Morality and Ethics

February 4th, 2010 by Tim

What is the difference between morals and ethics? When I was a kid, this question really bothered me, mostly because I couldn’t actually see any difference between them. As far as I could tell, they were both just sets of rules designed to make sure people treated each other nicely. At that time, I still believed in God; I’d only been exposed to the friendlier parts of the Bible through the Catholic school I was attending; and I was only just starting to have my beliefs unwittingly moulded by our racist, sexist, partriarchal society; and so it all just seemed like common sense. The logic behind the Golden Rule is quite easy to grasp, after all, even for a child (and even with all the obfuscating religious propaganda surrounding it). And yet people still made this big deal out of morals and ethics, and the apparent differences which I couldn’t make sense of at that time.

I get it now, though.

What we now consider to be moral behaviour is a set of rules, usually revolving around definitions of “right” and “wrong”, that naturally emerge when social animals learn to cooperate for mutual benefit. These rules are much more highly refined in humans than in any other animal, but they are still a product of evolution, as I was attempting to explain the other day in that huge post about violence. They have since been co-opted and distorted by a long line of religions, usually without any overtly malicious intent, but more through unavoidable ignorance. One of the reasons why religion has played such a long-lasting role in human development is because it is a social behaviour formed around these basic moral rules, which allows people to live together without their more selfish tendencies taking control and destablising the group dynamic (hence most religions revolving around love, the strongest of the social emotions). That is also why most religions preach peace and tolerance, and yet so easily go to war with one another – because they are really just social groups vying for survival in much the same way that individual organisms would. Peace is fine within the group, because it provides social cohesion, but outsiders are still fair game (so you get rhetoric about chosen people, sinners, the damned… anything that justifies treating certain people differently whilst still maintaining an overall belief system that is ostensibly directed towards treating people in very much the opposite manner).

This traditional approach to morality breaks down in a globalised, increasingly-borderless world, like the one that we are now beginning to create. You can’t have Us versus Them when all people are held to be equal. That is very much the problem that most societies are now struggling with, because up until quite recently, one of the defining properties of social behaviour was an outside source of pressure that forced people to work together, because the only other choice was to be overwhelmed by that pressure. That’s why social behaviour arose in the first place, and without that outside pressure, we seem to be a little lost. Presumably this is because there is nothing forcing people to join in with social groups, and so they inevitably start to ask themselves, well, why should I bother to? What do I gain from it? Would it be as advantageous as a more selfish path? This is also one of the reasons why people like to manufacture and exaggerate foreign threats, like terrorism, immigration, etc – because counterintuitive though it may seem, it makes them feel safer and more connected within their own insular communities. We have grown so accustomed to fearing external threats that when we can’t see any, we just make them up – and because these fears have little basis in reality, they are easily distorted, and before you know it, a ragtag group of poorly-trained terrorists is being held up as a dire threat to the entire civilised world. And people accept this, because it comes naturally to them. It might seem kind of ironic that moral behaviour relies on having an oppositional force to keep it in check, but when you look at the long history of violence between religions and social groups, all these weird behaviours and fears start to make a bit more sense. (The Watchmen graphic novel captured this struggle beautifully, and carried it through to its logical conclusion – but the movie completely fucked it up, so steer clear of that.)

Of course, the other problem with traditional morality is that, as a result of its religious associations, most people see it as a sort of high-handed, impossible-to-live-up-to set of rules, and so they don’t really see it as something that is worth pursuing. This situation is no accident: for centuries now, religions have held control over their followers specifically because their rules were unrealistic and impossible to follow. This creates a feeling of guilt in those who are taught to believe in this type of morality, which the religion then exploits by offering a way to assuage that guilt. All you have to do is surrender yourself to a higher power, and your sins will be forgiven. This might not be a deliberate manipulation in all cases – it’s very easy to start believing your own hype, after all – but regardless, this distorted morality has become a problem not only for the established religions, which are currently finding it much harder to convince people to believe in their ridiculous rules now that we’ve been freed from the external pressure that would have previously motivated people to join in with social groups they disagreed with; but also for anyone who rejects these rules, and is subsequently left with no moral viewpoint to believe in at all.

You might assume that this is the part where I say, okay, it’s time we reinvent morality for the modern age – but the thing is, there are plenty of people who have already done that. Violence is being increasingly rejected the world over; there are lots of Christians who now accept and support homosexuality and other types of behaviour once held to be unthinkably immoral; there are lots of Muslims who promote women’s rights and reject the fundamentalist (and inaccurate) interpretations of their religion that have been popularized in the West as the source of all evil and terrorism; there are Jedi who have started to question the black-and-white dogma surrounding the Force… in fact most definitions of morality tend to be quite flexible and adaptable (for better or worse, in some cases). Social behaviour is a product of evolution – and therefore, unsurprisingly, it continues to evolve. Moreover, cultural ideas are no longer confined by the extremely slow pace of genetic evolution, and so they can change very rapidly. It might not seem like it from a human perspective – but just compare the massive social upheaval over the past fifty years since the rights movements began with the millions of years it usually takes for evolution to weave its magic.

So we don’t need to worry so much about trying to change morality, because that change is unavoidable and inevitable. Morality is really just the lump sum of everyone’s selfish desires, broiled together until a mutually-beneficial and fairly unselfish product can be produced (which has traditionally just meant that people were able to accept their place in the social hierarchy, but then, if morality was perfect to start off with then there would be no need for it to evolve). It think it’s actually somewhat poetic that such a cruel and wasteful process as natural selection could give rise to such a thing. And it’s obviously quite reassuring to know that there is a logical progression to this point, too. But that doesn’t mean we can take it for granted. The real trick, now, is to try and monitor this process of change, and ensure that it doesn’t get skewed too far in one direction. Because whilst this process is self-correcting and mostly balances out in the long run, when you look at the history of social upheaval and revolution throughout human development, you see that these corrections more often than not come at great cost. If we intend to avoid repeating these mistakes over and again, our new goal should be to try and take the process of change out of the hands of natural selection – as I said, it is a horribly cruel and wasteful process – and turn it into a system of artificial selection, which will hopefully not only be more beneficial to humanity as a whole, but also greatly accelerate our development into the future. This is already happening to a certain degree, but I think we are kind of stuck between the two systems at this point in time, and the process is still very ill-defined and poorly understood.

It is here that we run into a somewhat unexpected problem, and we also return to my original point – the difference between morality and ethics. In broad terms, ethics is usually defined as the philosophical analysis of morality, but when we look at it from the perspective of the natural, evolutionary development of morality, what we actually see is that it is a shift from mutually agreed-upon moral rules to a more individually-deliberated set of ideas. It is no longer a social behaviour, but an exercise in self-justification (quite possibly brought about, or at least influenced by our newfound freedom from the external pressure that had previously motivated social behaviour). Which means that all too often, unfortunately, it’s just a form of cognitive dissonance. Strange though it might seem, this is actually where a lot of bad ideas get their foot in the door.

