Sunday, January 08, 2006

Well, Maybe You Can Take That Part of the Sky (Updated, Now With Quote)

One of the very first coherent thoughts I had about Joss Whedon's television series Firefly was to observe that it took place in a world in which the civil war was actually fought over the issue of states' rights. The desire for freedom, and for the ability to freely govern one's life and decisions, informed many of the show's episodes, and even its theme song yearned for the freedom of the skies after all other freedoms had been lost. Post-war hardship on the one hand, and the restrictive, domineering Alliance on the other, made Firefly's universe one in which genuine choices were becoming a rare commodity.

Serenity, Firefly's feature film continuation (and, possibly, conclusion), expanded on this theme of freedom and choice. The film pits Serenity's crew against the forces of the Alliance, who seek to regain control of River and prevent the dissemination of the truth about their actions on the planet Miranda. The Alliance, the film tells us, had sought to extend its control over its citizens by using mind-altering drugs in order to weed out aggression and criminal tendencies. It's an approach to governance that we would consider monstrous even without being told of its disastrous results--tens of millions dead, further millions transformed into mindless cannibals, and an untold number of victims who have suffered terribly at the hands of these newly-made monsters. The Alliance's crime, we are told by Mal in his St. Crispin's Day speech, is the belief that people can be forced into a new shape, a new form incapable of sin.

Sin is a topic that Serenity returns to often, and one clearly on the minds of its villains. The Operative seeks to bring about a world free of it, and believes that his actions--protecting the Alliance by any means necessary--are the best way to go about achieving this goal. Whedon, in his witty and informative commentary to the film, says (big, huge thanks to commenter D. for tracking down the quote)

...it's about the right to be wrong. It's about the idea that you cannot impose your way of thinking on people, even if your way of thinking is more enlightened and better than theirs. It's just simply not how human beings are. And you take that further and you say the idea of sin is in fact outmoded, is in fact more archaic than anything that Mal believes in. When he says, 'I'm a fan of all seven,' [cut vis effects blather] he's saying that sin is just what people are; it's been codified, it's been given a name, but all of those things we take as faults are also the source of pleasure and decency, and we should perhaps rethink it.
The Alliance's error, then, according to Whedon, is in clinging to a black and white approach to human behavior. By promoting a rigid, near-perfect concept of goodness, the Alliance classifies all citizens incapable of achieving this level of perfection, or unwilling to conform to it, as evil and undesirable. Rather than embracing the broad and ultimately uncontrollable range of human diversity, the Alliance fears it and seeks to limit it. Serenity's crew, in contrast, are a celebration of imperfect, flawed humanity, and through their dangerous choice at the film's end they bring an extra measure of freedom to their entire society.

On its face, Whedon's philosophy seems hard to object to, but there's a flip side to it that neither he nor his characters seem to acknowledge. The plain truth is that sin is not an outmoded concept. Sin exists, and it blights the lives of all of us who wish to live safely and happily. Murder is a sin. Rape is a sin. The strong preying on the weak is a sin, and it is precisely that sin that we would tend to see in a society that was completely free and without control. Civilized society, in its idealized form, exists to protect its weaker members from being preyed upon by the strong. Laws exist to prevent sin and to assure that those who commit it are cast out of the community.

Society is control, and the difference between free and predatory societies is not in the existence of that control but in the ways in which that control is exercised and governed. In a free society, citizens have the right to define, and change the definition of, sin (although it's worth noting that, when left to their own devices, supposedly free societies have defined mixed-race marriages and homosexuality as sins, and failed to recognize the sin of slavery), and to affect the form that punishment for sin takes. In a predatory society, such as the Alliance, citizens have no input into, and very little information about, the actions of their government, which may spy on them, treat them all as criminals or, as we see in Serenity, drug them into submission. It is this dangerous use of control that Mal and his crew rebel against, but they don't seem to recognize the need for another sort of control in order to maintain social order.

