Reflections From a Black Mirror: S2 E2 "White Bear"

Reflections From a Black Mirror

Black Mirror is one of the best shows on television.

It is unusually deep and powerful social criticism, sometimes it is so seamless (and contemporary) that its criticism can often be mistaken as a celebration of elements of the status quo (much like many of the fans of Starship Troopers love that movie for its call to fascism).

Many have compared Black Mirror to the Twilight Zone.

I guess that is fair but most Twilight Zone episodes operated in defense of the social order while I think of Black Mirror as an excoriation of our ethical status quo and a window into how technology has magnified our cultural hypocrisy and cruelty (I will admit that this might be unfair to the TZ).

Anyway, I am going to write some pieces, under this name ("reflections from a Black Mirror") on the episodes that most profoundly affect me (yes, I just started watching the new episodes - they are coming soon).

Unlike my other writing about television, I think this will probably end up more commentary than the usual recap.

If you have not watched Black Mirror S2 E2 White Bear * Spoiler Alert *

Black Mirror: Series 2 Episode 2 "White Bear"

The story contained in this episode is pretty simple. Humans have transformed prison into a co-productive reality show in which the cast and tourists participate in the ongoing punishment and daily torture of convicted sociopaths.

In particular, Victoria Skillane (Lenora Crichlow) is a convicted child murderer. She is, however, forced to endure a nightly process of her mind being wiped so that she will wake with amnesia every day. Once she wakes up she is chased around a park by strange and terrifying people. The park is called "White Bear" and Victoria is chased all over town as she gradually puts the pieces of what she has done back into place.

At the end of the morality play, she ends up on stage in front of a crowd of people screaming and yelling at her. The people who participated with her during the play are revealed to be actors and she is confronted on stage with the crimes she has been convicted of (as if for the first time).

She is then paraded along a long street on a walk of shame including thousands of screaming tourists throwing insults and rotten vegetables, she is mind wiped again, and the whole play starts up again once she wakes up. It is made very clear that the process of having her mind wiped is an intentionally painful process.

In every way, during her daily journey around the park, she is treated like a free-ranging zoo animal. Tourists to the park stand around taking pictures of her as she runs around the town and surrounding areas trying to figure out what has happened to her. 

Surplus Enjoyment and Punishment

Slavoj Zizek, the somewhat Lacan obsessed (and repetitive) but brilliant, Slovenian social critic likes to talk about "Jouissance" and "excess pleasure" and about how it relates to the beauty in which we hide our horrors. 

Okay, that sounds pretty complicated and kind of irrelevant to what we are discussing, but it is pretty important in my opinion, so I had better do a better job of explaining this.

What I am going to suggest it that our society takes pleasure in inflicting pain on people it holds in low moral regard. The pleasure that we get from our feelings of righteous revenge blocks our ability to see the moral failing inherent in our harming another human being.

We block or filter the horror through the lens of pleasure. When we are not the one's committing the horror, we often passively watch and enjoy the horror or artistic representation of the horror that has already been committed (playing the home game).

You could say this episode of Black Mirror itself is an exposition of this type of beauty hiding the horror of the thing, as Zizek himself shared:

"There is a nice anecdote about the Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed that illustrates this idea of beauty veiling the horror of the Thing. For the purposes of hotel registers when on the road Reed would adopt the pseudonym Raymond Chandler. Asked what he liked about the noir genius of the detective story he replied, “Biting humor and succinctness”. When asked for an example he gave the line ‘That blonde is about as beautiful as a split lip.’"

Our own nation is obsessed with detective stories and with punishment. We seem to, as a society, love our own particular blonde with a split lip (just watch election 2016).

I would bet at least half of the show's on television are police procedurals or celebrations of the hegemony at the heart of state power.

I see CSI and Law and Order as an ongoing American version of "Triumph of the Will" celebrating the victory and hiding the horror of our justice system in the beauty of revenge-porn.