Of course, due to the ever-changing and increasingly-sophisticated nature of morality, we are left with little choice but to study its nature in order to determine the best course of action. I’m not saying that ethics are a bad idea, just that we need to be very careful in avoiding some of the pitfalls that arise when an individual tries to determine what is best for everyone. The tendency to avoid questioning our own beliefs is so strong that it is almost impossible to avoid falling back into patterns of self-justification. It would be a good idea to learn from the traditional system of moral development, and expose ourselves to as many alternative ideas as possible, in the hope that the best ideas can emerge and succeed on their own merits. Wishful thinking, sure, but then, in a system based around constant change, perfection is impossible anyway, so we don’t need to worry about trying to obtain it. We are not arming ourselves to try and reach some kind of ultimate goal; we are instead preparing for a never-ending journey, with no destination. The competing forces of other people’s views should help balance out our individual shortcomings, in the long run.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of the problems with our current approach to ethics is the way the subject is often pursued in a highly specialized and narrowly-focused way. So people will tell themselves that they are developing an ethical approach to behaviour, but what they are actually doing is inventing an alternate set of rules that can be applied to a specific situation in order to justify something which otherwise would have been considered unacceptable. The results speak for themselves really, when you look at, say, the world of business ethics, where people routinely make decisions that literally ruin other people’s lives, and they justify it by telling themselves that it’s “just business” and that’s simply how the system works. In any other setting these same people probably would have made very different decisions, but because they have given themselves over to the capitalist ideals of profit and the pursuit of success at any other cost, they blind themselves to the very real consequences of their actions. Whilst there is certainly logic behind their actions, when viewed as part of the bigger picture you would have little choice but to call it selfish logic, and therefore, from a moral standpoint, wrong. Hence the need to invent an alternate set of rules, and label them as “ethics”. Which is for me quite fascinating: even when participating in activities which are hilariously and obviously wrong by any sane definition of the word, people still have this innate desire to justify their actions, even if only in their own mind. This might have been a useful safeguard against harmful behaviour, if humans were rational beings – but unfortunately that is clearly not the case. Which means what we are left with is significantly worse, because a person who believes they are justified in holding harmful ideas is much more dangerous, and much harder to argue with, than someone who is incapable of justifying their actions.

And if you still don’t believe me, then note the “E” in PETA*. Enough said, motherfuckers. ;)

If you find yourself with no other choice but to invent an alternate, contradictory set of rules to deal with a specific situation, then that is a pretty sure sign that there is a problem somewhere along the line. It’s just a question of whether that problem lies in the situation you are trying to justify, or in your overarching moral viewpoint. So to go with an obvious example, if you believe that people shouldn’t have sex before marriage, and yet 98% of the population does exactly that, then there is clearly a conflict that needs to be resolved. You have to ask yourself, are your moral views unrealistic, or is there some other problem preventing people from living up to them? In this case we can obviously trace the moral viewpoint back to unrealistic religious morality (perhaps caused by panic over the consequences of sex, in the time before reliable contraception and birth control) and the attempts of a patriarchal society to exert control over people’s sexuality, to maintain familial order. These views are no longer in line with modern morality and therefore need to change – and in the minds of many, they already have. This is just one of many ways in which we hold ourselves to a different level of morality than previous generations ever considered. But whilst in this and the vast majority of other cases, things have definitely improved, it’s worth remembering that evolution doesn’t equal improvement; it just means change. Which is why we have to pay close attention to this process, and ensure it doesn’t go off the rails.

Despite what the major religions would have you believe, morality is not synonymous with virtue; and indeed throughout history it has had much more in common with the tyranny of the majority. When you throw everyone’s selfish desires into a melting pot, some are inevitably going to outweigh others. The main force counteracting this has been our gradual empathetic awakening, which I detailed in that violence post, but progress on this front has been extremely slow and patchy. So whilst we may now look back into the past and think that people were shockingly or bizarrely immoral by today’s standards, the thing is, they were likely living up to the moral standards of their day, too. Their behaviour only seems worse to us because morality has evolved since then – which raises some pretty serious questions about why people think it’s such a good idea to turn to ancient religious texts to try and build their moral viewpoints. Even if they did have a few good ideas back then, why you would want to discard all the moral development in the intervening period is quite beyond me.

Hmm, I’ve lost track of whether I was trying to build up to some kind of point here. Mostly I am just so sick of arguing with people who are so caught up in the desire for self-justification that they completely shut down any chance of rational debate. How do you break through this mental shield, and open people’s minds? Answer that, and you’ll probably solve a whole bunch of problems right then and there. Thing is though, we are not only wired to resist facts that challenge our beliefs, but we are also taught to do that very same thing from an early age. Right the way through school, we are constantly told that we need to perform well to get into good classes next year so we can get good marks and go to a good university and get a good job and earn lots of money and if we screw up even once along the way then our lives will be ruined forever. Mistakes are punished, and treated as a source of shame. The fear of being wrong is drilled into us unrelentingly, and finds a welcome home in the hardwiring of our brains. What we need, instead, is to teach people that no matter where they’re at, the only thing they can truly be sure of is that their existing beliefs are either largely wrong or at least erroneous – and that by trying to deny this fact, they are shutting down their capacity for growth. Maybe then, we could finally free ourselves from the mistakes of the past.

*In case you’re unfamiliar with my views on this, I don’t have anything against animal rights – I just prefer them to be promoted by non-sociopathic organisations.

Bourne vs Bond

February 1st, 2010 by Tim

So if I said I was going to write a blog entry about how the James Bond films are problematic from a feminist perspective, I guess most of you would be like, yeah, wow, way to tackle the tough subjects Tim – what are you going to blog about next? Tony Abbott? Seth MacFarlane? The Pope?? Well, you’re a sarcastic bunch, but I see your point. So, I’m not going to bother criticizing their portrayal of women or deal with other such blindingly obvious flaws, because if you need that stuff spelled out for you then you are clearly too deeply in denial to be helped anyway. Instead I’m going to write about the characterization of Bond himself, and the way it relates to the gender roles men are expected to perform in our society. There are some interesting parallels here which I noticed a while ago, and I’m not sure if they’re obvious to anyone else but I’ve never seen them mentioned before, so I thought it might at least be interesting to get them out in the open.

All right so the character of James Bond is supposed to represent a bunch of idealised male fantasies: he is a bad ass who can fight his way out of almost any situation, but at the same time is relatable and not so threateningly masculine that the audience can’t imagine themselves in his place; he is suave and takes control of social situations; he sleeps with lots of attractive women but doesn’t form any girly emotional attachments to them; he always has cool gadgets and fast cars to play with; and he undermines authority figures and generally does whatever he wants. Whilst these are all supposed to be desirable traits, most are also considered largely unacceptable and outdated these days, and the fact that he gets away with it just adds to his appeal (the only exception is the “gadgets and cars” one – it is only problematic in the sense that it is cast as a male pursuit when women are just as likely to be interested in it).

But whilst he may on the surface just seem to be a ridiculous, escapist caricature, when you take away the window dressing you see that he is actually a prototypical exemplar for male gender roles in Western society. He is a free agent, moving through the system at will, untethered by social obligations to authority figures. He always worries about his own needs first, and generally only cares about others when they serve some use to him. Of course, it’s difficult to be a lone wolf when you have intrinsic sexual urges forcing you to seek the companionship of others, but he gets around this by only ever using women for his own ends, and ensuring they never control him or dictate his actions. They are certainly never held to be on equal footing with him. He uses his wits and cunning to defeat numerically-superior enemies, which means that his lack of societal support is not a weakness but actually a strength, negating the main reason why humans form social groups in the first place. He possesses enough self-confidence and intelligence to ensure that he is competent in all situations without ever needing to seek the help of others. And of course, he is always at the top of the food chain.

This all works out fine in the fictional universe where such an absurd character is capable of existing. But take these same traits and teach them to men in real life, and you end up with all sorts of problems. And make no mistake, whilst a lot of these things are rarely spoken about in direct terms, the societal pressure to conform to these ideals is very real and very powerful.

I would say the main, overriding concern with all these different traits is for men to become self-contained units, who don’t rely on assistance from others. In this sense, “being a man” means having the ability to single-handedly deal with any situation that comes your way – and as a result, having to seek help to deal with your problems is seen as a sign of weakness. This is the most important concept to grasp when trying to break down the social constructs surrounding masculinity. If you’ve ever wondered, for example, why some men will complain about feeling oppressed and disadvantaged by some kind of imagined feminist conspiracy when they still possess so much male privilege, this is because, from their point of view, they have been completely isolated from society, and so just about everyone is judged to be a threat (and feminism becomes a convenient scapegoat to blame for their feelings of isolation). And actually, I think one of the few areas where women really do have an advantage over men is in the ability to build up support networks of friends and acquaintances, and to receive a much greater benefit from these networks. This may actually be a defensive measure to cope with a world where they exist with significantly less privilege than men, as this behaviour certainly has its roots in a much less egalitarian world than we live in today. Male friendships, on the other hand, tend to exist with certain unspoken barriers and lines which are never crossed, which in turn makes it much harder for men to rely on one another for support, especially when dealing with emotional problems (in fact the very idea of a man with an “emotional” problem is still very much subject to ridicule). And yeah, I’m sure there are numerous exceptions to this, especially these days, but these behaviours are still the norm for most men, and they are certainly a reflection of my own experiences. Conversely, women are obviously not immune to social isolation, either – in fact I am actually applying some of these traits to Swallowtail, which may help to explain some of her more tomboyish qualities, though I haven’t had much of a chance to deal with this stuff yet so you will have to wait and see how it unfolds. But you already know from the Cast page what her life was like as a teenager, and I’m sure there are more than a few women who can relate to such experiences.

In addition to this social isolation, we also have the idea that men are supposed to be in control and socially dominant. At the risk of veering off into some kind of never-ending metaphysical debate, I would just like to say that control is an illusion, and the desire for control is simply a product of people allowing fear to dictate their behaviour, especially in more extreme manifestations such as violence. The only reason we construct this behaviour as masculine is because men have traditionally been the ones in power and therefore in the best position to try and gain some kind of tenuous grasp on this elusive concept. But women have demonstrated in the past that given the opportunity, they will pursue it with equal enthusiasm.

Setting aside the more esoteric questions surrounding control, we still have a situation where socially isolated people are being taught to hold power over others, instead of developing more equal and reciprocal relationships. Do I even need to explain why this is a bad idea? Even if you are somehow able to rationalize away the most extreme manifestations of this distorted worldview, there is still a whole spectrum of different ways in which men try to wield power over women, from rape culture down to the more mundane and everyday types of misogyny which most women seem to have become depressingly familiar with, to the point that they rarely even bother trying to question it. You would be hard pressed to find a woman who hasn’t, at the very least, been harrassed or annoyed by some guy possessed of this bizarre and unfathomable mindset which apparently makes his entitlements more important than her clearly-uninterested reaction.

But wait – am I really trying to pin all these problems on poor old James Bond? Surely, Tim, misogyny has been around for longer than these dumb ol’ films. Well, yes, obviously you are correct (and thanks for lightening up on the sarcasm this time). I’m not arguing that the Bond films are somehow the source of these issues – merely that they are a reflection of them. It’s like when people try to argue that violent entertainment causes violent behaviour; they’re just confused because they’re approaching the argument backwards. The culture of violence already exists – that’s why people are drawn to such entertainment in the first place. And it’s the same here: people find these films comforting because they are seeing their pre-existing beliefs reflected back at them. Which I guess means we should try and determine whether this type of entertainment is actually worth deconstructing and arguing against, or whether we should instead be going after the underlying issues at the heart of the problem.

Certainly, these issues would still remain even if we got rid of problematic fictional representations entirely, so in that sense it is very much a case of pruning away a few leaves while ignoring the rest of the weed. But the value in deconstructing fiction lies not in ending the problem, but understanding it. People tend to see fiction as a place where they can freely express their ideas without having to worry about the consequences, and so what we end up with is a rare window into people’s actual, uncensored beliefs. You can build up a much more honest and insightful picture of these beliefs by analysing popular entertainment than oftentimes you would get by actually asking people directly. This is not just because they are deliberately witholding their beliefs (though that does happen a lot, for fear of judgment and social consequences), but also because these beliefs can be things that they passively absorbed at an early age, without realising it, or understanding the implications. Hence, fiction provides a powerful tool for uncovering such flaws not only in others, but in yourself, as well.

Fiction, and indeed art in general, is like a mirror held up to society. And just like with real mirrors, people often don’t like what they see reflected back at them. So they try to dismiss it out of hand, saying it’s “just” a fantasy, it’s “just” escapism, there’s no real meaning to it. But meaning doesn’t go away simply because you want it to, or because it makes you uncomfortable. There are really only two choices here: you can either continue trying to ignore and deny it, or you can turn it to your advantage. And for an example of the sort of impact you can make if you choose the latter, let’s contrast the Bond films with the Bourne films, starring every guy’s secret man-crush, Matt Damon.

Something really quite remarkable happens when you view the first Bourne film through this lens. The story starts with Bourne waking up in a hostile situation with amnesia, thus setting off a quest to uncover his true identity. This mirrors the situation all men find themselves in, being born into a world with pre-existing expectations of them, and with little clue as to how and why things are the way they are. As Bourne learns more about himself, he has to struggle with the highly problematic nature of these expectations, and also with his past actions, which were performed without the new, more mature perspective he now has (for me, the most interesting aspect of this is that his amnesia effectively wiped the slate clean in terms of the justifications he used to reach his current position, putting him in the rather unique position of being able to judge his own actions without the inherent bias of years of cognitive dissonance). Again, amnesia aside, this mirrors the struggle which all men go through, one way or another, as they grow up and try to define themselves and their place in the world. And finally, at the end of the film, Bourne turns his back on his old way of life in favour of pursuing a relationship with a woman he has made a real, emotional connection with, which I think makes a pretty powerful statement about the genre as a whole. I’m quite curious as to how much of this was deliberate on the part of the writers and director – or if it is simply an unconscious representation of their own struggles, and the widening divergence between old school definitions of masculinity and the newer ideas which are now taking root in the wake of the rights movements.

Should we take it as a coincidence that just a few years after this movie was released, the Bond franchise was “rebooted”, so that it could be more in keeping with modern viewpoints? It really says a lot when even the people making the films had to admit that they were outdated and increasingly lacking in relevance. And yet even then, when you look at Casino Royale, and their efforts to try and justify the character of Bond and explain why he is the way he is, all we see is the story of a man who already possessed a lot of the stereotypically-masculine traits I discussed earlier, though many of them are not fully developed yet. The nature of his world and the reasoning behind it is not even put up for discussion; we are simply supposed to accept it as The Way Things Are. He subsequently falls in love with a woman, only to be betrayed by her, thus justifying his completed transformation into the Bond character of old.

Yes, that’s right – they blamed it on a woman. Just… fucking wow, man. If they really were trying to offer a response to the success of the Bourne movies, then they did not learn a goddamned thing. But then, that’s perfectly in keeping with the worldview they are trying to present, isn’t it.

Anti-violence post #1

January 19th, 2010 by Tim

Some things in life are predictable: death, taxes, humorous non-sequitur third option. Others – like my update schedule – are less so. Sometimes you can see the car headlights moving inexorably towards you, and you try to get out of the way, only to realise the road has been covered with crazy glue, and your shoelaces have been tied together. Other times, they buy an electric car and switch off the headlights, and sneak up on you. Christ, I hate my neighbourhood.

Another thing that can be placed in the “predictable” category is the storyline of my comic. Well, large chunks of it, anyway – especially if you are already familiar with my political and social views and the way I like to express them in my work. I’m hoping to mix in a few surprises along the way, within that overall framework of inevitability, but I don’t think I’m really giving much away when I say that the main theme of the first half of the story will be the causes and consequences of violent behaviour. Since it’s a subject which will no doubt continually crop up as the story progresses, I’m going to jot down a few musings here, mostly to help keep my thoughts in order.

So, let’s start off with the basics. Violence is essentially a reaction against vulnerability, sought because it delivers feelings of safety and control – but ultimately, these feelings are just an illusion. You can see this across the board, from full scale warfare right down to one-on-one encounters. A telling example is the way governments use euphemisms like “security” to justify expanding their own power and hegemony, revealing that even large and powerful groups of people still function with the exact same deep-seated fear that drives all violent behaviour. Because what is security, exactly? The ability to gain so much control that you will never have to fear violent attack? Such a situation is patently impossible, yet it is the very thing that violence promises to deliver, and so people continue to fall for it. This psychology scales down with surprisingly little change, even to an individual level. The school bully, looking to control the other kids because he feels threatened by them. The guy who starts a bar fight with almost no provocation, because he is trying to compensate for feelings of powerlessness resulting from social isolation and emotional disconnection. The husband who has been taught all his life that emotions are effeminate and wrong, and thus ends up being so filled with fear when it comes to relationships that he tries to exert control by beating his wife. In fact, sex itself is, for a number of different reasons, one of the most vulnerable experiences in life, which is why some people will turn to violent behaviour to try and deal with it, either in reality or fantasy (the psychology is basically the same either way, despite how illogical and contradictory it seems from a more superficial perspective).

The consequences of violence are numerous and well-documented. History books are filled with innumerable accounts of lives that have been ruined through senseless and careless acts, and the media takes a certain macabre delight in delivering fresh tales of similar woe each day. It’s not exactly difficult to see that violence causes far more problems than it will ever solve. So why, then, do people keep returning to it? Why are they so unendingly inured to the obvious outcomes? There are numerous factors at play, but in the end, it all comes down to perception versus reality. The real problem here is that even though violence only delivers the illusion of safety and control, this illusion is the result of the brain equating mastery of its immediate surroundings with a more general and wide-reaching feeling of empowerment. It still feels very real, in the mind of the person committing these acts. And its absence is very noticeable. This is why violent behaviours, once learned, are amongst the hardest to let go of.

Human behaviour is driven primarily by fear, so anything which creates a feeling of safety is naturally going to be very attractive. Violence, however, actually decreases safety whilst making the user feel safer. It’s like buying a gun for protection: you might feel safer with a gun at your side, but in reality, a society full of people carrying guns is far less safe than a weaponless one. It’s easy to see how this works with something like a gun, which so obviously changes the balance of power, but this same psychology extends to all violent behaviour, to varying degrees. Because the feeling of safety increases whilst actual safety decreases, the result is an unending behavioural loop, driven by fear, in search of something which by definition can never exist.

Even when you recognise this reality, finding a way out is still extremely hard. To revisit the gun analogy: a society full of people carrying guns might be dangerous, but a society where everyone except you is armed is even worse, from your own perspective at least. Trying to go against this system means putting yourself in an even more vulnerable position – which, when you’ve formed behaviours around compensating for vulnerability through violence, is not only a truly daunting task, but it seems quite illogical if not outright stupid (I mean, get rid of your gun, when everyone else still has theirs? That’s crazy, right?). Fear can build up to such a level that abandoning violence can become seemingly unthinkable; so instead you run in the other direction, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, despite knowing full well that you’re moving further and further away from the only path out of this mess.

I believe it can be done, however – so long as people are actually willing to make that choice. And the more people who do, the easier it becomes, because people naturally feel less vulnerable in groups than they do alone. More importantly, though, the need to move on from violence is becoming increasingly urgent, as an examination of human development will reveal.

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Positive Psychology

January 3rd, 2010 by Tim

If you follow my twitter or liverjournal then you’ve probably seen me linking to videos from TED.com in the past. I love that site. It is basically an ideas forum, featuring short speeches by a variety of experts on diverse subjects relating to technology, entertainment and design (ie. T.E.D.). Some of the speakers are quite prominent (Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, etc) whilst others are simply there for being experts in their field, even if they aren’t celebrities. Because the speeches are generally short (usually around 18-20 minutes), I find it’s a convenient site to visit when you need to take a quick break from whatever you’re doing, or if you need something to do over lunch or whatever. Taking this approach, I’ve gradually worked my way through a large number of speeches, most of which have been really fascinating, and some of which have even been quite astounding (mushrooms! Who knew?!). There are inevitably a few weird and silly ones which really don’t seem to belong there, but for the most part, the quality has been high. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a long post linking to a whole bunch of my favourite talks, but for today, I’m just going to focus on one: Martin Seligman On Positive Psychology.

