Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Who Are We?" (Reflections on The Walking Dead, Season 4)

The Season Four finale of The Walking Dead attracted 15.7million viewers, 10.2 million of whom were in the 18-49 demographic. It shattered previous records (the Game of Thrones season finale garned 5.4 million; Duck Dynasty reached 6 million; Breaking Bad’s Season Four finale recorded just under 2 million, and the final show of the entire series hit 10.3 million).

In other words, The Walking Dead is a cultural phenomenon. A lot of people are turned off by the gore (and it’s certainly gruesome), but The Walking Dead offers a gold mine of philosophical, moral, religious, and cultural talking points. I’ve written elsewhere about these issues (see links at the end). What caught my attention at the end of Season Four was the way in which Carl brings up one of the most important questions of all.

Michonne, Rick, and Carl are walking toward Terminus, a fabled place of sanctuary and rest in the midst of the apocalypse. As they get closer, Carl asks, “Will we tell them what we did?” Rick responds, “We’ll tell them who we are.” And Carl asks the right question in response: “Who are we?”

Part of the brilliance of The Walking Dead is that we are constantly challenged to ask what we would or would not do, what we could live with and what we could not. In the end, it all boils down to Carl’s question: Who are we?

In a broad sense, “who are we?” highlights the importance of knowing what it means to be human.  

We are physical beings, but there is more to us than biology. If we are reducible to DNA, then the Walkers are just as human as the survivors. That seems patently absurd. The more the survivors have to kill the undead, the more they are traumatized, and the more calloused they become to the living around them. It's sobering to see a Walker's head smashed in; it's deeply disturbing to see one of the living meet the same fate.

Why? They are both just moist robots, meat puppets, chemicals running around in a bag, right? Right?

In a more narrow sense, “Who are we?” highlights the importance of knowing ourselves.

We ask the question as the characters experience increasingly difficult situations. Would we stay with the group to ensure the survival of the human race or leave to find the one we love?  Would we forgive someone who admits to killing others? Would we banish someone even though it might mean we exile her to her death? What would we do to keep our children safe? Would we kill a child who will certainly bring about the death of us all even though she hasn’t done it yet? 

How much would we justify for the greater good?

Do we show mercy if it could get us killed?  How many times would we continue to negotiate for peace if we were continually betrayed? How often would we dare to love if those we loved just. kept. dying.

Hershel thinks there is always a reason and a plan; Bob thinks everybody makes it until they don’t. Would we give up hope or believe?

Carol believes in heaven; Carl calls her an idiot. Hershel says, “I can't profess to understand God's plan. Christ promised the Resurrection of the Dead. I just thought He had something a little different in mind."  Rick prays for guidance even while acknowledging he’s not much of a believer. Would we curse God or pray to him?

Who are we?

Richard Dawkins once wrote of a chef who cooked a baby's placenta and fed it to the baby's father. Dawkins acknowledged it was cannibalism, but noted that it is up to individuals to decide if eating it is right or wrong. The Walking Dead reveals the horror of leaving that kind of decision up to individuals. If even cannibalism is a matter of personal opinion, well, then anything that happens in The Walking Dead simply reflects one person's choice - a choice that ought not be judged.

But we don't suspend judgment when we watch those who wish to rape, torture, and kill, and cannibalize. We cringe, and rightly so. Without a doubt, The Walking Dead introduces situations that are colored with the gray of murky moral dilemmas, but there is no way we can leave the show concluding that all moral choices are stuck there. Even as we watch the heroes of the show wrestle with what to do we are mesmerized because we instinctively recognize that their choices matter. Some things are right; others are wrong.  What they choose turns them into a particular kind of person while bringing about life and death consequence on those around them.

Would we choose how they choose? Would we want to become what they are becoming? Who are we?

It's popular in philosophical circles to suggest we are, in some fashion, zombies ourselves, but the dead do not wrestle with these questions. Existential doubt, moral choice, and hope are for the living. The Walking Dead is not a show for those who wish to stagger through life. It is a story for those who want to engage with what it means to live.

The following articles are based on articles in The Walking Dead and Philosophy:

"How Do You Solve A Problem Like A Zombie?": "How important to our humanity are the immaterial aspects of our nature - our consciousness, our mind, our thoughts, ideas, and emotions?"

 "Much Undead Ado About Nothing":"The Walking Dead and Philosophy opened with two essays arguing that the consideration of philosophical zombies (P-Zombies) - theoretical beings identical to human beings but lacking consciousness, qualia, or sentience - mitigates against a purely materialistic view of the world."

"Leviathins and Zombies: Social Contracts and The Walking Dead""The Walkers are humans stripped of what political theorists call a 'social contract,' an agreement between the rulers and the ruled. The humans who remain have a choice: head off into the woods and make do with whomever they can find, or head for the nearest city and attempt to recreate some form of government."

"Absurd Heroism: Camus and the Real Walking Dead""Which is worse, I wonder – a world in which human are wiped out, or one in which human have always roamed an earth devoid of meaning, hope, morality and truth?"

"Deconstructing Humans""How far up the scale of capacity can one be and still not obtain the privileges and status of personhood?"

"Desperate Human Beings": "'Nothing is more frightening than desperate human beings.' That is frightening, true. What frightens me more are human beings who, with great articulation and artful rhetoric, try to convince us that killing children is defensible because select, elite thinkers have decided on behalf others how much suffering is acceptable, which human lives are defensible, and to what degree we should harden our hearts for the sake of a nebulous and ever changing greater good."


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  2. Thanks for this great post, i find it very interesting and very well thought out and put together. I look forward to reading your work in the future.