In the beautiful excess pleasure of revenge, we enjoy or ignore the horrors we engage in or watch. We have become a society of rubberneckers and sadists.

I suspect that many people who watched "White Bear" secretly wished they were participating in the story themselves. Some, I suspect, even wish our own justice system operated exactly like the system in the dystopian society they were watching on Black Mirror. 

But here is the problem. There is NOTHING admirable about the justice system represented on Black Mirror.

The Agony and the Ecstacy

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Since, as I have admitted many times in here before, I have formerly been an inmate at one of the wonderful correctional facilities located in the United States, perhaps this episode hit home a bit harder.

Throughout the entire White Bear episode, the tourists and actors engage in terrible behaviors masked by their righteous certainty that because the object of their sadism is a convicted child killer it makes anything that they do okay. 

Evil becomes changed, defined not by what the act we commit, but by who we commit acts against. We see another example of this "beauty masking cruelty" process on the HBO series Westworld. Westworld is an amusement park staffed by lifelike robots able to interact with the guests because they programmed with advanced artificial intelligence

The truth behind the beautiful scenic location, the romantic Western backdrop, and the incredibly lifelike characters is that Westworld is really just a beautiful place where people can feel no guilt for acting out their sexual or violent (or sexually violent) fantasies on the robots. Robots, you see, have no rights and can have their minds wiped after each encounter.

I think the argument both Black Mirror and Westworld are making here is that we have become a society that manufactures cruelty as entertainment (Black Mirror is a little more morally courageous in my opinion because the object of the cruelty is not morally blameless.)

Westworld is not a show about the Dinosaur's attacking the visitors to Jurassic Park. The visitors to Westworld are the carnivorous and uncaring hungry Dinosaurs.

In much the same way, White Bear is not some horror story about a far away possible future for evil-doers.

This was not a cautionary tale for future criminals (although in a sense it is also that).

White Bear is a commentary on a society that takes pleasure in causing other human beings pain.

A society full of popular reality shows celebrating jail and punishment (from "OZ" to "60 days in" to whatever that Nancy Grace abomination is called.). A society that isn't sad that it has to punish it's broken or damaged people, but that literally takes enjoyment watching it. 

A society that has an open and often celebratory debate about the virtues of torturing prisoners of war.

A society that cares about the death of US civilians but ignores the hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of civilians who have been indiscriminately killed in the name of those same civilians.

A society that has looked the other way as the largest prison system in the history of the world has been created  right here in the USA.

So am I saying we shouldn't take action when crimes are committed? Of course not.

So, what am I saying?

I am saying that we should not take pride or personal pleasure in participating in the pain of others. We certainly should not watch it for our own enjoyment (or keep it at arms lengths either).

And there is one other thing, that unless you were really thinking about what you were seeing you might not have considered (maybe you did and it was just me who came to this thought late). For the majority of the "White Bear" episode, Victoria has no idea she has committed a crime. Most of the mockery, free play at her expense, and emotional and physical torture are committed upon a woman who has no idea that she is morally culpable for committing a crime. 

In other words, people are not just taking pleasure (surplus pleasure IMHO) in torturing a guilty criminal, they are taking surplus pleasure in torturing a body that has been repeatedly changed (wiped innocent) in order to punish IT (the body) for the crime IT (the body) had committed.

Given that our country is rife with laws allowing juveniles to be tried as adults, mentally ill and incompetent people to be executed, and excessive punishment of people with compulsive disorders this seems a valid subject position to place our society against. This is not an episode full of science fiction or even full of fiction.

Anyway, perhaps, in seeing the joy on the faces of those engaging in revenge-porn for profit we can finally begin to understand that we should, as Kant suggested, act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become universal law.

Okay, well, that is the end of my first foray into the world of Black Mirror. Hope you enjoyed it (maybe that was the wrong word to use here?).

What did you think of White Bear?

How do you like Black Mirror?

Were you rooting for the bugs in Starship Troopers?

Let me know what you are thinking, leave a comment!

Starship Troopers
Starring John Cunningham, Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey