[page 77] Black Mirror directly addresses Sigmund Freud’s definition of the uncanny as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (1-2). The eeriness one experiences while watching the show cleverly reveals fears of elements that we thought long gone, but that we can now identify in our very own society. As part of a class entitled “The Person and Society,” and which aims to dissect and critique the seminal ideas that have given us our conception of a good community, it seems very ad hoc to explore a fictional society in order to best identify where our very real community stands. It is with this idea in mind that my class watches “Men Against Fire.”
On the second day of class, after students have shared their ideas on what a person is and the relation that definition holds to society, we watch “Men Against Fire.” This episode from season three introduces us to a post-war world with a technologically advanced military organization that is aided by a MASS implant in their fight against the “roaches”—a pillaging group of individuals who are not part of the community. The “roaches” look like ugly mutants who only produce high shrieking noises; we later learn that they have “Higher rates of cancer. Muscular dystrophy. MS. SLS. Substandard IQ. Criminal Tendencies. Sexual deviancy” and that they look no different than regular humans, except that the MASS implant changes the way in which combatants perceive the “roaches.” The MASS implant not only provides the combatants with intelligence on their operations, it also alters the way in which they perceive reality, from the smell of the area where they are to feeling no sympathy for the “roaches.”
“Stripe” (whose real name is Koinage) comes to understand all the ways in which the implant regulates his life after a confrontation with a “roach.” He doesn’t see mutant beings in front of him, thus he can’t understand why his partner, “Hunter” Raiman is killing all of them. His implant has been damaged, and he awakes to a disturbing reality. [page 78]
When discussing the episode, students clearly address the way in which the “roaches” have been Otherized; they struggle to understand why this society has decided to deal with them this way. Why dispose of them instead of figuring out a way to help them? Technologically, this society is more advanced than ours, yet the figure of the “Other” as a threatening one still looms large. Students talk about how the references that are used to talk about the “roaches” have been used previously—and currently!—against certain ethnic, racial, and gender-non-conforming groups. These Otherized groups have been said to carry diseases that are transmittable, they are less smart and capable than the dominant members of society, they are sexually deviant, they are criminals who steal the resources of other, hard-working people. The students realize that this is not just fiction; this is the way in which our society has historically functioned, although less technologically savvy. But technology, by itself, does not Otherize people: ideology, carefully constructed, does. Thus we move to study the origins of this Othering.
As a class, we first read and analyze Book I of Aristotle’s Politics, where he establishes that man is the master of the household; women, children, and slaves are not equipped to rule over others. Students evaluate the reasons that Aristotle has to make these claims, and although they wholeheartedly disagree with him, they see that our society is still influenced by classifications like the ones that he made.
It is important that students know that critiquing a philosopher is part of doing philosophy, and to that end, we read Bartolome de las Casas’s In Defense of the Indians, so that students can see how to respond to other people’s ideas and practices and, more importantly, so that they see that even in times when it was generally accepted to treat those who were different as Others, there were people who had the wherewithal to point out that such differences and classifications were dangerous, concentrating on assumptions rather than on fact. Students read and analyze the way in which las Casas shows that the natives of the Americas are not to be treated as natural slaves, and they relate these concepts to Black Mirror’s “Men Against Fire,” especially the part where the “roaches” are seen developing the technology that they need to fight back. The Otherized people are usually seen as technologically challenged, but this might be due to the fact that people who Other [page 79] them do not spend any significant time learning from or with them. This is actually one of the most common reflections that students voice at the end of our discussion of las Casas’s work.
As my aim is for students to develop an understanding that philosophical work can be both oppressive and liberating, later on in the semester we read Charles W. Mills’s The Racial Contract. Mills analyzes the ways in which philosophical ideas such as those espoused by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacque Rousseau—among others—formulated the idea of society and the social contract, while they also formulated the existence of a racial contract. Mills declares that those who are signatories are not the only ones who benefit from this racial contract, as anyone who is, like them, white has immediately benefitted from these arrangements. When discussing this in relation to “Men Against Fire,” students point out that the villagers do not have a MASS implant, yet they also accuse, harass, and police the “roaches.” There seems to be something that makes the villagers also turn against the “roaches” and this is the work of ideology, of the creation of systems that teach us who is part of the in-group and who is not. A MASS implant is not always required in order to be less sympathetic to those who are Otherized; the stories we tell, the representation that Others have, are part of the collective disregard for others, for the vulnerability to which societies expose some human beings who live amongst them.
“Men Against Fire” is uncanny in that, at first, this society feels terrible and horrifying to the viewer, yet after carefully studying the way in which society works around us, we understand that their society is indeed ours. Students can now be more careful, hopefully, in reading the ways in which we can become like “Stripe” and “Hunter” and blindly attack those who are not necessarily inferior or different from us.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” 1919. Available online at http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf, accessed 1 July 2018.