alixtii: Dawn Summers, w/ books and candles. Image from when Michelle hosted that ghost show. Text: "Dawn Summers / High Watcher. (Dawn)
[personal profile] alixtii
So I was watching the rerun of last night's Colbert Report, and I saw this segment which fit in with some of my recent thoughts:
Colbert #1: Who's your favorite superhero?

Colbert #2: Superman.

Colbert #1: He's the best.

Colbert #2: Oh, he's much more powerful than the Batman.

Colbert #1: Exactly. And he knows how to exercise that power responsibly. Well, what if every time Superman wanted to use his heat vision, or colf breath, or...

Colbert #2: Crush a lump of coal into a diamond?

Colbert #1: Good one. What if first he had to go to the Justice League and ask Aquaman for permission? I mean, we're fighting Lex Luthor here. We can't be [BEEP]ing around with the Wonder Twins and that damn monkey Gleek.

Colbert #2: But couldn't Superman just catch Luthor first and apply for the permission after? He's got 72 hours.

Colbert #1: Yes, but then Superman has to go the Fortress of Solitude and fill out the paperwork. . . . Meanwhile, General Zod has escaped from the Phantom Zone!

Colbert #2: No!

Colbert #1: Yes! Kneel before Zod!

Colbert #2: Never!

Colbert #1 shoots beams out of his eyes and a Phantom Zone-like forcefield forms around Colbert #2.

Colbert #1: I concede the point!

Colbert #2: Good. Now in this metaphor, Bush is Superman.

Colbert #1: Oh, I hadn't made that connection. Okay. So Bush is just. . . .

Colbert #2: Using his "super hearing" and his "cloak of invisibility"--

Colbert #1: To fight for truth, justice, and the American Way!

Colbert #2: Yeah, some of that.
Now, I don't buy that argument--I tend to side rather with these students. But my point isn't to bring up my politics so much as my ethics, although the two can't really be separated. I'm not going to be talking about President Bush in this post. I'm going to be talking about Dawn Summers and Rupert Giles.

The point is that I don't think it's morally permissable to set aside one's principles because of extrenuating circumstances. Doing so is tempting, as Colbert ably demonstrates using his Superman metaphor. If the only way to stop the world from ending is doing something morally reprehensible--for example, taking a life--isn't that necessary? Commendable, even?

The problem is, that's Capt. Kirk logic, and if you follow it you'll soon have umpteen Prime Directive violations under your belt. (And, for that matter, Janeway's rescinding of the Prime Directive in "The Omega Directive," while admittedly very cool, is also morally wrong.) Moral rules exist for a reason. I'm not sure what the reason is, since I haven't quite perfected my feminist metaethics yet, but I'm convinced that there is a reason. If there is such a thing as an anti-foundationalist deontologist, I am one. The ends do not justify the means.

Call me an idealist, but this is what I think: if we have to abandon our principles to save the world, then we turn ourselves into a world that is no longer worth saving. I can't watch police procedurals because inevitably they show officers bending the rules in order to catch the bad guy, and I get angry and paranoid and fearful and I want to throw something at the television. I'd rather watch the Huns invade and enslave us all by force than give up one bit of my American civil liberties (the precious few that are left!) in the name of security. If the price of living in a free society is susceptibility to terrorist attacks, then I would be proud to be in a building when it was attacked, to give up my life to the cause of freedom and liberty.

The twist is, what if the Huns at the gates aren't Islamofascists, but vampires and demons?

I remember reading someone recently complaining (in a review of Serenity, I think) that Joss Whedon's characters are never held accountable for their actions. ThI think they might have missed the point (I like that about his characters, and I'll explain more in a bit), but they are right, of course. Buffy's the Slayer, and as such as works behind the scenes, never being held answerable to Sunnydale's clueless (or in the case of the Mayor, evil) authorities. (Although, sometimes she does hold herself answerable to them.)

As I pointed out to [livejournal.com profile] hermionesviolin in the comments to A Watcher's Work, Dawn and Giles, while they run the Watcher's Council, are accountable to no one but themselves. There are no checks and balances to restrain their power. And this makes them very, very dangerous, especially since they allow themselves the freedom to utilize that power. Sure, they angst about it--I've written a good number of ficlets on the subject--but they still do it.

In her post on moral ambiguity, [livejournal.com profile] jennyo called Giles' (and President Laura Roslin's from Battlestar Galactica) moral paradigm "on the very outside edge of ambiguous, in that he is basically on the side of good, but is entirely capable of being not morally conflicted about doing evil or wrong in the cause of good. Like, it's the lightest shade of morally ambiguous: being willing not to go to heaven for the cause."

And this is basically a description of the Operative in Serenity. He, like them, has no illusions that what he does is evil. He is a monster. So are they. To continue to quote [livejournal.com profile] jennyo (who is still referring to Giles and Roslin), he "has humanity's back" but has "done scary shit to have humanity's back." He has massacred children, but the difference between what he does to the populations of Haven and Whitefall and elsewhere and what Giles does to Ben in "The Gift" is merely a difference in degree, not quality.

Now I've said before that Dawn Summers is my Mary Sue. Certainly I return to the character again and again. How do I manage to see myself in a character whose paradigm I find morally repugnant. Or to look at it the other way, why have I given this moral paradigm to a character in whom I see myself, since when we finish canon Dawn isn't quite like this (although it is a plausible development)?

