Is vision all that separates us from the worst monsters in history?
Black Mirror is genius. Every episode of Seasons 1, 2, and 3 deserve a paper — “Nosedive,” “Shut Up and Dance” — but here I will focus on “Men Against Fire” (spoilers ahead). The episode focuses on Stripe, a soldier sent on a mission to exterminate “roaches,” vampire-looking creatures who are stealing food from local villages. Stripe kills a “roach” on his first day, but then a strange device scans his eyes, and he begins “seeing things.” His “implants” malfunction, but the military psychologist assures him that nothing is wrong. Like all the soldiers, Stripe is equipped with virtual reality technologies that augment his reality to make him a better soldier, but soon he begins smelling grass — his implants really are failing. Then, when sweeping a compound full of vampire-creatures, he sees a woman fleeing. He doesn’t shoot and encourages the woman to escape before the “roaches” kill her. When the woman steps into the hall, a female soldier in Stripe’s unit shoots the woman down and hurries down the hall, unfazed.
The “roaches” are innocent people — the “implants” changed Stripe’s reality so that he saw the people as monsters. Stripe is horrified and refuses to kill again, but after he is turned in for insubordination by his female co-solider, it is revealed to him that he signed up for the military knowing that is reality would be augmented and knowing that he wouldn’t remember agreeing to having his reality augmented. The military didn’t trick him: he received exactly what he signed up for and wanted. The military psychologist then gives Stripe a choice: he can go to jail for violating his contract, or his mind can be erased again like nothing happened. Stripe refuses at first, and then the psychologist forces him to see himself killing the “roaches.” This time though, instead of looking like vampire-monsters, he sees his targets as scared, timid, and innocent human beings. Stripe screams and tries to escape what he’s seeing himself do, but there’s “no exit.” The psychologist restates his offer.
“Men Against Fire” deserves mass praise if for nothing else than the sheer number of ideas it explores. The name of the implant technology is “MASS,” which suggests that the writers might know something about Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” and the dangers of groupthink. The episode delivers a reflection on empathy through Michael Kelly that I find impossible to forget, and it subtly suggests that when we talk about dignity, tolerance, and equality, we’re really talking about empathy, because there is a natural limit to “how different people can look” before we treat them differently and think it would be irrational to include them under the category of “human being” (a point which brings to mind “Equality and Its Immoral Limits” by O.G. Rose). In this way, the episode suggests that the only thing separating us from the worst monsters in history are our eyes. Often, we think of ethics as “impersonal,” “philosophical,” and “abstract,” but this episode suggests that we are all too human.
If people were born resembling vampire-monsters, even while we genuinely claimed, “We should treat everyone equally,” we’d easily murder these vampire-people without a second thought; worse yet, it probably wouldn’t even occur to us that we were violating human rights. We’d kill, sure, but not murder; we would continue to be “good people” (perhaps like bigots and racists of the past). Hard to say — here, I want to focus on how MASS can make us think about ideology, a point which recalls what Žižek has taught on the movie They Live, directed by John Carpenter.
We must view the world through a lens: everyone has a worldview that they convince themselves is a “view of the world” (while others interpret, we just see). In the same way that MASS makes Stripe see people as “roaches,” ideology can make us see people who think differently as fools, idiots, and enemies. We don’t see, hear, or feel clearly, and the same applies to how ideology impacts the way we understand the news, world events, and current affairs. As MASS malfunctions in the show, it’s almost like we need our brains to malfunction so that we start to see the world that’s really “there” — something we perhaps want until we receive.
Ideology easily transforms “others” into monsters, idiots, fools, and makes mistreating them easier. Ideology makes us blind to our hypocrisy, to our double-standards, to the ways we self-select evidence, and worse. If we actually saw what we did, like Stripe at the end of the episode, we would likely be horrified by ourselves. But perhaps more horrifying than the episode, there is no possibility of seeing the world without being “ideologically augmented”: ideology never shuts down (only perhaps seems to in order to make us feel we aren’t ideological). And even if we could shut ideology down, we’d likely just end up like Stripe at the end.
Toward the conclusion, the psychologist Arquette (played by Michael Kelly) informs Stripe that because of empathy, less than 20% of soldiers fired weapons during the World Wars, and he argues that had it not been for empathy, the Nazis would have been defeated much sooner (the idea comes from a 1947 book by S.L.A. “Slam” Marshall after which the episode is named). It’s an extraordinary monologue that Arquette delivers, and listening to it, I wonder if something similar couldn’t be said about ideology. If a technology could be invented that kept us from seeing the world through an ideology, that stopped us from “looking truth over the head,” ended confirmation bias, stopped self-deception — wouldn’t that technology be good? Likewise, if empathy really did keep WWII from ending sooner, isn’t there a real sense in which empathy enables evil?
Difficult questions, as it is difficult to wonder if we only see “beyond our ideology” no more than “20% of the time,” per se. Arquette is using MASS to keep soldiers from realizing that they are carrying out a eugenic genocide against innocent people, but he unveils this in a way that horrifically makes the viewer stop and think for a moment. Under these circumstances, how responsible is Stripe for murder? He signed up for it, so shouldn’t he be blamed? Likewise, when Stripe is pressured to “clear his mind” at the end, given his circumstances, how free is his choice? The pressures against him are great — is he really free? Hard to say…
Similarly, how responsible are we for the ways ideology blinds us to the world? We know the world through a filter, and the fact we know the world through a filter is filtered out (we are simulations inside of simulations inside of simulations, reminiscent of the episode “Playtest”). Even if we genuinely don’t want to engage in confirmation bias, we do; even if we genuinely don’t want to be selective in our evidence, we are without thinking about it. How responsible are we for losing the battle against “the frenemy” of our brain?
Stripe genuinely wants to do the right thing but participates in a genocide. How responsible is he? Likewise, if we genuinely want to do what’s right regarding the Syrian Revolution, population growth, abortion, racism, immigration, and so on, but our ideology keeps us from knowing what’s right, how responsible are we for contributing to the problem? As responsible as the extent to which we try to overcome the frenemy of our brains? But we can never fully succeed, so how do we tell which failures are less horrendous than others? Considering “The Conflict of Mind” by O.G. Rose, if it impossible to read everything, know everything, be objective about everything — to what degree are we responsible for being “ideologically blinded?” What else do we have which can “fill the gaps” of our thinking? What else will “fill the gaps” without us realizing the gaps are being filled? Furthermore, is vision all that separates us from the worst monsters in history? Vision of what’s right in front of us, vision of how the world should work, vision of moral goodness — is vision the difference? If so, are any of us not blind? Is it possible not to end up like Stripe?