The Alliance's failure in the Firefly universe isn't in seeking to act against sin, but in their method and approach to this task. The Alliance sought to make its task easier and, more importantly, finite. They failed to realize that the task of protecting society from the worst impulses of human nature is a neverending one--the watchmen of civilization are never permitted to leave their posts, nor can they allow themselves to act in a sinful manner, lest they become the creatures they were set to watch against (Whedon's earlier television show, Angel, has a similar theme--one that the main character was forced to relearn again and again). As in all human societies, the Firefly universe's attempt at this ideal form is flawed, probably beyond repair. The Alliance needs to be brought down, but something else needs to come in its place in order to exercise, with wisdom and with the consent of its citizens, the kind of control that the Alliance has been abusing.

I'm not at all certain that Whedon understands this half of the equation. I'm absolutely certain that Mal doesn't understand it. Mal's notion of social order largely revolves around a quasi-libertarian fantasy of powerful, moral individuals--such as himself--who help the weak and disenfranchised fight against the strong (and it's worth noting that Mal seems happiest when those predators are in positions of power--it is simpler, after all, to be the plucky underdog). It's an approach reminiscent of the one that soon-to-be-ex PM Harriet Jones accused the Tenth Doctor of in the recent Doctor Who special, "The Christmas Invasion". In the face of his rage at her actions in defense of Earth (actions which may or may not have been moral), Jones reminded the Doctor that Earth couldn't continue to depend on his protection. "You're not always here," she told him, and it does seem to me that the Doctor would rather think of humanity as a relatively helpless species under his protection than as actors in their own right. Similarly, I think Mal would prefer to live in a universe full of heroes and villains rather than in one governed by a system of law.

But the truth is that a just society does much more than simply protect its citizens. It teaches them to think like civilized people. Justice, freedom, equality--these are all fantasies, a blanket pulled over our collective heads to protect us from the nightmare of our feral nature. Living in a society ruled by law teaches us to believe in these lies. They become ingrained in us, and hopefully, when we find ourselves in a situation in which the institutions of society can no longer protect us, that ingrained knowledge will keep us from descending into predatory behavior--as we've seen happen, in third-world countries and in inner cities, when people cease to believe in the possibility of justice. On Serenity, characters like Simon and Inara represent the core planets and the unthinking belief in these lies of justice. Firefly and Serenity show us these characters, particularly Simon, struggling with a world in which their unthinking assumptions no longer hold. They suggest that in order to survive, Simon must shed some of his gentility, learn to fend for himself, and eventually act against the institutions he had been taught to respect, but throughout this journey, Simon refuses to completely let go of his upbringing. Although Kaylee chides him for being prim and proper, Simon clings to the forms of proper etiquette because they mean something to him--a reminder that he is a civilized man. It is the same, hopefully, with the concept of justice. Mal Reynolds believes in justice, or rather he believes that it should exist and is constantly infuriated by its absence, but he has yet to realize that justice is created by people, by teaching them to think justly, and that only a society governed by law can teach them to do so.

There are many, many reasons to wish for a sequel to Serenity (for one thing, I want me some Mal/Inara smoochies), but right now I'd desperately like to see Mal confronted with the inadequacy of his approach to social justice. In a way, Serenity wrapped up the storyline that would probably have made up Firefly's first season--in a compressed, louder, more effects-heavy, less afraid of character death form. At the end of this story, Mal has fought against the Alliance and won, and I think it would have been interesting to see him discover that the peace is so much more dangerous and complicated than the war (I'd also like to see the effect that living outside of constant danger has on the cohesion of Serenity's crew). Mal would be the first to admit that he's an unlikely hero, but I wonder if he's enough of a hero to assume a far more challenging and dangerous mantle--that of a man of law.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Really, it seems to be an understanding that Joss struggles with himself, what with Angel going out in a desperate struggle to... put the apocalypse back a bit? ... and some of the episodes of Firefly have shown the outlying worlds, where the alliance isn't as horribly corrupt places 'ruled' by the people with the biggest guns. And yet they don't seem to realise that this is should be, could be stopped - hwo much freedom and choice do the mudders have, for example?
I really wish someone would do the story of the rebels becoming the establishment - that is, with the theme being that such a thing is impossible without becoming horribly corrupted oneself in the process. I truly think its a story that needs to be told.

