Of slaves and superheroes
Nietzsche thinks we need to be more honest with ourselves. He thinks we need to be more honest about ourselves. Not to put too fine a point on it, he thinks we are full of shit.
There is a nice word he uses to describe our propensity for untruthfulness: mendaciousness. Mendaciousness means dishonesty, but in his writings, it carries connotations of deliberately disingenuous misrepresentations of ourselves. We pretend we are something better than we are. We pretend that we cherish values which, when examined more closely, we don’t hold to quite as avidly as we claim.
Examples of this mendacious double-speak, particularly around moral values, abound in our popular culture and it’s great fun to try and spot them. Your faithful correspondent clocked one recently when watching the 2015 Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s the usual Marvel fayre, a bunch of superheroes with improbable powers dashing around making wisecracks and having spectacular battles with some equally powerful supervillains.
What are they fighting over? The usual. The superheroes are protecting us, the good people of earth, from being exterminated, enslaved or otherwise mistreated by the bad guys. In this scenario, an entire fictional Eastern European city, Sokovia, has been torn out of the ground and is being hoisted ever higher into the stratosphere, with the intention that it be cast back down by the evil Ultron, thereby creating an impact that would result in a global extinction event or, at the very least, the deaths of a few billion unfortunate humans. The avengers are battling Ultron and his robot army while trying to save the hapless citizens of Sokovia and the world.
What is interesting (and unintentionally illuminating) is the way the superheroes are represented in the movie and, especially, the way that the ordinary folk are represented.
The dynamic here is a familiar one. There are a few exceptional individuals, the ones who are the focus of the story – they have most of the screen time, they have the fleshed-out personalities, they have lines of dialogue – and then there is Joe Public – a largely amorphous swarm of bodies running around, no real, distinguishing personalities and barely a couple of lines of throwaway dialogue between the whole mass of them.
The superheroes, despite being the real, rounded characters here, are concerned only for the welfare of the masses, of course. And they never stop telling us that. The normally sardonic Tony Stark says ‘protect the people. That’s the mission.’ He’s the Iron Man with the heart of gold! Captain America says ‘we’re not leaving until everyone is safe.’ He might be just Captain America on any other day, but today he’s Captain Sokovia too!
So, despite the fact that the superheroes are the special ones, the exceptions, the ones with the one-in-a-billion abilities, the ones who are real individuals in this story, it is the simple, faceless, mediocre majority who are shown to be of paramount importance. Their survival and their safety trumps that of their rescuers. The ordinary masses are precious, every one of them, whilst the welfare of their godlike guardians is negligible, they are the disposable ones – indeed, one of them is actually disposed of in an act of ostentatious self-sacrifice. Pietro, admittedly an Avenger of secondary importance, takes a volley of bullets to shield one of his colleagues who is carrying a rescued Sokovian child and duly expires, heart-breakingly, in slo-mo.
This impulse to self-sacrifice is even articulated explicitly. When all seems lost, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow responds to Captain America’s demand that the Avengers can’t leave until everyone is saved by saying ‘I didn’t say we should leave. [shrugs shoulders] There are worse ways to go.’ The implication is that even though the mission seems futile and everyone is going to die anyway, the Avengers should stick around and die alongside the Sokovians on principle. Not just illogical, but unforgivably wasteful too. Who’s going to fight the next round of bad guys? It goes without saying, this crazy martyr-mindset is entirely in line with our prevailing Western morality (even if it’s something that people can rarely live up to).
And what of the Sokovians as the movie depicts them? Well, they are pathetic. They run around screaming and wailing, meek, frightened, hobbling on walking sticks, clutching a few meagre possessions. They are a bit ridiculous too; we laugh as one vomits after exiting a car that has been tossed around in a rescue set-piece; we chuckle as one accidently misfires his gun, grazing a not-too-pleased Avenger with his discharged bullet. Oops. Sorry! Captain America laments of the poor Sokovians that ‘all they want is to live their lives in peace’. They are almost infantilised; benign, peace-loving, simple folk who merely want to live out their small lives quietly. As Nietzsche puts it, ‘the good person, to the slaves’ way of thinking, must at any rate be the man who is not dangerous; he is good-natured, easy to deceive, perhaps a little stupid, un bonhomme.’ (GM)
We see the bovine populace being shepherded onto flying lifeboats by the Avengers, who could almost be fire wardens wearing hi-vis vests. The health and safety vibe is palpable. Dr David Banner, AKA The Hulk, even whines that he ‘can’t be in a fight near civilians’ - not without filling out the comprehensive risk assessment paperwork, presumably.
As I have said, the dynamic is familiar in our popular culture – the great sacrificing themselves for the most humble, yet somehow it is more front and centre in this movie than in most. But isn’t this laughable? In what era have the best, highest and most exceptional sacrificed themselves for the most ordinary, the lowliest, the ten-a-penny? It’s not just illogical, it’s not just insane - it’s unbelievable.
Consider, hypothetically, the circumstances during the filming of the movie, when the cameras stop rolling and the cast all go for lunch. How telling such speculations can be. The stars of the production, your Robert Downey Juniors and your Scarlett Johanssons, recipients of multi-million dollar salaries for their participation in this project, repair to their luxury Winnebagos where personal assistants run around catering to their every need and a personal chef rustles up a gourmet meal to their precise personal specifications. ‘Are you ready for your massage, Miss Johansson?’.
Meanwhile, for those playing the Sokovians, well, most of them are just computer-generated, cut-and-paste cyphers to swell the panicking crowds on screen (talk about an apt metaphor for the homogenous herd) so these guys don’t need lunch. But for the very few who are flesh-and-blood cast members, they queue up at the chuck wagon for their paper plate of slopped-out, budget mac and cheese. These $100 per day ‘background artists’ have been sternly briefed ‘Don’t talk to the A-listers’ on pain of immediately getting fired. ‘There’s a thousand people who can fill your shoes, buddy.’ So, I ask you, who is of paramount importance here on set? And who is unimportant, negligible and disposable? Do we not witness a complete flip in evaluations in this contrast?
In our fictions, our morality, our values, the most average (that’s us) are the most precious, but in our lived world the reverse is the case. The exceptional receive exceptional treatment, the sub-optimal are treated sub-optimally. As a society we say one thing but we do the other. It’s called cognitive dissonance.
Now, your faithful correspondent is not attacking this bogus set of moral evaluations here. I am not claiming that the exceptional should be privileged by right. No, instead I am merely pointing out the absurdity of its claims as exemplified in this particular movie. Who writes these scripts? The herd do. We do. The unexceptional. And when we write our stories, our moral tales, and this is a moral tale, we want our superheroes on a leash and under our heel. Their powers must be enlisted in the service of our welfare. For Nietzsche, this is slave psychology and herd morality – our safetyabove all. Whether this is right or wrong is not in question here. What is in question, is whether it’s coherent; whether it’s tenable. To what extent is the whole rigmarole a sham, a piece of outrageous mendaciousness?
After the battle, with the Avengers victorious, Vision, a superhero so powerful he can fire lasers out of his head, speaks to the vanquished Ultron. He explains what the supervillain has missed in his contempt for humanity. They have ‘grace in their failings’ apparently. They are ‘beautiful’, don’t you know, and for this superhuman, ‘it’s a privilege to be among them’. The herd speaks!
Give me a break.