Entry 12, Due Sunday April 27th

Prompt: Write a reflection on the nature of Evil in our times and in The Hunger Games.

To be honest, I am surprised that there has been as much objective study as there is on the nature of evil, considering the subjective nature on the topic. I suppose the fact that it’s a very emotional subject might make it even more important to discuss the issue dispassionately. For me, as a psychology major, the nature of evil always boils down to the Milgram experiment, which Dr. Baron discussed in some detail. Conducted by Stanley Milgram, this iconic experiment essentially disproved the idea that evil acts were only committed by a tiny proportion of the population–veritably evil people. The horrifying truth, as Milgram illustrated, is that most people are willing do something of questionable morality if someone in a lab coat and clipboard is telling them to do it. This invokes the words of Hannah Arendt, who said that evil is banal–ordinary and universal and frighteningly common.

Dr. Baron’s theories of ethics were of considerable interest. There’s Utilitarianism, in which the right action in a conflicted situation is one that maximizes utility. There’s the deontology of Emmanuel Kant, which states that the right action is independent of consequences and based solely on duty and obligation. There’s Aristotle’s virtue ethics, in which everyone seeks the Golden Mean of behavior, the moderate course of action that avoids tempting and corrupting extremes. All of these theories have their merits, and I cannot fault their creators or followers for their beliefs, but my own beliefs are that they are all essentially pointless.

Not to get too philosophical, but I’m of the opinion that the nature of evil itself does not exist apart from human perception. I don’t see the universe as inherently moral, nor do I see mankind or people or even actions as inherently moral or immoral. By this logic, none of the above theories can be any more correct than the other two, except of course in the mind of the person who believes it. The end of Dr. Baron’s lecture delineated an evil act as on from which the doer derives pleasure from causing harm and defined an evil person as one who commits evil acts due to apathy toward others’ humanity. This encompasses many, many people throughout history; by this definition, every dictatorship regime is filled to the brim with evil people. Nazi Germany seemed a breeding ground for evil people. What are the odds? Was it bad genes? At least they didn’t seem to think so.

Let’s consider this example further. Thousands of SS officers would qualify, according to the above definition, as evil people. Yet when they went home to their wives and children, their family certainly wouldn’t call them evil. And what about the SS officer’s wife? If she hates the Jews and supports their imprisonment, is she an evil person, even if she has taken no action against them? By the strict definition, no, she isn’t, but it becomes clear that intention is important.

Let’s examine a hypothetical individual (with no personal opinions being implied) who is a vegan and an animal rights activist. In the eyes of this person, an animal has the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as a human being. They see the needless torture and slaughter of animals for the sake of human consumption to be immoral and evil. A different person, say a worker in a slaughterhouse, has no qualms with eating meat, sees animals as less than human, and even derives some pleasure from kicking around the pigs on their way to slaughter. Is this person evil? In the eyes of the vegan, yes. By the qualifiers of the given theory, maybe not, but the area is becoming more and more gray.

One more example: let’s consider abortion. To a huge section of the population, abortion is evil. It is the taking of a human life. Some even derive pleasure from it (apparently there is a good deal of gallows humor at abortion clinics from doctors and patients alike), and this means they are committing evil acts. Yet there is another percentage of the public of approximately equal size that believes abortion is acceptable: it is a choice made by women concerning their own bodies and the embryo that is killed in the process is not human life. So who is right and who is wrong? The answer hinges on whether an embryo is a human life, and on this society has reached no consensus. My point is that evil is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s evil is another man’s deer hunting trip. In times of genocide, one man’s evil is another’s betterment of society. We know very well that growing up in an environment that allows a certain act instills a permissiveness toward that act. The Holocaust, American slavery, and a hundred other tragedies would have been impossible if this weren’t true. If every one of us is vulnerable to committing evil acts, as Milgram’s study suggests, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine that evil is not hard-wired into an individual, or even that no immutable definition of evil exists, and therein lies my point.

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This all being said, we can recognize that the Holocaust and other acts like it are wrong. I know that what was done to Rubin Sztajer during World War II was immoral to a horrendous extent, but I think it’s fair to say that this judgement is valid in my eyes only. Many others believe the same thing, and this is evidence for the fact that there exists a moral majority built out of a worldwide society that values certain principles, among them human life and dignity. I cannot speak for anyone else’s judgement of evil, but I can and will speak for my own. To me, the definition of evil acts and evil people given by Dr. Baron is a fair one, but I believe it’s important to keep in mind that these definitions, especially of evil people, cannot be considered static. If we begin to think that people are evil from birth, rather than made evil as a result of their environments and experiences, we come dangerously close to grouping entire sects of people together on arbitrary principles and demonizing them. Needless to say, especially considering Mr. Sztajer’s lecture this week, this is something to avoid at all costs. Essentially, I believe that evil exists as an arbitrary construct, but that does not imply that it does not exist. To me, you, and everyone on this planet, evil is a very real thing. It just may not mean the same thing to all of us, and that is worth remembering.

Entry 11, 4/20/14

Prompt: Do you believe in the End of the World? Why? Why not? Which scenario is according to you most likely to happen? Discuss that topic and makes sure to include the lecture by Dr. Krebs and the readings in your reflection.