So, uh, it would probably help if you went and watched that now, but if you can’t be bothered or if you’d rather find time for it later or whatever, then here’s a quick summary: Seligman is a psychologist working on the idea of positive psychology, ie. studying what makes people happy, as opposed to the more traditional approach to psychology, studying what makes people unhappy. He briefly runs through some points on why this seemingly-minor switch in focus is actually quite important to psychology in general and has opened up new areas of understanding about what makes humans tick, but he also makes note of the advances made by the older model of psychology and why they are still important as well, even though they were only part of the larger picture which is beginning to unfold. He then explains that there seems to be different types of happiness, which can be approximated by three broad categories. The first and most obvious category is things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction, the second revolves around activities which you can lose yourself in and become completely immersed by, and the third relates to the desire for meaning and knowledge. This is the part that I found most interesting, and the reason why I decided to write this blog entry, because I can really relate to a few of the unexpected findings his studies have revealed.

Perhaps the least surprising of his findings is that the first category – things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction – is the most superficial and short-term form of happiness. The example he provides is the experience of eating something which is delicious to start off with, but you’re sick of it by the time you’re done eating it. This is a very fleeting form of happiness, and interestingly, you can’t really stretch it out by continually moving from one pleasurable activity to the next – it is simply not enough to provide real and long-term satisfaction. This is probably a conclusion that most people eventually reach on their own anyway, even if they don’t give it much conscious thought. People tend to naturally gravitate towards certain things which provide a deeper and more fulfilling sense of happiness, and gradually leave behind more superficial pursuits. Or else they don’t, and can’t figure out why they are unhappy.

The second category is kind of a subtle one. Again, it’s not something that usually receives much conscious thought, but I can certainly relate to the idea of losing yourself in an activity and feeling better afterwards. For me, I can most easily accomplish this through playing videogames, especially a platforming game like Mario, which doesn’t require too much planning and forethought, and instead revolves around simply being in the moment. But I can also reach a similar state of flow through writing, and occasionally, when I am drawing, though I’m still not very good at that one. There have, however, been times in the past when I’ve spent several hours in Photoshop bringing some silly comic to life, and then I look back at the time that has passed and wonder how the heck that happened. It’s easy to understand why people would seek out activities which provide that feeling of accomplishment, even if it’s not always easily obtained.

The third category, though, is the one that really caught my attention. There is a definite sense of satisfaction and contentment that comes from having an understanding of how the world works, and from searching for the meaning behind what you see around you. The important thing to remember, though, is that this feeling is subjective, and entirely separate from reality – ie. it doesn’t matter if your explanations are objectively correct, it only matters that you can convince yourself that they are accurate. And because your head only contains a finite amount of knowledge, it is often very easy to convince yourself to believe in the accuracy of your own thoughts. I think a good illustration of this is religion. As an atheist, you will often find me arguing that religion is illogical, but from a certain point of view, that isn’t really accurate – all religions contain their own internal logic, and that is what makes them so appealing. They offer answers to just about any question you can think of, so if you accept that internal logic, you are essentially given a complete worldview, which is a very basic human desire. I think this stems from the fact that our brains evolved to understand the real world, and it wasn’t until they had grown much more powerful that we started turning our thoughts towards abstract concepts. Hence, we had no mechanisms for discerning objective truth, because until then, everything had been literal and there in front of us. Additionally, because we lacked a true understanding of the world anyway, we really relied on illusions for much of our development, until we could finally advance far enough to supplant these illusions with the real answers. Modern scientific progress is largely just a process of stripping those illusions away, one by one, so that hopefully we can make some progress towards a more accurate understanding of the universe.

So uh basically, the problem is not that religion is illogical, but that in order to accept the logic it offers, you need to ignore reality, which inevitably contradicts it.

But I’m digressing from my original point here. Regardless how and why this desire for understanding developed, it’s safe to say it definitely exists. We have an undeniable curiosity, and a need to at least feel like we understand things, even if we are merely operating under illusions because we’ve reached the limits of our comprehension. This desire to learn is what makes us so intelligent, but also what leads us into logical traps that provide that contented feeling, despite being built around inaccurate logic. In many ways, the goal of a skeptic is to avoid that feeling of contentment, because there are still so many things that we don’t know, so however much we feel like we understand the world, the only thing we can really know for sure is that we are still held under the thumb of illusions that we don’t even know are there. That, I think, is the real strength of a skeptical worldview: not that it explains everything, but that it reminds you that you can’t explain everything. In spite of our awesomely powerful ability to rationalize abstract concepts, we are not truly rational beings, and our preconceptions can’t be trusted.

Interestingly, there could well be a fine line between this type of happiness, and depression. According to one possible explanation, depression is the result of a breakdown of that feeling of understanding, so that the world doesn’t quite make sense anymore. It stems from encountering a problem or problems which can’t be easily solved, thus sending the mind off in all different directions in an effort to find that elusive explanation, so that a more stable worldview can be reestablished (hence, depression of varying levels being common amongst teenagers, as their childish illusions crash headlong into the real world). This often happens on a much deeper level than we are consciously aware of, which is why it can be difficult for depressed people to really articulate what the problem is, even though they are acutely aware of it. This makes illusions such as religion even more attractive, because without that feeling of understanding, we are lost and confused. So an explanation, even if it is merely an illusion, becomes a much more agreeable alternative… until that illusion becomes the source of the next problem, of course.

The main reason I brought up this possible link with depression is because even though the pursuit of knowledge can be a deeply satisfying form of happiness, it doesn’t necessarily result in the smiley-cheerful kind of happiness. As I said, the line between happiness and depression in this sense seems quite fine, and is largely dependent on whether your search for knowledge is yielding any results. Staring down the barrel of a particularly large problem can be quite daunting and frustrating, blurring this line even further. But just because the outward indicators of happiness are absent, doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is unhappy. Personally, I am often told that I need to smile more, or receive enquiries as to why I am not all happy and cheerful. Often these comments are motivated by genuine concern, of course, but it can still be kind of annoying, because I actually find it far more satisfying to search for knowledge than to content myself with illusion, even if the result is that I’m sometimes too distracted to be appropriately, superficially happy. And certainly, I don’t want to discourage people from speaking up if they think someone really is depressed, because sometimes it can be vitally important to intervene when a person’s problems are getting the best of them, but just keep in mind that there are other forms of happiness aside from the more obvious and friendly kinds.

So anyway, how do you build up a stable worldview, as free from illusion as possible, when there are still so many things that we don’t know yet? You need to recognise what beliefs actually are. Despite the significance that religious folk place on their faith, the fact is, the brain processes thought and belief in the exact same way. Beliefs are merely thoughts that we hold to be unquestionably true, so much so that we don’t even really reflect on them. Which, again, makes sense in the context of brains that evolved to deal with real-world problems – once you’ve established that your prey behaves in a certain way or that certain weather cues indicate an approaching storm or a variety of other things, then it is helpful to have a method of mental categorisation that allows you to recall these tried-and-true facts immediately. So we build up webs of belief, interconnected thoughts which operate as a filter for new information, allowing us to immediately recognise familiar patterns and to interpret new patterns to the best of our existing knowledge. But when beliefs are built up around illusions, it distorts the way we view the world. An easy example is stereotypes, which cause us to place greater significance on behaviour which lines up with the prescribed stereotype, even if it is not actually typical or significant at all. Once illusions have distorted our worldview, they pave the way for further illusions, burying us under the weight of false belief.

The answer, then, is to ensure that no beliefs are held to be unquestionable. And instead of desperately clinging to our existing beliefs, we need the courage to let go of them, and search for the truth, as best we can determine it. Which, in the short term, may mean letting go of that feeling of contentment that comes from having a working understanding of the universe. Illusions, ultimately, are just another form of fleeting happiness, which cannot be sustained. And if I’m really honest, I think the ability to be consistently, superficially happy in such a flawed world as ours is something of a delusion anyway. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s worth pursuing, or anything like that. I just think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture when trying to carve out our own little place in the world.

And you’d be surprised at how much happier you feel when you let go of your illusions, and make peace with your incomplete understanding of the universe, safe in the knowledge that there are still so many things left to learn – for an animal with a natural sense of curiosity, that is perhaps the most exciting prospect of all.

Evolutionary Psychology

November 8th, 2009 by Tim

Okay so earlier today this article showed up on Richard Dawkins’ twitter feed (which is basically just a feed that links to articles about evolution and atheism – I don’t think Dawkins himself uses it personally, and I’d be suprised if he has anything to do with it at all, really). It’s a classic, by-the-numbers example of the theory of evolutionary psychology and the way people leap on it to try and rationalize human behaviour, so I thought it would make a nice example for me to rant about here. Especially since I am currently (and very slowly) writing a couple of posts which deal with evolution and behaviour, so I think this one will serve as a useful caveat to illustrate that I am aware of the numerous problems with this subject, and the way it is usually portrayed in the media.

Nowhere else in science do you see such transparent bias as you do in evolutionary psychology (obviously, I don’t include Intelligent Design Creationism in the category of science). The hilarious thing is that oftentimes, people don’t even seem to realise this bias exists – they will stand there with a straight face and tell you that women like pink things because it reminds them of the berries they used to spend all their time gathering 100,000 years ago. This is my favourite example because it’s so obviously wrong – the blue/pink gender preference thing has been around for less than a hundred years and is clearly a social construct – but there’s also a more serious reason to keep it in mind, because this obstinate failure to question “common knowledge” should give anyone pause before extending similar logic to behaviour which is much more difficult to break down from a nature/nurture perspective.

Creationists aside, I don’t think anyone is going to argue that the human brain wasn’t shaped by evolution. But it is a huge and absurdly simplistic leap to say that this offers a conclusive explanation for human behaviour. And more importantly, it ignores possibly the most remarkable product of evolution so far: consciousness, and free will. This doesn’t actually free us entirely from biological constraints, but it does change the way they operate, and introduces a bunch of new variables into the mix. Evolutionarily pre-determined behaviours are one of the many variables that contribute to the way we act, but in most cases, we are not bound by them.

I think the best way to approach questions of human behaviour, to borrow a metaphor from cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, is to think of the brain as starting off in a “first draft” state, with some initial organisation and potential behaviour, but also a lot of malleability and room for change and adaption. The first draft can be overwritten by cultural and environmental influences – and in fact, it usually is, because that’s how it’s supposed to work. On top of that, you have the conscious mind, which begins making decisions that affect outcomes and behaviour in different ways. In the early stages of childhood development, the mind is operating from a place of extreme ignorance and naïveté, which is unfortunate, considering these early decisions can have a lasting effect later on in life (it’s kind of a sad and annoying fact that the better you get at making decisions, the less important they are, and the harder it is to change behaviour that you’ve possessed from an early age). This obviously makes the nature/nurture debate even more hopelessly complicated, relying on chance events and multiple influences which may or may not be significant, depending on what the developing mind makes of them and how they affect conscious decisions in seemingly-minor ways.

So whilst understanding all of this complicated mess is a pretty big task, does that make it impossible to pull apart some of the things that influence human behaviour? As the pink berries example highlights, some explanations can be easily debunked. The same can be said of a lot of the more popular ev-psych theories, which basically just parrot back established social roles and provide a comforting “scientific” explanation which allows people to accept these roles rather than ask uncomfortable questions about right and wrong. The article I linked to above is a telling example of the way such explanations are readily applied to problematic behaviour, giving people an excuse, rather than an explanation. Oh, don’t you know… men can’t help it, that’s just the way they are. Of course, it’s merely a coincidence that that’s exactly how they’ve been taught to behave from an early age, and that they grew up surrounded by men who behaved the same way. But when you extend the same logic to other areas of life, and say, for example, that the only reason they chose their partner whom they love dearly is because of pheromones and genetic compatibility, they generally start to get a lot more uncomfortable. I guess some things are more complicated than others, eh.

The main reason why humans have been such a successful species, spreading all over the world and even tentatively beyond it, is because we have developed highly adaptable minds which can change dramatically to suit the environmental circumstances. For better or worse. Writing off negative behaviour as just a product of evolution which can’t be helped is not only simplistic, but highly counterproductive, because it stops people from questioning their behaviour and searching for the sources of such problems, and how to change them. In regards to the specific problem raised by the above article: powerful men don’t cheat on their partners because they are displaced apes who should have been born 100,000 years ago. And they don’t do it because of some innate need to spread their seed far and wide, either (which, it could be argued, is not actually a very good evolutionary approach at all for a highly social species like humans, though that’s another discussion I guess). In part, they do it because they have a basic reproductive drive combined with cultural pressures both pushing them in the same direction – both nature AND nurture, which is always a recipe for powerful and difficult to control behaviour. Ultimately, however, they do it because they choose to – even if that choice is merely the latest in a long line of choices extending back to a time when they were too ignorant to know any better. Evolution doesn’t explain why we do things; it only explains why we have the potential to do things.

Studying psychology from an evolutionary perspective is undoubtedly still a field that has a lot of potential for unlocking the secrets of the human mind. But as long as it remains infested with people searching for ways to legitimize their biases with simplistic excuses disguised as explanations, it will be difficult to get anywhere, and any progress that is made will be obscured. To return to the above article one more time, the problem can be best summed up by the quoted chapter title: “Life’s Not Fair, Or Politically Correct”. Evolutionary psychologists are second only to Rush Limbaugh when it comes to declaring themselves free agents working against the tyranny of political correctness. It’s a rather cute delusion, to be honest. Or at least it would be if these people weren’t affecting public opinion. Anyway, here’s a rule of thumb to keep in mind: if you need to resort to the PC strawman to support your argument, it’s time to rethink your position, because you’re clearly not running on logic anymore.

