Monday, October 24, 2005

Serenity and the Nature of Evil

Hoban "Wash" Park Prophet gathered a bunch of links to Serenity/Firefly analyses, which I will have to take some time to savor.

I think Joss Whedon does an excellent job of sneaking in exposition without it feeling too much like exposition. He had to sneak a lot of it into the movie to explain relationships and backstory.

But there is just no substitute for watching the series and listening to the commentaries. One writer made an observation
"that the alliance sees itself as representing a force for good and progress and is willing to commit any number of atrocities and crimes to further those ends. It's an idea that has enormous historical resonance, from the white man's burden of the British Empire to the Soviet Union and the current American Empire. On the other hand, as a theme it seemed underexploited; in opposing the Alliance, Mal is surely perpetuating the anarchy and violence that seems to thrive outside it."

Perhaps it seemed underexploited in the movie (there's only so much backstory you can fit in for the unititiated), but in the pilot's commentary, Joss explains how he helped Adam Baldwin understand his character, Jayne, and to sympathetically play a selfish jerk. He told of an interview he saw with Willem Dafoe, in which Dafoe was asked whether he prefers playing good guys or bad guys. Dafoe answered that he plays them both the same, because everyone sees himself as a good guy.

Jayne sees himself as the hero. The toadie in the background sees himself as the hero. It explains why everyone in the Firefly world does what they do: they are serving the greater good as they see it. No matter what they do, they have a good reason, and it is not evil.

But I think most people on the planet acknowledge that there is good and evil, and in the series we are lead to believe one side is good and one side is evil. What makes some people evil and some people good, and is it really constructive or a good idea to use such labels?

The Mahablog did a post on the nature of evil a few months ago which resonated with me. It was partially sparked by her reaction to a David Brooks column in which he writes
Some liberals have trouble grasping evil, and always think that if we could take care of the handguns or the weapons of mass destruction, our problems would be ameliorated. But I know the problem lies in the souls of our enemies.

David Brooks sees himself and the Christian West as intrinsically good, while our enemies are intrinsically evil. Then wouldn't we Christian Westerners see the Alliance as intrinsically good and Mal as intrinsically evil, or vice versa depending on your allegiance? But Mal's the good guy we identify with and cheer on.

Maha responds

Fools (i.e., David Brooks) think of evil as an object that can be clearly deliniated, like a chair or a cheesecake. He speaks of it as graspable. But Zennies say that evil is no-thing, meaning it is not a thing you can put in a basket and show off to your friends. The action that is evil affects all beings. However -- especially in Buddhism -- no thing or being is evil.

This is an important distinction, because the history of evil reveals that people who create evil hardly ever see themselves or their intentions as evil. Osama bin Laden and his 9/11 flunkies believed their terrorist attack was righteous and justified, as did Tim McVeigh when he blew up the federal building. Even the all-time great evildoers like Hitler and Stalin and Mao no doubt rationalized their actions as serving a greater good.

The Firefly series deals with this kind of complicated murkiness, especially in the hero. Mal is a ruthless killer and a criminal who does what he must to protect himself and his crew, yet he often puts himself and his crew in mortal danger to help strangers. His motivations are complicated, but he sees himself as doing good. As the sympathetic hero, we Christian Westerners do, too, which is a hopeful sign.

Maha writes of a teaching of the Buddha

The Buddha taught that actions flowing from a mind purified of ego, hate, anger, and us-them judgments will be beneficial. However, actions flowing from a mind defiled with ego, hate, anger, and us-them judgments will cause suffering.

The Train Job episode is a good example of this. Though Mal's first loyalty is seemingly to his crew, he will not hesitate to endanger them all to do what is ultimately the right thing. His initial actions flow from his hatred of the Alliance: he will not bend to their will, he will steal from them and kill their agents, and he will ally with a sadistic, torturing monster to to maintain his freedom. Negative consequences arise from this motivation, and people suffer. But while he could easily escape and profit, he does not accept happiness and security for himself at the expense of the innocent.

Writes Maha

From this perspective, a person with a pure mind doesn't have to consult a rulebook; whatever he does will be "good." A person with a defiled mind can read the Bible eight hours a day and worship the Ten Commandments, yet his actions will still result in "evil."

This perspective drives conservative Christians nuts; they call it "situational ethics." Instead of responding to situations as-they-are, a "moral" person must live by a fixed code of conduct based on religious dogma and societal values. This, they say, makes sure that actions are correct. Not consulting the rules amounts to doing whatever you want. And that's bad.

But that misses the point; if a person is free of ego-attachment and personal desire, then there is no "you" and no "want."

Therefore the wise put themselves last,
but find themselves foremost.
They exclude themselves,
and yet they always remain.
Is it not because they do not live for themselves
that they find themselves fulfilled?

-- Tao Teh Ching, verse 7

Without morals and commandments and "you" and "want," there is just action to allieviate suffering. Easier said than done, of course, which is why even Zennies have written Precepts. Until you reach the other shore, you will need a boat. But from this perspective, fixed codes of conduct are not an ideal, but a crutch.

This is how Malcolm Reynolds lives. He doesn't know it, but he follows some teachings of Buddha, which makes his mocking prayer, "Dear Buddha, send me a pony and a plastic rocket," very interesting.

He had fallen into the trap of believing in the wrong things. (You have to have seen the pilot to get this next part) He had believed in a fairy tale Santa Claus God who would send "angels" to save him and his comrades, because what he was fighting for was right and good. When that didn't happen, he became embittered and stopped believing altogether, though his actions through the series and movie showed that he really did have faith in the right thing all along -- others shouldn't be made to suffer for your happiness.

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