I don’t think my own beliefs would qualify as any sort of apocalypticism. The destruction of the Earth seems pretty far-fetched, as it’s been around for 4.5 billions years or so, and I don’t expect anything humanity-driven will make much of a dent. The planet itself, as well as the existence of life on its surface, is quite resilient, and I don’t believe humanity has the power to eliminate either. It seems infinitely more likely that humanity could destroy itself, and leave the Earth intact, although I can only imagine this happening through some environmental apocalyptic theory. I am not religious, so I don’t believe in a Rapture. Call me pessimistic, but if anything does occur to bring humanity to its knees, I can only assume it would be less likely to “save us all,” as millenialists like to suggest, and more likely to slowly make the planet inhospitable to humans. That said, I believe the problem of chronic pollution and climate change, if and when it becomes urgent enough, will spur scientific innovations that prolong the lifespan of humanity even past the point of natural habitability.

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Alternately, of course, there is always the possibility of a catastrophic event, akin to the Mesozoic asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, annihilating the planet altogether. However, anything less serious would likely leave a few of us standing. We have the technology even today to detect such a celestial body many years before it would become a threat. I have no doubt that human ingenuity, coupled with desperation, could result in a bunker, likely underground, capable of supporting life for several generations. In fact, this would not be unlike District 13 of the Hunger Games series.

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There is always the eventual death of the Sun to contend with, and if humanity were to hypothetically last long enough to see it, we would live to see our planet destroyed before our eyes. It is possible, however, and even probable, that the human race would be observant enough to see this coming. Space travel is now nearly de rigeur; with the added motivation of preserving the species, I don’t doubt that sufficient advances would have been made by then to preserve some vestiges of human life in more habitable, perhaps colonized areas of the galaxy. If an International Space Station can function well enough, I don’t see any major theoretical limitations to expanding such a structure to support a larger population. The human race is very stubborn, and, try as she might, the planet has not managed to wipe us off its face. I suspect it would take the Earth’s veritable death to truly threaten humanity, and even then, we just may be able to outsmart nature.

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Children of Men, due 4/13/14

The 2006 Alfonso Cuaron film, Children of Men is set in Britain in a dystopian near future in which the human race has been struck with infertility and society has largely collapsed. Immigrants are hunted like animals and deported, killed, or confined to refugee camps, and rebel groups fight for equal rights. The film follows Theo, an Englishman who was once a revolutionary but settled into quiet discontent after the death of his son. Theo resolves to help Keye, a young woman pregnant with the first child to be born in over eighteen years, flee to refuge for her and her child. While at first the two may seem only superficially related, Children of Men is in fact a close parallel to Suzanne Collins’ series.

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The protagonists of the two stories, Theo and Katniss, are quite similar in character. Both oppose the ruling regime but ultimately want to avoid making trouble, preferring to retain their own safety rather than fight for idealistic action. Both characters have suffered loss and conceal their pain from others. Katniss remains strong for Prim after the Reaping and cries for Rue only when alone. She misses her father terribly and keeps his memory close but never seeks solace in others for the grief that she still carries from his death. Similarly, Theo breaks down and cries after the gruesome and unnecessary death of his ex-wife in his arms, but only for a moment and only after physically distancing himself from the rest of his party. He also remains haunted by the death of his son, Dylan, of whom he doesn’t speak. When others bring up Dylan to him, Theo does not reply or changes the subject.

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Both characters are also more familiar and comfortable with marginalized sectors of society than they are around wealthier people and areas. Katniss is at home in District 12 but feels awkward and false in her Capitol makeup and attire. Theo visits often with his friend Jasper, who lives pastorally in the woods, but is visibly out of place in his wealthy cousin’s opulent home.

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Society itself bears striking similarities in the worlds of Children of Men and the Hunger Games. Xenophobia is rampant, visible in the war against immigration and heavy racism in Theo’s world. In Panem, the people of different districts know little about each other except that there are differences that alienate them. The animosity between the outer districts and the near districts is even greater. Those that live in the Capitol and near districts deal with the stark inequality in Panem by either real or feigned ignorance. Similarly, when Theo asks his cousin how he stands to see the world the way it is, the cousin responds, “I just don’t think about it,” much to Theo’s astonishment.

Diversion abounds in both worlds, as we often see in tales of the darkest of times. Drinking is popular in both stories; Haymitch in the Hunger Games is a well-known drunk, drowning the demons of his past life, and Theo carries a bottle of brown liquor with him everywhere he goes that only disappears as he becomes more and more involved with saving Keye. Gambling is available in the form of betting on greyhound races, which serve the same purpose of mindless distraction from reality as the Hunger Games do to the Capitol in Collins’ books.

The governments in both societies are oppressive. Propaganda is seen in the Hunger Games in the form of the country’s founding story. In COM, commercials in the metro blare the nationalistic message, “The world has collapsed. Only Britain soldiers on.” Citizens are forced in both worlds to submit to the government’s invasive demands. For the people of Panem, this means offering their children to the Hunger Games every year. In an eerily close parallel, the citizens of Britain in COM must submit to mandatory fertility testing, offering up their very potential to have children to the government.