Well, if you haven't figured out that I'm attracted to the concept of evil, of characters with dark sides who aren't forced to renounce them and become lily-white (metaphorically speaking), of moral ambiguity, of villains, then you haven't been paying attention. (Which you might not have, and I won't judge if that's the case.) In a way, Dawn is merely the most complex, sympathetic, believable villain I've ever created.

Some of you might remember my Buffyverse Day 2005 essay, in which I discussed the rôle of power in the Buffyverse. If not, you've probably heard (well, seen) me mention how I think that Buffy is about something called the "adolescent fantasy," or some such comment. Dawn and Giles are moral ubermensch. They do as they like, constrained by no one. They have killed people for no more reason than they decided that those people no longer deserved to live, and then they made their will reality. It's a power trip, really.

I call it the "adolescent fantasy" instead of what I called it in when I was a teenager--"the motif of the ubermensch"--partly because the German sounded pretentious (not that I don't pepper my speech with ding an sich) but mostly because I realize that that is what it is, and the "motif" doesn't have the hold over me that it once did. Sure, it is fun to live vicariously through such characters, but I would never want to be that person in real life. Dawn Summers is my Mary Sue not because she is me, but because she is who I can be only in a world of fiction(s). She's the teenaged girl who saves/takes over the world, a motif I return to again and again in my original fiction. (Indeed, I facetiously tell my major protagonists apart by their hair color.)

I won't make generalizations, because I'm not sure where the will to power comes from and it might not be constructed into feminine identities the way it is into my masculine identity. (Although I've seen fannish phenomena--including some the "Bad Girls" round of [livejournal.com profile] femslash_minis--which lend themselves to a "will to power" analysis.) I rather doubt that [livejournal.com profile] wisdomeagle sees in Tara what I see in Dawn. But this is one of the major things I get out of Buffy and Angel, out of science fiction and genre fiction in general, and most of all out of fanfiction. So I suppose it's not surprising I constructed such a streamlined version in Dawn.

But I'm not the only one to whom the mythos of Superman speaks (even if Batman is better). Colbert was write to draw the parallel between Bush and Superman, because the president is setting himself up as a moral superman, as an ubermensch. Superman belongs in the comics because that amount of power is far too dangerous to be held in the hands of any human woman or man.

I can see my Dawn and Giles ordering the illegal wiretaps that Bush ordered. I can also see them ordering the experimental testing of the Pax virus on Miranda. I can see them giving the order for (what I call) Project Pandora, to cut into River's brain and make her an assassin. The fact that they could do these things and still believe in a more perfect society, that they were doing what they were doing to protect humans, that is what makes them endlessly fascinating to me.

But I don't particularly want to see them outside of my (and Joss's, and your) fiction. Because that's where monsters belong, in bedtime stories.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-26 04:49 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nemo-gravis.livejournal.com
Call me an idealist, but this is what I think: if we have to abandon our principles to save the world, then we turn ourselves into a world that is no longer worth saving.
Which is why I honestly cannot fathom the allure of the later seasons of BTVS and some of what went on in ATS *scratches head*

In the end, as for all things that confuse me, I came up with one simple answer: no idea.

Living in a world of palatable grays is always a function of the circumstances involved while at the same time it isn't. Some things are clearly wrong and sometimes those things are done nonetheless. It's not necessarily beneficial in any way but the punishment for committing such acts resides in committing the act itself.

Then again, even that is just crap. More of me spouting nothing much of consequence.

So I'll just stick with the "it's too complex to give a definitive answer" idea, I think. I know what I believe and all one can do is remain true to that. If you don't, then indeed the world is no longer the same place and there is no point in anything anymore.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-01-26 11:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pinkdormouse.livejournal.com
I can see my Dawn and Giles ordering the illegal wiretaps that Bush ordered. I can also see them ordering the experimental testing of the Pax virus on Miranda. I can see them giving the order for (what I call) Project Pandora, to cut into River's brain and make her an assassin. The fact that they could do these things and still believe in a more perfect society, that they were doing what they were doing to protect humans, that is what makes them endlessly fascinating to me.

Your Dawn perhaps, but I'm less sure about Giles as of the end of S7(1). Yes Giles killed Ben, but that was one person, arguably with not much quality of life up ahead for him. There was no guarantee that Glory wouldn't take him over again, nor do we know exactly what state his body was in at that point (other than in need of medical and possibly surgical intervention). So I'd almost count that as euthanasia, even if it's more of a 'rabid dog approach than a 'beloved pet dying painfully from cancer' approach. I can't see Giles carrying out illegal/immoral activities on a big bunch of people, and I can't see him ordering others to do so, and the River example is going beyond anything slayers are put through, so I can't see him being happy with that. Of course if River's madness was an unexpected/unpredicted consequence that hadn't occurred in experimental mdels and previous cases, then that's a different matter again.

If you want to take this to email at some point when I'm not supposed to be working, I can go over a few more examples, some of which relate to my own story ideas.

Gina

(1)I have my doubts about how much Giles had to do with what Andrew was telling people in Angel S5, and so don't count any of that towards my impressions of canon Giles. Plus W&H=evil therefore that gave Giles every reason not to be seen to be dealing with Angel's crew at that point. Maybe I should watch that season again and come up with a comprehensive theory on the subject.

(no subject)

Date: 2006-05-10 08:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hjcallipygian.livejournal.com
I have a question -- have you ever read The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester? If not, I think you would really enjoy the questions of ethics and morality and responsibility that book calls up.

I love reading posts like this, but it's not in my nature to debate them. I am more of an infinite sponge, I just like to soak stuff up and ask questions in order to get more stuff to soak up. =)

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