Disclaimer: I discuss narratives from Harry Potter, a franchise I do not promote or financially support.
I will also be sharing a personal failure and my hope is to share my own shortcoming in order to encourage change.
When I was in my early twenties, I made a joke. When someone asked me if I wanted to do something I said I was into it, but I slurred my words (I was probably drunk, it was my early twenties) and I said “I’m Inuit.” It became a thing, my friends started to expect it of me. If someone heard the joke for the first time there would be a pause, and then everyone would laugh.
If I had been confronted with my joke back then, I would have been offended because of course I would never harm an Inuit person myself. I did not consider the joke or myself to be racist. What I had yet to realize that while a joke may not be racist, the fact that the joke exists is racist. I took an entire culture full of diverse individuals and boiled all of them down into a joke about how “Inuit” sounds like “into it” when you’re drunk. I could not have answered one question about Inuit people or their culture, but I knew that the name made me giggle.
And therein lies the harm. Inuit meant a joke to me; a cartoon, a caricature. Not a human being. Not an entire culture with traditions and history. That’s probably why I wasn’t aware of the thousands of Inuit women that go missing and are never found. While I was making that joke, women were being abducted and abused because they were Inuit, and those women never crossed my mind. But Inuit sounds funny when you’re drunk. The dehumanization of people that “don’t look like us” has been a vehicle of racism for its entire existence. Everything that is subconsciously considered as “other” is quietly and discreetly stripped of humanity under the guise of “What’s the harm? It’s just a joke.”
I’m not going to defend myself for making this joke, because it was always harmful – not to mention a really annoying joke. I will say that once I understood the harm in the joke, I stopped using it. As I watched the world unfold these last twelve months I have been marveling at how many people hold on to their jokes and mascots. They seem to hold the belief that if they didn’t mean any offense, it is your fault if you are offended, and they become angry in their own defense. In their anger, they become scared and cling even harder to their mascots, jokes, and flags because they need the comfort of familiarity in such trying times. What I have seen this year is that when someone is used to an existence of comfort, the idea of being uncomfortable is terrifying.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opens up to a wizarding world that has lived without fear of Lord Voldemort for years. They have grown comfortable. The idea that they should go back to living in fear is, well, scary. We see that the first line of defense that Fudge and the Voldemort-deniers take is to turn Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter, two heroes of the wizarding world, in to, as Hermione says, “a bit of a joke”.
A direct conflict provokes a direct response, I touched on this idea in my article about Dick Cheney – it is harder to defend yourself when your opponent is not making direct moves against you. If Cornelius Fudge had come out swinging and said “Dumbledore is an idiot, Harry Potter is a narcissist, and Voldemort has not returned!” it would have provoked the wizarding population at large to question which side they were on. By turning Harry and Dumbledore into jokes and subtly slipping them in to the rhetoric of the Daily Prophet, he is changing public opinion without forcing a vote or even a conscious thought.
The Daily Prophet pulls their material from the work done by Rita Skeeter the previous year. She reported sensational stories that anyone who knew Harry would be able to see through – but how many people truly knew Harry? Most people knew of him as the boy who lived, and then they probably didn’t think about him much until he created a bit of a stir by turning eleven and re-entering the wizarding world. He was not a part of their every day life, he was just a household name. So when Rita Skeeter wrote stories about him that were based on truth before being wildly exaggerated, who was to know that they weren’t real? In our current American society, the powers that be have done such a good job at segregating us that very few of us interact with different people on a day to day basis. It is so easy to take small snapshots of our exchanges with different people and turn them into stereotypes, which then turned in to jokes.
The behavior of the media in the Harry Potter universe acts in tandem with the government, the press becomes a vehicle to distribute propaganda. They form a partnership, feeding off each other for material and messaging. It’s terrifying in its realism, but it is only one way that discriminatory hate spreads.
When I first signed up to watch iZombie, it seemed to be just another crime show but with an interesting twist. In Seattle, Type A super-doctor Liv Moore gets scratched at a boat party and becomes a zombie. She’s trying to keep her condition a secret so she gives up her career to work as an assistant in the morgue (for the access to brains). She discovers that eating a person’s brains imbued her with aspects of their personalities as well as flashbacks from their lives. She brands herself a psychic and teams up with Clive, a no nonsense detective, in order to solve murders in the city of Seattle. But ho! This is *not* actually the show! Quickly, a storyline develops beyond the episode to episode cases. We find out that Liv is not the only zombie, that there are zombie crime syndicates and zombie government officials. There’s even a zombie army – the mercenary firm Filmore Graves.
As the show goes on and the zombies grow in number, the citizens of Seattle start to react…exactly like Americans. The government (Filmore Graves) has all of the information and they regulate how it’s disseminated. When the people of Seattle begin trying to put the information they have together, they do the truly American thing and begin to radicalize into a group that’s referred to as “Zombie Truthers”. Season 3 premiered in 2017, we had been living in Trump’s America for several years and no one could ignore the rise of the radical right. Rob Thomas translates that psychosis to a zombie hate group, presenting their catapult to the forefront of society using the same tactics that Koch Brothers tend to foster. In Thomas’ world, the zombies are sympathetic and their hate group is despicable because of the tactics that they use.
I think it’s interesting to examine how fear and anger go hand in hand. Fear seems weak, it feels like you’re giving in; but anger lets you control the situation. Anger gives people something that they can accomplish, it gives them something to do. And when they have something to do they can forget for a moment that they are scared and powerless.
The Zombie Truthers start out slowly, it begins with a talking head radio show that takes calls and spits out theories. The show leads to an online message board, where the dehumanizing of the zombies begins when they’re referred to as “brain eaters”. This type of rebranding is disturbing and far too prevalent in modern society. For example, when someone says “illegal aliens” it’s easier to create distance between ourselves and the human beings being referenced by the term. Like a tasteless joke, rebranding groups of people with dehumanizing terms makes it easier for those with privilege to discuss them without thought or care. It’s easier to be at a BBQ debating immigration reform because of the “aliens” than it is to contemplate what it must be like to flee from a dangerous and violent situation and come to the border in a harrowing journey with a desperate hope to get into America and find safety.
Unlike Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the government doesn’t work well with the public or the media in iZombie. Filmore Graves as the government stand-in is constantly at war with or pushing back on the radicalizations that occur in Seattle, especially after the world finds about zombies in a plot featuring an epidemic and a vaccine that is incredibly difficult to watch after the year we’ve just had. Once the zombies are outed, a wall goes up around Seattle (now NewSeattle) and Filmore Graves becomes an occupying force in a city that is experiencing an outbreak of Civil War. Commander Chase Graves is single mindedly concerned with a bigger picture – one in which zombies and humans can live in harmony.
While the show’s narrative comes from the perspective of the pro-zombies, which leaves the viewer more inclined to believe what the protagonists believe, Rob Thomas does an excellent job as showing how the warring sides of the new world order continually misunderstand each other. They create a world in which two perspectives react to each other rather than communicate, and the middle ground gets nuked and become uninhabitable. Sound like any country we know?
Chase Graves stays focused on the “big picture”, a radical zombie church ignites the worst fears of the humans, leaving the humans to exist in a narrative full of misinformation, and an underground railroad tries to take care of the needs of individuals who are hurting. Since none of these factions are talking to each other, their members scream into their own voids and create echo chambers in which they believe that they are right. The viewers see the fabric of NewSeattle’s society disintegrate when the factions begin to rub against each other and create friction. Both sides become so focused on their own version of “the greater good” narrative that they stop concerning themselves with the ethics of their day to day decisions. Therein lies the harm of “The Greater Good”, the reason I never trust that logic, because anything can be justified if we only think it through within our own algorithms.
If there is anything that I have learned from Star Trek, it’s that our broad ethical codes must dictate how we make even the smallest of decisions. In fact, it is those small decisions that define our true ethics. For example, one cannot simply say that they are an ally and march in the street, one must make choices every single day that support the ones they are trying to lift up. Everyone will always have a different view of the big picture, but our world would be a better one if we all got our heads out of our void and interacted with each other in ways other than behind our keyboards. We dehumanize each other when we leave comments, thinking only a picture receives them and not a real human ego. We leave others in danger when we turn them into jokes, because no one things a joke is harmful…no one thinks a joke can be harmed. We lose ourselves when we only look at the big picture, and refuse to hold our ethics as we make our daily decisions.
In the end, it’s easier to hate because hate removes our internal conflict. If we believe that we are right, and the other side is wrong, we begin to hate them for hurting our side. Hate spreads slowly and secretely, the seeds of hate are subtly planted and they grow into perennial weeds that can never be fully removed. Once we latch on to the hate in order to escape our discomfort, e begin to truly believe that we are doing the right thing. It becomes much harder to call our own actions into question. It is much harder to be conflicted, to be open minded and vulnerable. But it is in these moments of conflict, of discomfort, that our eyes are opened. It is only then that we can truly see beyond our hate, if only we can open our eyes.
Note to the readers: This is the first official Manic Monday article! Every Monday I’ll be posting a analysis or rant that arches over several different types of media. I’m so excited to finally be putting these out! This article in particular has taken me over a month to conceptualize, research, write and edit. I would love to keep creating content like this, but in order to do that I need to have the time and financial security. I know that times are tough, so if you’re not able please do not worry, just give this a share if you enjoyed it. If you are able, I would greatly appreciate it if you can help me keep this as my full time job.