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Rebel groups exist in both worlds. In the Hunger Games, the District 13 resistance fights (ostensibly) for equal rights for marginalized districts. In COM, the “Fishes” fight for equal rights for immigrants. Both groups are subject to corruption. The Fishes use violence amongst themselves to keep order and are willing to sacrifice the wellbeing of Keye and her child for the good of their mission. In Panem’s rebel group, individual wellbeing is set aside for the good of the cause, leading to bombings and mass killings in which innocent citizens are frequently caught in the crossfire.

In both stories, marginalized people become figureheads of a revolution. In the Hunger Games, it is Katniss herself, who is unwillingly pulled into the cause by her love for her family, seen when she volunteers in the first book to save Prim. In COM, Keye is this figurehead–an immigrant who is otherwise abused by society but becomes a commodity as she falls pregnant. Much like Katniss, Theo becomes involved in a greater cause unwillingly: he agrees to play a small part to help his ex-wife Julian, whom he loves, and becomes committed when Keye tells him that Julian told her to trust no one but Theo.

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Perhaps the most over-arching of the similarities between the two stories is the horrific way in which total war is portrayed. In COM, long, un-cut scenes of gunfire, blood spatter, and wailing wounded underscore the severity of Theo’s situation just as bombings in District 8 and the user of children as a human shield in Mockingjay showcase the horror that Katniss endures. The two both live in a world where life is brutal and pain is everyday and the future is uncertain, and they both must play a role to ensure the survival of humanity as they know it.

Hero’s Journey, due week of April 7th

Dr. Mazeroff spoke this week in class about the Hero’s Journey, a Jungian archetypal story that has become a universal part of storytelling across cultures. The Hero’s Journey consists of several oft-repeated standard tasks, or benchmarks that the hero faces in his or her quest toward completion of a goal. The major steps associated with the Hero’s Journey include Departure, Initiation, Atonement, Apotheosis, and Return, among several others that are often, but not always, included. The Hunger Games, like most fiction, fits the criteria of the Hero’s Journey, although some parts of the archetype are less obvious than others in Katniss’ journey.

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At the beginning of the Hero’s journey, the Hero must cross the first threshold, separating him or her from home. At some point, the Hero must often spend time in a metaphorical “belly of the whale,” during which time the hero is isolated and transforms by way of self-annihilation. Katniss crosses her first threshold soon after the reaping, when she must board the train to the Capitol with Peeta. Cut off from her family and home district, she must face the belly of the whale alone, emotionally if not physically. Here, she steels herself against what she must do in the Hunger Games, leaving behind the fear that she felt at the Reaping.

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Often, a Hero’s journey includes the gathering of allies. For Katniss, this includes Peeta, Rue, Haymitch, Cinna, and even Effie and her design team. A hero frequently carries an amulet or special weapon. For Katniss, this is visible not only in her Mockingjay pin, but also in the bow and arrow that she finds in the arena. A meeting with a goddess is another typical step along the Hero’s Journey. Typically, this involves a male hero connecting with his anima, or the feminine side of his character. For Katniss, who embodies many traditionally male characteristics, this step is visible in her communion with Prim in Mockingjay, during which she discusses her thoughts and feelings regarding Peeta in an uncharacteristically vulnerable way.

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The Atonement step of the Hero’s journey is traditionally the hero’s atonement with his father. Katniss’ father died in her youth, and since then she has held her relationships with men at arm’s length. A symbolic representation of atonement with the father could be seen in Katniss’ meeting with President Snow after the rebels’ capture of the Capitol. When she finally elects to kill Coin instead of Snow, we can interpret this as further rejection of the femininity that Katniss has scorned for most of her life. Alternately, we can see Coin as a negative reflection of Katniss, a cold and uncaring individual who has repressed her own desire for love. By killing her over Snow, Katniss could be choosing to embrace the possibility of positive influence from men in her life and rejecting her old manner of isolating herself emotionally. After returning home, Katniss lives with Peeta in relative peace, suggesting that she may have finally accepted him as a source of happiness, love, and companionship.

We see aspects of Katniss’ Hero’s Journey in her return home. In Catching Fire, she is plucked from the arena by the rebels in a hovercraft, an example of the “rescue from without” that becomes necessary for some heroes near the end of their quest. We see Katniss as the typical “master of two worlds,” especially in Mockingjay, when it becomes clear that Katniss has developed an understanding of the Capitol (for instance, in empathizing with her prep team) that Gale cannot reconcile with the Katniss he knew before the games. Finally, when she and Peeta return to live in District 12 at the end of Mockingjay, Katniss has found her “freedom to live” in that she must no longer live in fear of the Capitol. She even has children, which years of fear of the Hunger Games had previously made her reluctant to do.

The Hunger Games series is a long and complicated tale of Katniss’ life, and the Hero’s Journey can be seen in each book separately as well as across the entire narrative arc. Although Katniss’ story is dark, and she is ultimately left damaged by her journey, her epic fight against the Capitol follows a formula that has existed in mankind’s consciousness for millennia.