Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
***This article may contain spoilers for the show Black Mirror.***
There’s a moment in the final episode of Black Mirror’s third season that captures the series’ grim approach to politics and culture. Confronted with evidence of high-level state malfeasance that’s now threatening the population, a character tosses out an obscene line about the government’s wickedness, then follows it up with a more chilling line: “But we knew that already.”
We know a lot of things already, but Black Mirror shows us how easily we forget. Each episode is a standalone story, but the theme is always the same. In the words of the show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is about the “amazing ways” humans can screw up.If you’re the sort of person who’s often noting how wrong others are, Black Mirror constantly finds a way to implicate you in the death spiral of human communication.
At least half of the stories, then, aren’t really about how humans relate to technology or how technology shapes us. One could rewrite many Black Mirror episodes using magic or some other plot contrivance to talk about jealousy, shame, or cruelty with the same intensity. The things we know already about the ways humans justify cruelty or fall prey to manipulation are worth retelling, though. These stories force us to reckon with these universal tendencies—even if Black Mirror doesn’t necessarily have answers for how to live differently.
This season’s last three episodes provide the most fertile ground for discussion. The critical favorite, “San Junipero,” for example, starts off with a romance between two characters who find quite a bit of fleshly pleasure in one another. However, viewers quickly learn that their pleasure isn’t fleshly at all; the titular city is a virtual reality universe that the aged and disabled are permitted to visit for a few hours every week. They can join full time by uploading their consciousness to the city just before their bodies are euthanized, which one of the main characters, Yorkie (a woman who has been a quadriplegic for decades), plans to do.
One of technology’s greatest values is that it uncouples us from our bodily limitations. A wheelchair or scalpel can help people who would otherwise be trapped by something broken in their bodies, allowing them to adapt to the world’s physical realities. This uncoupling also has tremendous potential for harm, such as when we use pornography as a substitute for human intimacy or use bombs to more effectively kill people than our bare hands allow. “San Junipero” is at least cognizant of the dark possibilities that people will pursue without a body to tie them down: one of the virtual reality hangouts is a club called The Quagmire where every kind of kinky debauchery is available to uploaded consciousnesses “trying anything just to feel something.”
However, that danger is ultimately thrust aside at the end of the episode, which suggests that even the final limitation of death can be transcended when our bodies and minds are completely uncoupled. Yorkie’s body was disabled after she came out of the closet to her unaccepting parents (her blood relations pay no mind to the connection their bodies ought to have as a family). Her lover presumes there’s nothing beyond death for their bodies or minds; the closest we’ll ever get to heaven is a simulation of a beach town full of clubs playing ’80s music. Without any hope for resurrection, technology’s power to uncouple our minds and bodies is its most satisfying use and human flourishing necessarily requires that we treat our physical selves as ultimately meaningless.
But we knew that already. (For a more Christian understanding of our bodies and souls, see here.) A meaningful, transcendent hope for our selves is predicated on the bodily Resurrection and our own eventual resurrection. Black Mirror’s most hopeful episode shows a salvation that requires humans to become machines in order to ascend; Christian hope is anchored in a Savior who became human. It’s all well and good that “San Junipero” didn’t end with everyone at The Quagmire, but it’s hard to imagine that, disconnected from the realities of embodiment for eternity, most people won’t find their way there eventually. After all, most people began thinking the Internet would be San Junipero, but an awful lot of people end up spending their days in its own Quagmire.
The reality of embodiment is also key to season three’s fifth episode, “Men Against Fire.” The title is a reference to a book that critiqued war tactics in WWII, where most soldiers didn’t shoot to kill their enemy. In this episode, the military of the future has solved this problem with a computer implanted in the heads of their soldiers that helps them communicate, surveil, and target more easily… and makes their human enemies look subhuman. When the protagonist’s computer goes haywire, he sees unarmed people instead of vampire-like monstrosities that have been referred to as “roaches” until this point and, accordingly, grows uneasy about slaughtering them.
“Men Against Fire” throws most of its rhetorical weight behind a final speech by the military psychiatrist who draws on the WWII data to emphasize the need for a system to make soldiers more trigger-happy. He talks for too long and yet what he says isn’t particularly satisfying. Even if the episode hadn’t spent most of its time following soldiers around as they pick off innocent civilians before starting to question the moral gravity of doing so, it still flounders in making its point.
It’s hard to tell if the writers intentionally elided the backstory about the eugenic regime that precipitated declaring some portion of the population “roaches” and then exterminating them. The psychiatrist’s references to multiple diseases caused by recessive genes definitely evokes a vague sense that those marked for slaughter are Jewish, and that’s probably enough if you just want it to feel creepy. He also casually mentions that other civilians see the “roaches” without any particular distortion, which leaves open a much bigger question about how the majority population got to the point where they went along with this Final Solution-esque madness.
Technology shapes our moral sensibilities as it opens up our physical capabilities: for example, the abortion debate shifts as more and more tests emerge to eliminate pre-born children with the same diseases the psychiatrist mentions. We already knew that people will organize to kill fellow human beings when those human beings have been sufficiently demonized as the Other. But if technology is more than a plot device for Black Mirror, then a system that changes someone’s facial appearance is child’s play compared a system that finds their blood defective enough to be eliminated. By casting these plot points aside, we miss the opportunity to see how trying to transcend the limits of flesh and blood by destroying that which we view as diseased will uncouple others’ bodies from our moral consciousness.
Charlie Brooker downplays the idea that technology is much more than a plot device in Black Mirror, while B. D. McClay has argued that the show has a lot of potential to discuss the relationship between people and the devices they use rather than simply gnashing its teeth in despair at our wickedness. I’m much more on McClay’s side, because some of the best episodes do get to the heart of that relationship, like “The National Anthem” from season one. In that story, social media doesn’t merely expose the worst human tendencies—it draws them out and cultivates them.
Similarly, this season’s sixth episode, “Hated in the Nation,” takes on the subject of social media mobs as they’re weaponized by a vindictive computer programmer who wants to murder the targets of online outrage. Again, we already knew that mobs can find all sorts of justifications to kill someone or cheer on their death. (We also already knew, as one of the detectives trying to solve the case points out, that giving unaccountable surveillance powers to the government was a bad idea.) What’s more interesting in this episode is how the story lingers on the question of how technology changes—or doesn’t change—these immutable tendencies toward depravity. When we irresponsibly give ourselves more power to uncouple ourselves from the consequences of our actions while simultaneously treating others as avatars, we increase the chances that we might harm ourselves or others.
As we discuss the perils of “fake news” and the echo chambers we build online to shape our impressions of reality, one thing about Black Mirror’s thesis rings very true: humans can always find a way to screw everything up. The Internet has made it easier than ever before to expose oneself to a variety of interesting and thoughtful views, but most people would rather have their prejudices reinforced. We don’t lack for information or capacities for research; we lack for empathy, diligence, and the humility to hear out something that might be uncomfortable and then critically evaluate it. Right-wingers eat up their fake news, but the left will just as gladly spread around an unverified anecdote or cite a terribly designed study if it fits their narrative. The less-educated are certainly more inclined to believe outright lies, but all of us, left or right, will find a way to justify what we want to think—especially if we can scapegoat our enemies in the process.
Our crisis of discourse isn’t wholly dependent on technology. Human society, by default, tends toward supporting authoritarian strongmen who promise to do violence (symbolic or physical) to our tribe’s enemies. Our mental faculties, corrupted as they are by sin, have always helped us justify our bad behavior to ourselves. What we face nowadays, though, is the fact that people with power are ruthlessly exploiting our corruption because it’s profitable to do so and they’re using technology that corrupts us further and faster. When we learn to distrust over and over again every day, we poison our discourse all the more and make ourselves vulnerable to even more exploitation.
Black Mirror takes this ugly process and rubs it in our faces. It’s worth watching for this alone: if you’re the sort of person who’s often noting how wrong others are, Black Mirror constantly finds a way to implicate you in the death spiral of human communication. It doesn’t always diagnose the problem appropriately and it unfortunately never gets around to how we might cultivate the virtues we need for robust, meaningful discourse.
A recent note from WORLD Magazine’s Marvin Olasky underscores the flipside of the profitability problem: reasoned, thoughtful discussion will cause you to lose financial support if you try to be fair and stick to your moral sensibilities. The only way to counter this is for people who want a better discussion to spend money investing in and reading quality discourse. I wrote about publications covering culture here, but others like Comment, First Things, The Week, Jacobin, The New Atlantis, The American Prospect, National Affairs, The American Conservative, and Commentary are also woefully underappreciated and need to be supported, read, shared, and discussed if we have any hope of breaking the cycles of outrage and cynicism.
It’s possible to resist the disembodiment that technology brings us, but we have to discipline ourselves—and our discourse—to constantly reinforce the reality of others’ bodies and their inherent humanity. This won’t happen unless we understand our inherent tendencies toward violence, tribalism, and the desire to disembody ourselves and others. If you need a cinematic gut punch to help you in the process, Black Mirror could be helpful. But mostly, we need to take seriously the task of developing our abilities to read, think, listen, and evaluate.
Image via IMDB
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