already broken). Do you think they intend us to see Shane as the villain?

KM: Shane is definitely the villain.  That’s why they had him sleep with Ricks wife.  This is a comic written for guys as seen from Ricks point of view.  Sleeping with the wife is a no-no.

SS: Yeah. He's definitely a bad guy in that sense. Most senses, actually. I asked because even though I think he's immoral and an idiot and I'm ready for a walker to take him, I don't see him as evil. I agree with him more often than I do Rick, but for different reasons.

AW: Shane is the ultimate Darwinian pragmatist. Dale called out his "survival of the fittest" life on the last episode. Rick is a good representation of a genuinely good man who finds himself mired in no-win moral dilemmas.  He may be indecisive, but it's because he recognizes what is really at stake more than the rest of them.

SS: True, but there is a place for some pragmatism, don't you think? Rick would have continued the search for Sophia forever, no matter how many people died or were injured in the process, even after all hope was gone. And then, he refuses to deal with Shane who is probably a bigger threat to the group than the walkers are.
     I think he is more level-headed than the rest, but I think that even a shred of imagined hope distracts him from reality and often paralyzes him from making proper decisions.

AW: In contrast to the rest, who have abandoned hope, refusing to see it even when it is there.We are seeing a downward spiral of all the characters who are willing to give up on people or devalue individual human life.  Shane kills a dude to get away, and he is now spiraling out of control.  Rick's son has lost perspective, and now he's taunting walkers.  The psycho redneck is a loose cannon.  It's the ones who refuse to give up on the living who maintain their humanity. The rest are becoming monsters.

SS: I actually like Daryl. He is a bit of a loose cannon, but look at his progress. When you see his backstory, I think this process in actually civilizing him. His erratic behavior is because he is having a hard time learning how to act in a group since he essentially raised himself.
    Carl is broken because he isn't being parented by anyone and his mother is insane. I don't think Lori or Shane are spiraling. I think they were rotten people to begin with, and the current circumstances are merely allowing that to shine.
    The show has been focusing on the nutjobs recently. We haven't seen much from Maggie, T-Dog, Glenn, Carol, or Herschel. They are all relatively stable people. I think the show just focuses on the grease fires lately rather than ensemble issues like it did earlier on.
    Prediction: If what Randall said about the other group is actually true, I predict that Duane is among them. That will make for some more conflict for Daryl.

AW: Good point. All the grease fires get the press. Too much like a zombie apocalypse reality show.

SS: And with minimal booze and sex!

AW: Honestly, some Kardashians would have added something to the last episode. Throw in a Situation zombie, and that's must see TV!

KM: I think the dude in the barn works for a an ultra-evil guy called the Governor.  He is in the comics, and an actor has been announced to play him for season 3.  I suspect they will regret letting him live.

AW: Thus confirming my opinion that The Walking Dead presents a very nihilistic view of the world. No matter how well intentioned and well thought out a plan is, everything fails.  Not to say I don't like the show - so far I have really enjoyed the characters, the moral dilemmas, and a real strong sense that what you do matters.

KM: So here is a better question for you, Anthony.  If you're Rick, what do you do?

AW: If I'm Rick, I just don't think I could execute the guy.  For starters, I saved his life. Second, I'm not sure he is automatically bad. The fight they had could be explained easily: everybody was shooting at everybody else, because they all were scared.  Third, there is no way to prove any crimes.  Fourth, they're executing him because of what he may do in the future.  That's a bad reason.  I would have driven him away and dropped him off with some weapons and food.  I know it's a risk, but I think that's the right thing to do.

SS: Actually, that's what they were going to do until he mentioned that he knows some of the group by name and knows where they live.  So.... now what?

AW: You keep him imprisoned until you move.  Sorry, I just can't execute a guy for something he hasn't done.

KM: I would have a hard time executing him as well.  Here is a similar question.  I could be wrong on this but, I thought you were in support of the Iraq invasion.  That was something done on the basis of what Iraq might do (get WMD’s and use them).  How is this different?