Danel

Sherwood said...

excellent thoughts on sin.

Must be in the air--I was bitching today about the part of the Whedon verse that bothers me, over on LJ: Mal and Inara.

Anonymous said...

Can I begin by saying that I find your blog really enjoyable and more than a little well-written? Well, I do, and there's nothing you can do about it now.

I have yet to hear Whedon's commentary so I have no opinion on the source of your opinion, let alone your actual opinion. However, I do disagree with a small number of sentences that can be sliced harmlessly from context.

You said:
"Justice, freedom, equality--these are all fantasies, a blanket pulled over our collective heads to protect us from the nightmare of our feral nature. Living in a society ruled by law teaches us to believe in these lies. They become ingrained in us, and hopefully, when we find ourselves in a situation in which the institutions of society can no longer protect us, that ingrained knowledge will keep us from descending into predatory behavior"

The senses of justice and equality aren't fictions created to make life more comfortable; they emerge naturally from learning that the universe doesn't order itself around you and your interests. While I think it's true that they have such a hold on us because we learn they're important, I think certain people living in a state of nature would find them rising up in them without external influence.

I'm only objecting to that idea alone because like I said, I'm writing half-blind. And as marvellous a writer as Whedon is, he's never struck me as an adept with philosophical questions.

S

Anonymous said...

Don't normally speak up, but hey, I was right (how terrifying): that "sin is outmoded" bit of the commentary is from when Mal has disabled the Operative and is starting up the broadcast. At about 1:44.

"...it's about the right to be wrong. It's about the idea that you cannot impose your way of thinking on people, even if your way of thinking is more enlightened and better than theirs. It's just simply not how human beings are. And you take that further and you say the idea of sin is in fact outmoded, is in fact more archaic than anything that Mal believes in. When he says, 'I'm a fan of all seven,' [cut vis effects blather] he's saying that sin is just what people are; it's been codified, it's been given a name, but all of those things we take as faults are also the source of pleasure and decency, and we should perhaps rethink it."

Anyway, yes, I do wish that Serenity and Firefly had done a little more to acknowledge that although control is not the Best Thing Ever, there is a need for order. Hard to cram that into a movie. Easier, but not necessarily more likely, to fit it into a series. Between Buffy, Angel and Firefly, though, Joss strikes me as a bigger fan of the "Right and Wrong" school of thought.

D

Abigail Nussbaum said...

S wrote:

The senses of justice and equality aren't fictions created to make life more comfortable; they emerge naturally from learning that the universe doesn't order itself around you and your interests. While I think it's true that they have such a hold on us because we learn they're important, I think certain people living in a state of nature would find them rising up in them without external influence.

I think I'd be able to grant you that there is a natural tendency towards empathy which causes humans to recoil from the pain and suffering of others. I'm not sure I would say that this tendency is equally strong in all humans, or that the natural tendency towards selfishness and self-preservation wouldn't counterract it in many cases. The recognition of the right of others to exist is not, in my opinion, a natural by-product of growing up. There are plenty of selfish people out there who go their whole lives without acknowledging the personhood of others.

But clearly, the concepts of justice and equality had to come from somewhere - some fundamental recognition that there are actions that we won't accept. I still think that human beings as a group need to be taught to prefer justice to injustice, but the reason they can be taught this could be said to be inherent to our nature.

D., big, mondo thanks for finding that quote. I was pretty certain it came during a conversation between Mal and The Operative, but for some reason I thought it came earlier in the film.

lilacsigil said...