Evolution Of Mammal’ya Reproduction On Planet ‘Ya

November 6th, 2009 by Tim

Millions of years ago, sexual development amongst mammal’ya on Planet ‘Ya evolved in a most unusual way: the very first mammal’ya groups developed a symbiotic relationship with a small species of reptile’ya which took shelter in their genital region. In exchange for this shelter, the reptile’ya travelled between different members of each social group as they slept, transfering genetic material in the process – much like a bee pollinating flowers. This served to make mating – traditionally a very vulnerable moment for any organism – much safer and more prosperous. Because mating usually took place at night, some reptile’ya evolved a bioluminscent ability, so they could both see what they were doing and also attract the attention of their counterparts inhabiting the opposite gender. Over time, most mammal’ya developed a small pouch in which their helpful friend could reside, and they began producing much greater quantities of reproductive material than was necessary, as this soon formed the basis of the reptile’ya diet.

Several million years later, however, a devastating virus epidemic swept the planet, causing a massive extinction event which eliminated over 70% of the species that had been alive at the time. The survivors didn’t escape unharmed, either – the virus penetrated their cells and into their very DNA, elicting wholesale transfer of RNA strands between the virus and its host. The only creatures that survived were the ones capable, through naught but random chance, of incorporating the virus into their own genetic makeup.

An explosion of bizarre mutations soon followed, as life flourished to fill all the gaps left vacant by the extinction event. A small percentage of mammal’ya species – including the distant ancestor of the ‘Ya themselves – made it through the turmoil, but in all the confusion of the virus-catalysed DNA alterations, it turned out that the reptile’ya DNA had fused with the mammal’ya DNA, resulting in both organisms occupying the same body. The reptile’ya was still in its traditional position in the mammal’ya genital pouch, but was now stuck there, a permanent fixture on the mammal’ya genitals. It retained a small brain, eyes, mouth, and arms, but most of its other organs had been lost, or integrated into the mammal’ya organ system. It also retained its bioluminescence ability, and to this day, glowing genitals are known as a sign of sexual arousal amongst mammal’ya (often leading to embarrassing situations, especially amongst adolescent ‘Ya, at movie theatre’yas, swimming pool’yas, etc). Directly below the odd-looking face on the mammal’ya pelvic region were either the traditional three prehensile penises of the male, or the corresponding triple-clitoris analogue of the female.

The ancient, pre-reptile’ya method of sexual intercourse had been revived, with the notable difference that the surviving elements of the reptile’ya could still help things along, by manipulating with its arms and whatnot. In practice, it was a somewhat haphazard affair, which was why the reptile’ya method had supplanted it in ancient times – in order for genetic material to be successfully transfered, the three prehensile penises of the male had to wrap around the three clitoral stubs of the female and stretch them out, opening up thousands of microscopic pores on the surface of the clitoral stubs. Once they had been optimally stretched – usually to three or four times their original size – the male would then slowly ooze semen from his three penises, whilst rubbing back and forth along the clitoral stubs to try and maximize absorption. The climax of the the event was the female orgasm, triggering the release of a second fluid from the base of the clitoral stubs, which would then flow down and trap the semen before thickening into a soft gel, forming an impermeable outer skin. This coated the clitoral stubs for about an hour after the conclusion of intercourse, before hardening and breaking apart into a sickly-sweet, candy-like shell. This shell was then consumed by the remnant reptillian mouths of both sexes. The post-coital absorption could be aided by continual massage from the male penises, often resulting in residual aftershock orgasms for both sexes, though technically pregnancy could still occur without the additional step. Both the male and female genitals were highly sensitive to the touch, and as such, non-reproductive oral sex was a favourite pastime amongst many species on Planet ‘Ya. The pleasurable aspects of sexual interaction stimulated social bonding and encouraged reproduction.

When the evolutionary process gave rise to the first primate’ya, brain development accelerated rapidly in both the primary brain and the secondary, reptilian brain. It appears that both brains achieved consciousness at approximately the same point, and developed an internal link which allowed the two nervous centres to communicate and pool resources. But at the same time, they were also capable of focusing on independent tasks, which, in a prehistoric setting, made it much easier to keep an eye out for predators whilst mating. In modern times, however, it led to a lot of comedian’yas making dumb jokes about watching TV’ya whilst having sex’ya, causing increasing unrest amongst comedy aficionados and eventually leading to yet another civil war’ya (a common feature throughout ‘Ya history). Though on the plus side, this dire situation did warrant an inclusion in Evolution’s Greatest Bloopers, a galactic-wide TV show which gave the fledgling ‘Ya their first taste of intergalactic fame. They returned the favour during their galactic conquest several hundred years later by not destroying the show’s home planet – they just politely conquered it a little, installing their own figureheads but otherwise not interfering with the creative process.

The dual-brain setup of the ‘Ya led to a number of unique behavioural traits, most of which humans would find to be quite bizarre and difficult to appreciate. For example, unlike humans, who have stigmatized their genital regions and keep them hidden away under clothing, the ‘Ya design their clothes so that the genital region is always uncovered and on display. Addtional care is often put into genital presentation – Holter’ya, for example, has a piercing to which is attached a tiny monocle on a short chain, which his genital face delights in wearing. The genital region is also one of the few places where ‘Ya still grow body hair – usually just a small tuft above the genital face, which is then stylised into a variety of different haircuts. Social interaction often occurs simultaneously on both levels, but they are also capable of talking to two different ‘Ya at the same time – one at the head level, the other at the genital level. Whilst the two brains are connected internally, they can tune one another out to a certain degree, in order to focus on these separate tasks – however, they cannot fully disconnect, and are always aware of what the other is doing. Maintaining the relationship between the two brains is also very important, because the last thing you want is two enemies occupying the same body. Fortunately, due to the fact that they are unable to keep secrets from one another, and can communicate on the level of pure thought, without having to deal with the inherent loss of information that comes through other forms of communication, such disagreements are rare. There are also some natural behavioural mechanisms in place designed to prevent conflict. Usually, there has to be some sort of mental illness present to trigger instabilities between the two brains, though advancements in ‘Ya medical technology have gone a long way towards eliminating such problems. Earlier in their history, there were some instances where mental patient’yas had their lower, reptillian brain removed, and their genital nerves were simply reconnected to the upper brain. Unfortunately, this procedure usually led to severe depression, and in an alarming number of cases, suicide. Scientist’yas soon discovered that the two brains had grown reliant on one another through their shared evolution, and alternative solutions to these problems had to be sought. They realised that instead of hacking away at the problem areas, they instead had to learn how the brains truly functioned, so they could figure out how to get the most out of them, and more accurately identify what was going wrong when problems occurred. They took another step forward on their quest for galactic domination.