AW: The rules of war do not allow executions in the style suggested in the WD. Someone can be executed for war crimes, but not uncommitted war crimes or because their friends were evil.
     If (if) I remember correctly, Iraq was claiming they did actually have WMD, and were, in fact, eager to use them. The UN and 99% of our politicians agreed, especially since Saddaam had gassed thousands of Kurds out of existence.
      Did I miss some crucial dialogue last Sunday?  If the kid said, "If you let me go, I will bring them back to rape and kill you because I know where you live," then you can't let him go, and depending on how dire the situation I would reluctantly support his death as a last resort.  If he just says, "The guys I am with are really bad," that's different.

KM:  I supported the original decision to invade Iraq.  I think that my mindset back then would have supported killing the guy in the barn.  I now think that a preemptive strike is not the way to go.  You can only act based on how people (or nations) behave.  In the case of the guy in the barn, I would not support killing him.  In the case of Iraq (and now Iran), I would not support a preemptive invasion.  I’m not sure how “turn the other cheek” became hit them before they hit you.

SS: I don't know...  the group the guy came from is not only raping women and killing people by the kid's own omission, but he also threw out "we know where you live" as they were freeing him. I don't think it's a stretch to see that as a direct threat. Don't forget, Rick ran into two other guys from the same group a couple episodes earlier and had to kill them because they drew on him when he refused to take them back to the farm. Then, some more from their crew came looking for their buddies. Rick tried explaining to them what happened and they opened fire without an attempt to talk it out. This group has proven themselves. How many more do they need to kill before we concede that they have evil intentions? I think not being proactive in a case like this is immoral.
     That said, I'm not saying that killing the kid should be that easy a decision. I'm not even sure that it's an acceptable decision. But - Rick is a moron and brought this on himself. His memory is about 6 seconds long. He forgets what people have done and gives them the benefit of the doubt when they don't deserve it. The only reason they have this problem now is because Rick brought the enemy into his home. I think the show is illustrating that actions have consequences, and they are doing a very good job of it.

KM: Because he belongs to a murdering group of people, does that give you the right to kill him if he didn’t commit murder?  In the real world, can you kill a person just because he is a member of Hamas?  Could a Muslim kill me because I’m a Christian and Christians killed Muslims in the crusades?

SS: I don't know that "real world" rules apply the same in post-apocalyptic zombie world. The things you are describing are much different though. We're not talking about a centuries-past conflict, or groups with differing ideologies. We're talking about a person who was shooting at you one moment, then welcomed into your home the next. Again - not saying the solution is killing him. I'm pointing out that the Rick is the dope that caused the problem.
     Everyone hates Shane for being so overtly bad, but Rick has made decisions equally immoral and the issue isn't even raised. He helped Herschel rescue walkers and bring them onto the farm. He rescued a terrorist and brought him onto the farm. If Rick would stop causing problems, the farm would be a very peaceful place! But then, it would make for very boring tv.

AW: I think you are confusing immoral and naive.  Rick may be naive, but he's not immoral.  He's the good guy who wants so badly to believe there is always hope - for the walkers, for terrorists, for Shane.  He is the contrast to all those who give up too quickly and just say, "Screw everybody else."
    Rescuing the kid - it was tear him off the post, shoot him in the head, or leave him to the Walkers. He made the right decision in the heat of the moment.  The fact that the outcome is bad does not make his decision to save him bad.
    However, I grant that the threatening words do change things a bit. I did not hear that part last Sunday.

SS: Ok, maybe it's not immoral. But how many times can you write off naivete that puts others in danger? That's my problem with Rick. His rose-colored glasses cost lives. His optimism is a nice thought, but it is not realistic and everyone else pays the price. That comes really close to immoral in my eyes.
     His decision to save him was bad. The others unanimously said he should be left or put down because the walkers were 20 feet away and closing from all sides. In reality most or all of them would have died while Herschel sawed through the leg with a pen knife. In the show though, the camera cut away and the kid was magically free and safe in the car.
     The humane and realistic thing to do would have been to put him out of his misery right there. They did it to Dale and others - why not him? An alternative, if they really had the time to do it, would have been to unhook him and set him free somewhere. This was the perfect storm of stupidity though.

