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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Batman and Voltaire: An Unexpected Dynamic Duo

"Everything can be taken from a man but the last of human freedoms, the right to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances--the right to choose one's own way."
--Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

Why do we watch all these silly cartoon super hero movies? What's the point really? I'm not from planet Krypton and the sun only gives me a melanoma. Chances are a toxic spill will never grant me spidy powers or turn me large and green. For me worrying about how to handle the "with great power comes great responsibility" existential crisis will never be a problem. Unless of course you think we all have hidden greatness inside of us and it's our responsibility to free it to make ourselves and the world better. OK, I might buy that in some abstract "we are the world" sort of way.

Other than being a billionaire (can you see Bill Gates as Batman?), Batman has no special powers setting him above normal humans. Batman is all too human as we see in his childhood mythology. Young Bruce Wayne faced a life-changing tradegy that comes to all mere mortals in time: how to deal with an event so terrible you feel like you want to die and burn the world down with you. Typically such events traumatize normal humans. We feel a burning chaotic storm of fear, pain, guilt, regret and anger.  And that's exactly how young Bruce Wayne reacted to the brutal and senseless murder of his parents. With fear. With pain. With guilt. With regret. With anger. All normal responses. Did he immediately rise up as a young child and pledge everlasting retribution against his enemies? No, that's what a cartoon character might do. It would be too superficial and too easy. We would have nothing to learn from such a reaction because it would be so unnatural no human could possibly emulate it. This is why I like Smallville. It shows Superman growing up, making mistakes, learning, and maturing. In Smallville Superman is not born a hero, he earns his super hero street cred.

A single spark doesn't light a fire that transforms you from victim to an integrated empowered human being in one step. No, it's much messier than that. Movies have taught us to expect everything to be made better in two 30 minute acts. We see just how messy and how long it takes as a fearful young Bruce slowly changes into a mentally focused Batman. Bruce could have reacted like his enemies did in similar circumstances, by becoming a villain himself. But he didn't. Instead Bruce chose a different route. He made a moral choice to take a stand against evil instead of letting the unfairness of the world turn him towards the dark side.

When the Joker experienced injustice, he reasoned justice did not exist. When the Joker experienced meaningless, he reasoned meaning did not exist. Without meaning and justice the Joker chose to become the chaos he saw in the world. As chaos' Avatar on Earth he hoped to shock people into seeing the hypocrisy of their beliefs. To what end is uncertain.

The Joker plays a similar role as does Candide in Voltaire's book by the same name. Candide was raised to believe the Leibnizian philosophy that "this is the best of all possible worlds," a theory essentially stating: whatever is is good.

The logic behind the "best of all possible worlds" thinking goes something like: God would not be so cruel as to let evil exist, yet we has human perceive evil. How do we reconcile a good God with evil? Well, evil doesn't really exist. We puny humans only see evil because we can not understand the wisdom of God's plan. We can't see the big picture. If we did we would understand that the evil we perceive is really for the best in the long run. This is really the best of all possible worlds. And because this world is the best, change goes against God's plan.

This nakedly self-serving philosophy provides all the rationalization needed to justify following one's own dark desires while ignoring evil and injustice in the world. Why feed people who are hungry if this is the best of all worlds? God clearly meant Kings to rule so revolution is wrong. Accept your role, sit down, and shut up. The result of this philospohy is what we see in a Batmanless Gotham. Voltaire witnessed Gotham all around him as the institutions of the church and nobility continually failed.

Candide is moved around by Voltaire like a bitterly sarcastic Ninja demolishing the "best of all possible worlds" argument as a way to show just how silly are the foundations of this bankrupt philosophy. Once free of  Leibnizian blinders people become free to think how much better a world humans could build if they chose to believe, think, and act differently.

As the world's first A-List blogger (20,000 publications, 1000s of letters sent throughout Europe), Voltaire's witty and savage attacks on the "best of all possible worlds" philosophy in Candide and other works gave rise to the Age of Enlightment, a period of history when people finally realized the only way the world will become better is if humans made it better. The responsibility is ultimately ours to build the world we want to live in. Nobody will do it for us. If there's good in the world it's because we consciously make good happen. It's because of the Enlightenment we have the vast social improvements we see in the world today. But the forces of evil are ever in search of means to rationalize their own hunger, so a scientific version of Leibniz's ideas were recreated in Social Darwanism. We still fight these wars today and we probably always will.

The Joker wants plays the same role as Candide, but the Joker is essentially an anti-Candide character. The Joker takes a decayed post-enlightenment world and responds to it by shouting "Hey, this is all an illusion. The grand human experiment of civilization has failed. We are all animals and animals we will always be. So let's be honest and get back to doing what we do best--greed,  hate, war, pride, lust--and I'll show you the way. It's easy. It's fun. Why bother with the other stuff?" At one level it's hard to argue with the Joker as anyone watching current events intuitively feels. Were it not for the continual human effort expended against chaos, we would live in a Jokerian world.

Bruce Wayne did not walk away from his early troubles unchanged. In his war for Gotham's mind and soul Bruce Wayne transformed himself into a triune man: playboy, private person, and avenger. Bruce Wayne as a playboy is Clark Kent with glasses on. Playboy Bruce diverts attention away from anyone making a connection to Batman. It's a coercive role, socially engineering others into thinking one thing so he can be another. The private person is someone we see very little of and we only see the private person in support of the other roles. A truly private and independent Bruce Wayne does not exist. Batman as the avenger is a role made possible by the other two roles. Batman is not good in a conventional sense because he stands outside societal laws as a vigilante, yet he has a rigid code (not killing anyone by his own hands) of his own that he will not cross.

It's natural to ask when which role is the real person? As an answer consider the roles you play in your own life. At work are you the same person you are at home? When you are with your mom are you the same person you are out on the town with your friends? Probably no and no. And are any those roles more the real you than any other role? We are the sum of how we respond to different situations.

One of the most meaningful findings for me in Philip Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect - Understanding How Good People Turn Evil is when he says: situations matter. We change who we are depending on the situation. Ordinary, average, good people can become evil if the situation nutures evil. Take the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison as an example. We can't admit it to ourselves, but most of us would have done the same thing. The guards in the prison were not special. They were not evil monsters just waiting to be set free. They were typical everyday people who when put in the wrong situation did evil things. Philip lists ways to combat the pull of evil in resisting influence.

In the compromising situations Batman continually finds himself in, how does he not cross his self-imposed line? What if Bruce would have made different decisions when faced with tragedy? The white hot justifying rage of anger and self-pity easily rationalizes anything we want to become to make the pain go away. We see in Batman's villains what Batman could become if he ever stepped over his self-imposed moral line of no return. To keep on the right side of the line takes an iron will few others can duplicate.

Batman perfectly embodies the world preserving ideals of the Enlightenment. He is the tamer of chaos, yet he is human. He is just like us. And he has chosen to do the harder thing. Batman chose to make meaning in a meaningless world. Batman chose to create justice in an unjust world. By his example we realize we can do the same thing. It's possible because Batman did it. That's why Batman is our most human hero. But his hero's journey was not an easy one, and neither is ours.

"Whatever you do, crush the infamy."
--- Voltaire

Inspiration for this post was taken from the History Channel's truly superb Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight.

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