Unfortunately for Holter’ya and Magnus’ya, as a result of their mission to blend into the human population on Earth and study their defences in preparation for an eventual ‘Ya invasion, they were forced to adopt human-style clothing, which meant keeping their genital region covered up. To this end, they designed special underwear which has a small, built-in game console, to keep their lower brain entertained. So if you’re ever sitting next to a ‘Ya on a train or something and you hear a soft beeping emanating from their pants, don’t be alarmed. It’s perfectly normal.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

September 30th, 2009 by Tim

This is a review of Avatar, one of my favourite TV shows, which I wrote in my liverjournal earlier this year. I’ve made a couple of modifications but it’s mostly the same. It seems like a good way to kick off this blog, since I’ve already referenced the show a couple of times in my comics.

Prior to watching the show, I’d been putting it off for ages because I thought the concept was ridiculous, even though my brother and sisters all liked it. And, well, obviously I wasn’t wrong about that – but at the same time, they’ve put together such an intelligent treatment of that concept that in the end it really doesn’t matter at all. In many ways, they have taken basic fantasy elements and turned them into an allegory that is truly representative of reality, instead of just using them as an excuse construct a simplified worldview (which is the usual fantasy modus operandi, in my view). And what’s even more remarkable is that this is a children’s show; normally the natural provence of lazy writing. I am struggling to think of any precedent it could be compared to.

There are numerous factors which have been brought together in order to achieve this. First is the strong grounding in Asian and Inuit philosophy and culture, which runs much deeper than the obvious superficialities, such as the anime-eqsue art style and the use of Chinese calligraphy. All of the fighting styles were drawn from real-life martial arts forms, before being exaggerated with magical powers. Architecture, fashion, and various other cultural idiosyncracies are woven in as well, along with Buddhist and Hindu philosophical influences. Even politics plays a part, with the dominant city of Ba Sing Se being a clear reference to communist China, whilst the Fire Nation’s war campaign draws numerous parallels with American imperialism, and indeed various other empires throughout history. All of these elements are drawn together to create an entirely believable world, complete with its own extensive history and distinct cultures. And to top it all off, the show doesn’t brag about the richness of its world, either. It just leaves you with the lingering feeling that there is far more going on beneath the surface, and that if you wanted, you could totally nerd it up and seek out more information than could possibly have been included in the show itself.

Another factor is the characterization. Maybe I just didn’t have particularly high expectations, with this being a children’s show and all, but I was really quite amazed at the depth given to even the minor characters, let alone the main ones. And not only do most of the characters go through interesting and believable development arcs, but they often deal with themes which are quite challenging and complicated. Whilst there is inevitably some simplification and lack of subtlety, this show is really at a level which is, again, far beyond what you’d normally see in children’s entertainment. Even better is the strong strain of progressive idealism which influences many of these arcs. Aside from the anti-war message kept up throughout the run of the series, Zuko’s search for redemption, and Aang’s anti-violence philosophy, there’s also plotlines which deal with sexism, racism and xenophobia, fascism and totalitarian governments, and various other issues. And then there’s the diverse range of characters, including various ethnicities, a blind girl, a dude in a wheelchair – there is even a transgender character! (Or at least, that was how I interpreted that scene, though they didn’t go as far as stating it outright. It was a definite statement of gender non-conformity at the very least, however.) I’m not going to say there weren’t problems, the foremost of which was undoubtedly Azula (hard to explain why without resorting to spoilers), but overall, it is really awesome to see kids being exposed to these sorts of influences, with a surprising lack of patronization to boot.

All of these character arcs are woven together into a properly well-written and engaging story. The show lasted for three seasons, and whilst only one season was commissioned to begin with, looking back I can only conclude that they had the entire thing planned out in advance, in some basic form at least. Often times I felt like some plotlines had been abandoned or somehow forgotten about, only for them to suddenly come back into play at a much later stage. Additionally, a second watch-through reveals numerous instances of sneaky foreshadowing, even early on. The story moves forward with a real sense of purpose, and there is an overall feeling of completedness which makes the experience quite satisfying to look back on. And the ending, whilst ultimately predictable, was still well done, with a single twist thrown in to complete the overall anti-violence message.

Perhaps one of the most important things, for me at least, was the way they handled the show’s central concept: the mystical “bending” powers which enabled the characters to shoot fireballs and waterjets and stuff like they were some kind of Pokémon. One of the main reasons why I’d avoided the show for so long was because at first glance, these powers just seemed like a superficial DragonBall Z rip-off. And whilst that was undoubtedly an obvious influence of the show, the powers are not just a gimmick, either. They are so deeply interwoven with the show’s real-life cultural and philosophical influences, and they are used in so many inventive ways, that it ends up being a concept that was really worth exploring. To use one of my favourite analogies, it’s like Joss Whedon deciding to make a spaghetti western set in outer space: you hear about it and think “what?” but then you watch it and just go “…oh.

As if the show needed anymore good points, it also looks amazing, and is funny as hell. Even though it was strong enough to get by without it, they added a plethora of jokes to break up the more serious sections. Some of them were overdone and kind of annoying, but to a large extent they really work, even though the target audience is far, far less mature than myself. Pssh, kids these days, am I right? At least I will have my revenge when the live-action Avatar movies are released, and the kids realise that their standards and expectations have been raised just in time for them to find out exactly what Hollywood does when it gets its cold, heartless claws around something you love.

Uh… basically what I’m saying is, I guess I kinda liked this show a little bit. I started watching it at a time when I was asking myself a lot of questions about the value of fiction and fantasy and the ways in which it is pursued, and Avatar really reminded me of the basic appeal of telling stories which are entertaining but also present a positive message and, I guess, encapsulate a worldview in a way that is difficult to replicate otherwise. That is the power and potential of fiction. I think anything I create in the future will owe a debt to Avatar for reminding me of this – and it’s certainly not a coincidence that I re-started my webcomic less than a month after first watching it.

Blogical Interlude…?

September 29th, 2009 by Tim

Hi, humans and nosy aliens. Tim here. This is my new blog, which I have put together to tie in with my webcomic. So I will probably be blogging mostly about things which come up in relation to my comics, but since I like to make comics about my political and social views anyway, this opens up a fairly wide range of topics. In particular I am becoming increasingly interested in the idea of systemic problems which are passed from generation to generation almost unconsciously, as I think these are the areas where the various rights movements have had the least impact. I will also be writing about feminism, science and skepticism, and maybe a little armchair psychology as well, since it is always fun to pretend to understand humans. I’m hoping this will also help improve my comics, since having a place to rant about things should give me more freedom to show instead of tell, as they say.

So, yeah. Blogical Interlude. I like the name, because it seems like a clever pun at first glance, but when you look a little closer, you realise it’s just ridiculous.

I’ll probably be updating even more sporadically than my actual comic, so you might want to follow the RSS feed (link at the bottom of the page) or my Twitter.