Monday, December 11, 2017

"Black Mirror" Backtrack 3: "Shut Up and Dance" and Small Offenses

SPOILER WARNING: This entry will be discussion "Shut Up and Dance," and the entirety of Season 3 of Black Mirror, in detail. If you haven't yet seen it and don't want spoilers, please wait to read this piece.

As chilling and mind-bending as Black Mirror is at its sci-fi peak, it's often most disturbing when it works with the technology of today. Premiere episode "The National Anthem" still sticks out to many as one of the most difficult to watch episodes ever made, even compared to chillers like "White Christmas" and "White Bear." It could be the subject matter -- or perhaps the fact that these present-day episodes bring us far more into line with the immediate nature of the warnings being issued us.

With episodes like "Shut Up and Dance," Black Mirror takes away any pretense of the subject matter not being us and the world we live in. It's not a tactic they can use in every episode, or its loses its edge. But to occasionally be plunged into a terrifying story, and then realize after the fact that there wasn't actually any non-existent tech in it and this could be tomorrow's news, is an effective occasional mind-blower.

And in the current climate, it's an even more effective watch than when it first aired.

The Flip-Side of Call-Out Culture

"Call-out culture" is becoming a tougher and tougher creature to piece apart as time goes on. The Internet enables stories to spread quickly and empowers people to share experiences and concerns they may not have been able to give voice to before.

However, this can also lead to a push to the extreme: receipt-pulling on people who have changed and atoned, or who grew up online without the luxury of having Dumb Shit They Did As A Kid only happen between themselves and the wall. Too, these instances tend to be over non-issues or small issues, such as a character being too skinny in a piece of fanart. Those cases are the Internet's speed and ruthlessness at its worst, often pulling down confused teenagers who deserve no worse than a slap on the wrist, if that.

And, regardless of whether the target is deserving, there's the issue of punishment. "White Bear" and this season's "Hated in the Nation" both address the issue of Internet vigilante justice as well -- possibly the hardest aspect of all to come to terms with.

The Internet (and groups like Anonymous) are willing to go hell-for-leather against people or groups that may not get their just deserts. But with that action comes a degree of "inventiveness" that begs questions. How much is too much? Do criminals deserve to become our amusement? Is is anything goes if they did some Really Bad Stuff?

What counts as Really Bad Stuff? Who decides what's bad? What if someone decides something's bad and it's really not?

These are questions we'll always have to ask ourselves for as long as we use the Internet to exchange information. For every "weekend Nazi" outed to their boss, there's a misguided teenage blogger who ends up with death threats pouring through their mail chute.

Black Mirror has yet to profess to have an answer to this; it only acknowledges the growing existence of it. But it does have some slightly less tech-based morals for us.

If You Don't Want Them to See It, Don't Do It

A rule of thumb I try to live by when dealing with people: anything I say to someone in private (that isn't a personal woe or surprise birthday party plan), I make sure I would be all right with having repeated back to me by a stranger next week. If the idea of hearing someone say "Kara Dennison said this" scares me, I don't bloody well say it. (I wish Young Kara had had this idea, really.)

Similarly, if I want to do something and thinking "what if my family found out I did this?" terrifies me, I don't bloody do it.

Do I have a moral code? Of course. I try to live ethically. I like to think most people I know do. But when you're dealing with people who consider people of different genders or ages or races to be less deserving of consideration, ethics won't stay their hand. What will stay their hand? Being found out.

Because unfortunately, fear of retribution is the only way ethics and solipsism can coexist.

Under the thumb of "malware remover" Shrive, people suffer or are inconvenienced to varying degrees for their crimes, strung along by blackmail. They're shriven (a nice name for the program) of their sins only because they see redemption in site.

Which they never actually receive.

Because the unseen puppet master of "Shut Up and Dance" understands a truth of life that we learn when we're two years old and then promptly forget: saying you're sorry doesn't mean you won't suffer the consequences.

Unethical Acts Can (and Should) Change Loyalties

I wrote not long ago about how an entire community removed a long-standing member of their ranks overnight after hearing of heinous crimes he had committed. There was confusion and sadness and betrayal. But ultimately, there was no question that he was no longer one of them.

Our ride-along with Kenny only works if we don't know until the end what his true crime is. If we believe he's just a teen who got caught in the act of being a teen, the horror of it is much realer. Nowhere is any of us under the impression (as far as I know) that he deserved it, up to and until confirmation of what he was really doing.

And, especially right now, this is a big deal and something we should take to heart. That immediate hardening of the heart, the sudden regret we had for ever giving him the benefit of the doubt? That should carry into the real world, too. When you discover that someone is a literal felon -- no matter how surprising it is or how much you liked them or how deeply you don't want it to be true -- your loyalty should flip exactly that hard.

"Shut Up and Dance" gives us the opportunity to feel that sea change -- the immediate swerve away from empathy -- in a safe and sterile environment. There was no Kenny, and he was never really our friend. We only knew him for an hour, and dropping our empathy toward him when we learn of his behavior will not affect our life in any way.

And now that we know how it feels, we need to remember that feeling... and be willing to feel and experience that when it involves someone we know.

What Is the Lesson?

Unseen actions are still actions, whether they are yours are someone else's. The low-key, somewhat Victorian concept of a "Schrödinger's morality" -- that actions aren't bad until they're found out -- has no place in a moral society.

Should people be scared of being found out for things they've done? It feels a bit ridiculous. It feels almost depressing, the idea that harming another human being is less scary to some than having the world find out that they did. But in the long run, if that's the only thing that stops them... perhaps the fear of having one's sins publicized is, unfortunately, useful.

I mean, it seems to be having an effect so far.


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