This is an excellent essay, and highlights a major problem not just with the Serenity universe, but with most superhero narratives. Society/law must be incompetent (Batman etc.), unknowing (Buffy/Angel) or corrupt (Firefly) to allow the heroes to have something heroic to do.
The big question, of course, is what is better than the current system? Minor adjustments and event-based inquests aren't very satisfying to a hero. Heroes crash or crash through, tearing down the old and replacing it with ... what?
The Alliance does, in fact, seem to be working extremely well in the areas under its control. The real issue is why only these areas, and are freedoms, in fact, lost?
River's experience would suggest that yes, freedoms are lost, but the huge, well-supplied hospital caring for its citizens would suggest that much is gained.

Mal is not looking for balance. He is looking for the ideal, partly because it is unachievable.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think it's pretty strongly implied that liberties are being curtailed (or were curtailed a long time ago) in the heavily controlled Core planets. I think at one point we see Simon flash back to his father bailing him out of prison because he was caught in an unmonitored zone - suggesting that the Alliance habitually monitors all its citizens.

As for the issue of medical technology and education, it's never been entirely clear to me why the outer planets have so little of either. I can see how frontier planets would have a rougher standard of living, but the complete disparity we see between the Core planets and the Rim ones makes no sense. The Alliance terraforms these planets - are we to assume that they just leave them as is, sending colonists to just fend for themselves with whatever technology they can carry? How does that make sense?

While I agree that Mal enjoys being the plucky hero who steps in to rescue innocent villagers from evil bandits (or preferably, innocent whores from evil boss-men), I think he understands that there is a greater conflict going on. Mal used to believe in something greater than himself, in being a small part of a machine that would change the world. He was disillusioned of this belief, but Serenity suggests that he has regained some of it. A lot of the speculation I've seen about the future of the 'verse posits a second war against the Alliance, but I hope that's not true, at least inasmuch as Mal is concerned. If Mal takes part in a greater conflict or a struggle against the Alliance (which, I do believe, has abused its power to the point that it must be replaced) I hope he's learned enough to understand the necessity of a more subtle struggle, and a more subtle approach towards government.

Tom said...

Excellent post. Very well thought-out.

I agree that, as much as I love Joss, he doesn't seem to get that order is necessary. His philosophy always seems to be not that control is easily abused, but that control itself is wrong. But he couldn't run his own TV shows or movies if he didn't exercise some kind of control.

And at any rate, what right does he have to judge others for trying to rid the world of sin? If "right" and "wrong" are outdated concepts, then who is he to tell people with the Alliance's mindset that they're wrong?

Good and evil are not fantasies constructed to keep us in line. As you noted, rape is wrong. Murder is wrong. Even though there are some disagreements in certain areas about right and wrong, we should not throw those two concepts out altogether. Otherwise, why debate at all?

Thanks again for a thought-provoking article!

UntamedPlayer said...

Great post.

Perhaps a bit of a straw man argument however.

You appear to suggest (or perhaps your commenters interpret) that Mal Reynolds and Joss Whedon share identical philosophies.

I submit that available evidence suggests otherwise. Examination of Whedon's prior work suggests that he is no stranger to sophisticated philosophical thought.
For example, one compelling thesis suggests that BtVS is a dialog between the moral views of Hegel (voiced by Buffy) and Kierkegaard (voiced by Spike), with Hegel, the voice of order and responsibility, emerging the clear victor.

Regarding Malcolm Reynolds, the counter theory I'd like to suggest is simply that Firefly and Serenity together constitute a small fraction of the intended character arc of Malcolm Reynolds. I suspect that had Firefly survived for 5 seasons or more Malcolm would have found himself mired in the very issues you articulate.

If I may suggest a parallel story arc, Parke Godwin's Sherwood portrays Robin Hood (an arguably similar protagonist) eventually taking up the study of law because in the fight against tyranny, laws are like arrows.

Finally, it's probably worth noting that Firefly and Serenity were written in the context of both the Bush administration and the struggle for author's rights which eventually produced the 2007–2008 Writers Guild of America strike.

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