AW: All good observations.  One reason I react the way I do is that the show creates a series of lose/lose situations. Rick rescues a bad guy even at risk to his own life:  noble.  He brings home a terrorist who threatens to rape and kill his group: horrible.
   This is what feels nihilistic to me about the show.  The people you KNOW are bad deep inside make bad decisions that work out for good.  The people that you KNOW are good deep inside make good decisions that never work out.
   Shane is so focused on the ends he doesn't care about the means.  Rick is so focused on the means he doesn't see the end.  Okay, let's grant that they are literary opposites (foils in the story).  Are there any characters who hit the golden mean?  Perhaps Dale, but they wrote him so whiny that nobody like him.

KM: Agreed.  But, could you not say that  this dilemma is true about anyone who is not following Christ?  At some point their moral compass just lacks a true north.  No matter how well intentioned their acts, they will always go off track. Ghandi had good intentions, but his actions caused tens of thousands of deaths when the British left and India split apart.  Though his intentions were good, the outcome was bad.

SS:  I hear part of what you're saying, Karl, but I'm not sure how a Christian worldview would lead to any less futile outcome.

I've got a lot of hope for Daryl. He has made massive improvements while most of the others have been stuck in their ruts or slid backward. He seems to have a decent balance of morals and pragmatism. Time will tell.
     Here's another thought about Rick. He is so consumed with being the moral compass of the group that he has neglected his own duties. His wife is a time bomb. His kid is entirely unparented. In fact, if Carl had been supervised, he wouldn't have wandered off, wouldn't have endangered himself, wouldn't have led the walker back, and Dale would still be alive. Lots of factors, but again - Rick's attempted nobility cost them in the end.

KM: Rick sounds a lot like Jack from Lost.  A good guy who does some crazy (at least to us) stuff because his compass spins.

SS: Wow - you're right. He's a lot like Jack. I hadn't made that connection.

AW: Okay, a couple other TV show references for comparison.  Tell me what you think.

1) Rick is Ned Stark from Game of Thrones.  He is the most noble of the candidates for the throne, but doomed to failure because he is not ruthless enough to be king.  He makes moral decisions that do not work.  Ultimately, it costs him his life and the lives of thousands in his kingdom.  At the same time, he is the only who really understands that "winter is coming," and that you do not fight seasonal winter with moral winter.

2) Darryl is Boromir, torn between who he is and who he wants to be.  I liked Boromir; perhaps I will like Darryl.

3) Shane is Walter White in "Breaking Bad."  He knows what he thinks needs to be done, and he can't stand weakness or hesitancy.  He is willing to hurt people and break things in the process of achieving his goals. He actually wants to be the one who "knocks on the door."  He wants to go bump in the night.

  Here's the question:  Who would you want to be leading your group if you survived the zombie apocalypse? (I love the fact that I just typed that sentence).  With Shane, your goal trumps your people. You will sacrifice the one to save the many.  With Rick, your people trump your goal.  You will endanger the many to save the one. With Darryl...I don't know yet.
   I think the questions have to go beyond the immediate circumstance.  What kind of people will you become if you survive?  The kid's problems clearly come from Shane, not Rick.  He is not imitating his father.  We shiver as we watched him taunt the zombie this last episode.  He is, I think, a vision of a generation raised by Shane.

SS: Interesting stuff. How do you get that Carl isn't Rick's problem? Just to be clear, I think Rick is probably the best choice to lead the group given their options.  He's still a bit of a dufus though.  :-)

AW: The problems in Carl are there because he is emulating Shane, not his father. Were he to be the kind of person his dad has modeled, he would not have those problems. Clearly, he is Rick's responsibility, though.  I agree with you that Rick is losing his family.

KM: The reason you see similarities between Rick, Eddard, and Jack is because they are archetypes.  They are what Hollywood holds as the ideal leader.  They don't seek to be a leader but can make quick decisions in the heat of battle.  They don't like violence but will dish it out in extreme situations.  They believe the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.  But, because they are the Hollywood ideal, they are inconsistent with a Christian worldview.  For instance, the reason Rick doesn't spend more time with his son is because the Hollywood view of parenting is one of self-discovery.  You let the kid find his own path.

And at that point, the three of us had to get on with our lives. Now, the continued discussion is yours :)

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