Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Avatar... great movie... childish message.

Hey it's fantasy!

Yeah... that could not be more true. Even the overall tone that at one point seems like a lecture is pure fantasy.

Now, let me quickly say that I plan on giving James Cameron some more of my money as soon as it comes out on DVD. I might even see it again to get the full 3D effect. (Hey, see it in 3D... don't be cheap.) I LOVE this movie. I really do.

But, since Cameron's lecture is sooooo prevalent and the demographic for this movie so willing to be led by the nose... I feel I must respectfully protest it's cultural relativity message.

If you don't know cultural relativity is basically the belief that all cultures have a right to exist and that one shouldn't dominate the another.


It is this kind of Mickey-Mouse Pollyanna thinking that drives me nuts.

My thinking on the meshing of cultures is simple, trade up or you will be engaged in a protracted struggle to survive.

What do I mean by "trade up". Simple. When two cultures meet the less dominant and less modern culture has no choice but to trade up for the dominant culture. The more progressed, more modern, more advanced.

If the less dominant culture chooses to hinder this trade, this inevitable trade, a protracted conflict is possible. The result is that the dominant culture succeeds and the less dominant culture suffers.

Concepts as large as "cultures" survive in a state of nature or every culture for itself, or a completely self-serving agenda. Because of this self-serving nature in which no culture has at any relative time an advantage over another culture this concept is logically and ethically sound.

It is in effect a sort of natural selection for cultures. The ones that work survive, the ones that don't will eventually be taken over by the more dominant selections. Things that "work" in the less dominant cultures survive or assimilate with other working dominant culture aspects. Things that don't "work" are discarded.

This is and always has been the way of things. The victims of this "trade up" system are often dear to the less dominant culture. Languages, traditions, land, resources are lost to the less dominant culture. These are redistributed via the dominant culture's system or discarded. This redistribution and discarding of once important parts of the less dominant culture are quite expectantly painful and hard to cope with. But, the utility of this assimilation is undeniable and fair.

Is it fair in a particular instance? Not always. Can examples of horribly inhuman treatment be found in the history of meshing cultures? Of course. But in a utilitarian, do the most good and the least harm, sense it is the only rational system available, and in fact is the only system available.

Attempts to thwart the "trade up" only result in a delaying of the inevitable and protracted suffering borne mostly by the least dominant culture.

How does this translate to the Na'Vi in Avatar?

First let me say I understand the license taken to make the Na'Vi appear flawless and completely endearing. I get it. But if you are going to have a message it needs to be accurate. This movie could have been just as good and just as successful without the lecture.

A simple but accurate observation of the Na'Vi is that they are of course tribal, yet none of the horrible cultural practices that many "tribal" cultures have exist in the Na'Vi culture. No honor killings, no cannibalism, polygamy, no arranged marriages no female genital mutilation, and no infanticide.

A more advanced culture that doesn't rely on tribal principles to maintain order and predictability shuns these tribal practices because they are no longer needed. Ordered systems of government and civil society replace polygamy, FMJ and other acts we now find horrific or outside the norm. Witchcraft, wizardry and oracles are replaced by the much more reliable and predictable philosophy, scientific method and logic.

Cameron knows this so he had to create a fictional device to over come it. This device is the Na'Vi ability to network with nature. This small but important fictional element actually proves my point. That without this fictional parallel that made the Na'Vi pseudo-modern they were in fact a much less dominant culture. One that could benefit from the human culture in both the painful short term and utilitarian long term.

Emotionally we pull for the Na'Vi. But the bad guy... modernity (the same modernity that allows for this kind of advanced cinematography) has just as much "right" to advance as a culture has to survive. The assumption is that billions or even tens of billions of people need the fictional element Unobtainium that is a metaphor for oil.

If the metaphor is to be complete then this fictional element is literally the second air that the human society needs to breath and survive. Like oil, it touches every part of our lives. Improving it, moving it, saving it, prolonging it. Without it we would not be recognizable as the society we are.

To be clear, if we did not have oil/unobtainium that means you can't go to work, buy goods and services for your family and would have to return to a self-sufficient means of leaving. No, gas. No, markets. No, cheap goods from other parts of the world/universe.

Do your children have the right to be educated? Then quit work and home school because that is your choice without the catalyst that is oil/unobtainium. Want them to be healthy? Tough. We are back to country doctors that can not proscribe modern medicine or treatments. No MRIs, no advanced antibiotics, no cancer treatments.

The assumption and metaphor used in the movie suggests that human life depends on that fictional element. So, while you are ready to cheer for the Na'Vi as I did. Understand also as I did, that the movie is a one of a kind work of fictions to include the poorly thought out and typically leftist lecture on cultural relativity. A lesson that disregards the realities of an upward moving dominant culture and the benefits we enjoy.

And while many of us understandably turn away and prefer a fiction to the reality of the makings of modern society, that reality remains and much be dealt with via an accurate lens that accounts for what will do the most good for all involved or sometimes what will do the least harm. Or to simplify via a common metaphor, many of us don't want to know or see how the sausage is made, we just want to enjoy it.

So enjoy your sausage. Go see Avatar!!! It is a one of a kind masterpiece.


Torsten said...

Hey Ben,

nice post, I absolutely agree with you on this one. I saw Avatar yesterday (in Spanish and 3D) and totally enjoyed it. But the message is very simple indeed; the good natives vs. the threat from outside. A black and white story. Of course you're right with your analysis of some sort of natural selection that takes place between cultures, as soon as limited resources are involved. I think most people would rather ignore this, but it's true. So, thanks for pointing that out, good job!


Benjamin Cook said...

Thanks Torsten!