Monday, January 12, 2015

Reading Rorschach, or, Responsibilities of Realism

I. In September of 1986, Alan Moore published the first issue of what would become his most well-known work: Watchmen.

His goal with Watchmen was to tear apart the superhero genre - to expose it to reality, and thus to subvert the long-standing tropes and traditions associated with the medium. Like Superman: Red Son, the comic works primarily by attaching superheroes to realistic political shifts - something that most superhero comics tend to ignore for the sake of a stable universe. The short, self-contained story allowed for plot twists and events that wouldn't be acceptable in a "long-running" universe.

One of the characters in Watchmen is Rorschach.

Rorschach is a Punisher-style vigilante; he does not imprison, he executes. Patterned after existing superheroes Mr. A and The Question, Rorschach was meant to be disgusting and unappealing - a murderer bound only by his own sense of justice. Moore made it clear, through many interviews, that he doesn't like Rorschach.

And yet many people do; in the same way that people read Judge Dredd and sympathize with its overtly fascist protagonist, or how people saw the Death Wish movies as power fantasy instead of a character study. I've written about this loosely in the past a few times, but now it's time to talk about why this happens.

The thing is...

...okay, let's zoom out. Here is how fiction works: a person constructs a scenario and then tells a story within that scenario. With me so far? Whether it's "real life" or a fantasy world, the way fiction works is that a scenario is built, and then the events of the story take place within it.

Okay, zooming out again: here's the thing about the way people see the world.

II. The vast majority of people believe that they see the world in a rational and logical manner. Very few people think to themselves "man, I'm just wrong and stupid about everything, but I guess I'll keep believing the things I believe anyways". There's always justifications. Right-wingers believe that change is a slippery slope leading to chaos and destruction; left-wingers believe that right-wingers are holding back civil rights in the name of "order". People have ideas about crime, about war, about politics, about morality, about ideology, about ethnicity, about identity, on and on and on. And generally, people believe that their views are correct, because if they weren't, why would they believe them?

I'll use an example from my own experience: I once encountered a teenager who was against war specifically because he believed that America fought using human waves tactics. He thought this because he saw Saving Private Ryan. He was "against war" because he believed that the specific Omaha Beach scenario was standard procedure. It wasn't an assumption he had any reason to question, because he'd already gotten his evidence and didn't feel the need to examine any other sources.

This is how knowledge works. If you don't know something, it's easy to admit it. I don't know a lot of things about physics and science and rocket engineering. I don't pretend to. It's easy to say that I objectively do not know those things. I am ignorant about those things, yes, but that's easier than being wrong about them.

On the other hand, if you think you know something, no matter whether it's right or wrong, you use that knowledge as a plug. Unless you want to constantly second-guess yourself, you can't really doubt every bit of information you've ever acquired. It's just not feasible. So you develop an idea, and even if there's evidence against it, you tend to cling to it.

Okay, now let's zoom back in a bit

III. When an author writes a scenario for their story, they're doing so using their own view of "reality". Most stories use reality as a base, and then differ from there. For example, even in fantasy worlds, you still have basic principles intact; fire burns, grass grows, sun shines. When principles are changed, it usually needs to be explained. For example, in a superhero story, we generally accept that superheroes exist, but their powers and abilities need explanation of some sort. Even though the rules are different from reality, we still expect the rules to make sense. This is what's referred to as internal consistency.

When a fiction writer creates a setting, either they are using their idea of reality as a backdrop, or it's assumed they are using their idea of reality as a backdrop. So, inevitably, the setting itself is judged by some level of realism, or assumed realism, even if the story itself is "fantasy". So what happens when a setting is populated by unreasoning, unambiguous thugs who can only be dealt with via violence? It's assumed that they, too, are part of the "realism".

Herein lies the curse of Watchmen, Judge Dredd, Death Wish, Max Payne 3, Spec Ops The Line et al. Stories that try to condemn their protagonists as violent lunatics, but end up putting them in a world that's more insane, violent and unrealistic than the characters themselves are.

Alan Moore didn't want people to sympathize with Rorschach; he wanted them to see him as a lunatic, not a hero. So why didn't they? Because they couldn't. Because it doesn't make sense for them to do that.

IV. The problem is that Moore put Rorschach into a "superhero world", not a "real world". Rorschach lives in a world of comic-book criminals; when he originally "breaks" and starts killing people, he does so because of a sadistic, child-murdering serial killer. He is constantly confronted by unapologetic murderers and rapists and thugs; they are not the product of his overzealous imagination, but the reality of the world that he lives in. It's easy for the average person to sympathize with a vigilante when their paranoid delusions are made manifest.

Take a brief skim of the news. The CIA torture report. The use of deadly force by police officers. The Charlie Hebdo killings, and the resulting anti-Muslim backlash that accompanied it. The world is full of examples of bad things being done in the name of defending good things. People argue that if the CIA wasn't allowed to torture and rape prisoners, then the terrorists would be able to do bad things. People argue that police are justified in shooting people because if they didn't the thugs would kill all the cops, and then they'd overrun our society. People believe it's okay to hurt Muslims because "they hurt us first".

Our society carries within it the idea that a "good person" who does "bad things" can still be a good person as long as the bad things were done to preserve good things. It's okay to fix elections in the name of democracy. It's okay to torture in the name of civil rights. It's okay to censor in the name of free speech. Everything about this is fine and okay because the ends justify the means.

In real life, this view can be challenged by pointing out the fact that the "necessity" of those actions is false. The CIA's torture program was as ineffective and useless as it was immoral. Police brutality is often applied in cases where it clearly isn't needed. Violence and prejudice against Muslims only fans the flames of extremist groups, while making life notably worse for the non-extremists. But there's no equivalent of that in Watchmen - no sign that Rorschach's actions are wrong or stupid or useless.

V. Rorschach was a failure as a character not because of who he was, but because of the world around him. Rorschach didn't make mistakes. He didn't fuck up. He didn't accidentally kill innocent people. The only time we see him "do something wrong" is when he drops a mentally ill man down an elevator shaft (because he was claiming to be a supervillain), and he's not punished for that. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre laugh about it years later, but Rorschach is never reprimanded for it; we don't even know if he was aware of what happened. As far as his world is concerned, Rorschach is 100% right, and the only reason you'd think otherwise is if you firmly believed that even serial killers and child rapists deserve redemption. But, of course, it's also made clear (in the average superhero comics) that villains don't reform. They just break out of Arkham and start the cycle all over again.

Rorschach is far from unique. Think of all the "cowboy cop" stories where civil liberties are treated as a form of red tape separating the villain from justice. Think of all the stories where there is no doubt that the villain is the bad guy, and everything the hero does in pursuit of the villain is justified. That's what Rorschach represents - not ideological extremism, but a skewed, warped idea of moral purity. Audiences like Rorschach because they think he's right, and there's nothing in the story itself to disprove them.

VI. Now we have to go somewhere with this, because this isn't just about fiction. It's about the way people see themselves, and see information. It's about why I don't take people seriously when they say they can tell fiction from reality.

There's a group of people who call themselves "Red Pillers". These individuals see the world in a certain way; specifically, they believe that women are vapid, emotional wrecks, and it's a man's job to manipulate and dominate women for their own sexual satisfaction. If you'd like a more in-depth overview of their beliefs and values, here is a post to help you get started.

The thing about TRP is that its members earnestly believe that they are right, not just ideologically, but fundamentally. They believe that their worldview is objectively correct. They don't see themselves as misogynists - they believe that they are enforcing a "natural order", even though they have to use force to do so. "We don't hate women", they'll say, "We just recognize that they need to be treated like our mental inferiors." "We aren't rapists", they'll say, "We just recognize that sometimes no doesn't really mean no. We also recognize that marriage is a contract, and women lose the right to say no when they enter it."

They think they're speaking realistically and rationally here. That's what they think reality is. When someone talk about being able to separate reality from fiction, you need to ask them what they think reality is. Because right now, reality is full of people who have "real morals" on par with a video game, and those people don't think they're crazy. They think they're the only sane ones. Which leads me to my final point.

VII. Two Quotes from CS Lewis that explain everything.

Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

You might have seen this quote floating around the internet. It's popular amongst the Manchild/Kidult Community (or MKC), because it's essentially an argument that validates their existence. It's a well-respected author telling people that it's okay to like childish things, and they shouldn't worry about what stuffy old grownups think of them because those grownups are the real children after all. I've lost count of how many times I've seen this argument made, usually to defend something objectionable.

But, as always, you must consider who is telling you that this is okay. After all, CS Lewis is just a man, like every other man out there. So let's take some of his own moral values into consideration.

I have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, "Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?" But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did – if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.

CS Lewis believed, wholeheartedly, that morality was a fixed, unchanging, universal idea. He believed this because, to him, God's existence proves that there is an absolute, unchanging good and an absolute, unchanging evil. When this idea was challenged by society's changing values (in this case, "the fact that we don't burn witches anymore"), Lewis attributed this to the fact that we don't believe witches exist - and if we did believe this, it would be totally right and good to kill them. One wonders how Lewis would address slavery.

People overlook this aspect of his character when they cite that first quote, but you can't have one without the other. CS Lewis loved "childish things" because, ultimately, his real-life worldview was as childish as you can get. His view of morality, with "good" and "evil" so clearly defined, is straight out of a children's know, like the children's storybooks he continued to read as an adult. Like the children's storybooks that he encouraged people not to be ashamed of reading.

And the whole time, he thought he was being rational and objective and realistic. Because that is what people do, even when they're getting their moral values out of children's storybooks.

This concludes the examination.


  1. This puts into better words a lot of what I've been thinking about lately, so thanks for this. I imagine it's a natural extension of this that every single mainstream videogame and videogame character has been described, hailed and advertised as 'badass', but I'm not eloquent or insightful enough to understand what it all means for us.

    But Batman punching people is neat, right? Like, he's got a cool jet and doesn't afraid of anything.

    1. My general feeling about this stuff - and about believability in general - is that it's all really simple when you get down to it, but then there's three things that get in the way:

      1) You're taught not to think about them. Every form of indulgent media relies on the "it's just ____" idea, which means that all the criticisms you'd normally have of a story are shut down because YOU HATE FUN.

      2) The people who make media tend to follow the patterns established by their forebears, so you end up with developers making products that are basically identical to the previous generation, instead of being based off of reality. Hayao Miyazaki actually commented on this a few times:

      3) Even when people are able to detect problems, they tend to ignore them as long as it makes them feel good. This is my big problem with the "Social Justice" community - people who recognize the issues, but then go "well I can still enjoy it even though it's problematic". They know better, but they do it anyways.

      All of this is to say that none of the ideas I talk about are *complex*, it's just that people don't want to think about it.

  2. "Manchild/Kidult Community" Is this a real thing? Ever since I stumbled upon the Sissy community I guess nothing is impossible.

    Well on your post, good job. Nothing much to add. A bit all over the place but I concur. I guess to add I never really liked Rorschach... then again I never liked any of those characters on a personal scale.

    I was wondering if you liked Hideaki Anno's work? You seem to share the same disdain for the "otaku". In particular if you'd seen the last film he made.

    1. >"Manchild/Kidult Community" Is this a real thing?

      Not as a concrete concept, but in the sense that there are a bunch of adults on the internet who have interests normally associated with children, it is.

      >I was wondering if you liked Hideaki Anno's work?

      Uh, for a guy who holds "disdain" for "otaku", Hideaki Anno is 100% ready and willing to pander directly to them. Also, his commentary and writing is generally pretty garbage. He's a lot like Spec Ops The Line; he's just as bad as all the works he's claiming to comment on, and people accept it because they want to feel smarter than everyone else.