Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

The Dark Knight (part 2)

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Here are a couple of other thoughts that didn’t really fit in the first post.

One of the things that is interesting to me about “The Dark Knight” is the viral marketing of the film itself. The campaign, which was aimed specifically at the Batman fan base, used websites that appeared to be political sites for Harvey Dent. As something other than an ardent fan, I wouldn’t have even noticed such a thing, but for fans it was the beginning of a trail of digital crumbs that led to the first images of The Joker. These images then got passed around as both “Look at this cool image” and “Look how cool I am that I figured it out” capital. A lot of this passing around was directed at other fans (read “nerds”), but it is the percentage of it that got into the mainstream, non-nerd public which really impacted anticipation of the film. It turns out that we’re all only a couple degrees of separation away from a comic book nerd. So they made the nerds work for the info, and then let them run with it.

Brilliant!

Speaking of brilliant: The plot of The Dark Knight involves a “social experiment” by The Joker. It’s one of the most inventive and interesting aspects of the film’s story, and handled quite well I think. What it immediately made me think of is another experiment that is of deep significance to current ethical thought in America. It is the so-called “Milgram experiment.” If you aren’t familiar with it, please follow the Wikipedia link I just gave you and find out more.

Here’s why I think Milgram is so important right now. Arguably, the United States lost whatever moral legitimacy it had in Iraq the day that the Abu Ghraib story broke. As shocking as it was to us outside of Iraq, to Iraqis the proper noun “Abu Ghraib” was already familiar and loaded. At that point, it was over. However, in the States, free from past associations, there was an immediate, and largely successful spin campaign to contextualize the incident. The story-line was simple: The abuses were the result of bad apples. I don’t believe anyone who wasn’t actually in one of the pictures, has ever been held responsible for what is an ethical catastrophe.

However, everything that I’ve read or seen about those American “bad apples” points to the fact that they are completely normal, and deeply misunderstood. And what Milgram shows us, is that put in the right set of circumstances, most normal people will do things that seriously violate their own sense of right. Milgram is evidence that, all things being equal, the “bad apple” argument is unlikely to be right, and when there are systematic abuses, it behooves us to look at the system.

It is comforting to blame the bad apples because it allows us to participate in our supposed good appleness. This is dangerous and doesn’t allow us to deal with the fact that most of us would have behaved the way those soldiers at Abu Ghraib did. In this light, Milgram seems depressing, but I find it deeply hopeful. I think there are 3 responses to Milgram (and these are in order of priority):

  1. As a society, take pains to avoid creating Milgram type situations.

  2. As an individual, take pains to recognize and avoid getting into Milgram type situations.

  3. As an individual, if you find yourself in a Milgram type situation, be in the percentage that disobeys.

It is on this last point that the hope is brightest. In the Milgram experiment there was a percentage who stopped. They were in the minority, but they existed. This statistical thread is what gets humanity through things like the Cuban Missile crisis. The way that this was presented in The Dark Knight is not only moving, but thrilling. The result of The Joker’s experiment seems to fly in the face of Milgram, but I would argue that it doesn’t. All you need, on each boat, is one individual who has the wiles to get control of the button, and is a member of Milgram’s minority.

And here we’re back to the idea of a hero as the person willing to transgress. The person operating on the basis of their own moral convictions. We feel all cool about Batman in this sense, but it’s the same species as The Joker and Clockwork’s Alex.

Free will: Can’t live with it. Can’t live without it.

There are no easy answers to any question worth asking. My ambivalence towards “The Dark Knight” is centered on the feeling that although it is bringing up some pretty interesting questions, it is also, at times pretending that there are easy answers to them.