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.

When Rick takes the time in Season One 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 dehumanization is at play here too. That's how the trajectory works.

In the show, the attitudes and actions humans had toward the dehumanized Walkers spilled over into their relationships with their human peers. In real life, the dehumanizing attitudes and actions aimed toward one group of people will inevitably escalate as well. Post-1917 Russia had entire categories of people called “former persons” who had "ceased to be relevant for the state." As a result, they were shipped away and killed. Once we dehumanize people, we use them or throw them away as we so desire. 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.  

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." That is not a message of human liberation and hope. 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.

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.