.....but FREEDOM!!!!

Jan 11, 2014 00:20

We talk a lot about the ability of fictional characters to make choices freely. This is good, of course, but sometimes these conversations trip up on the fact that there are a lot of types of/aspects to freedom, and therefore, a lot of ways to be constrained. So I want to talk about the connotations of some words and phrases related to choice and autonomy. I do mean connotations rather than meanings - at bottom, we are talking about a lot of angles to the same thing, but generally speaking, use of these words between “cursory” and “transcendent” is, for good reason, a little more specialized.

I am going to be writing this in the second person, with the general “you,” for the reason that “he/she/they/the character/&c” is unwieldly. Also, I’ve used spoiler cuts liberally throughout, so that you can avoid spoilery examples, long or short, or long and possibly spoilery digressions into shows you don’t care about. General worldbuilding stuff that you’d get in the thumbnail summary of a show - shit is crazy on Pretty Little Liars, stay the fuck out of Mystic Falls - I haven’t bothered.

There are a lot of other aspects of human freedom, and therefore constraints on it. I'm focusing on these three terms rather than, for example, systemic curtailments on the freedom of groups of people. Unfortunately, the more urgent issue here is by far getting people to acknowledge and discuss *isms.

AGENCY, as fandom generally applies it, is about the ability of individuals to make independent decisions and take autonomous action. Basically, it’s whether or not we’d say the character can credibly be described as the subject in their own individual character arc.

-getting what you want all the time
-having good things happen to you.
- Personal agency does not include an entitlement to have others act the way you want them to act. You are entitled to YOUR agency. You are not entitled to MY agency.

Ex: This is a problem TVD had for some time but has now started to complicate in a very nifty way, that Elena's right to make decisions for herself was conflated with her entitlement to make decisions for others.

Responsibility vs Agency:

So, back to ME. I tutor formal logic on and off (yeah, yeah, no wonder fandom makes my teeth itch) and a point I’ve ended up making a lot is that “‘but’ is just another word for ‘and.’” That’s the first and easiest way to look for a writer’s/speaker’s agenda: read “but” as “and” and see what jumps out at you.

These two words should be functionally interchangeable, as they both specifically refer to the question of whether an individual was making a conscious choice as a subject in their own right. The difference here is that slippery shading issue: when we want to cast disapproval, we talk about “responsibility,” and when we want to express sympathy (usually for someone who’s disempowered) we talk about “agency.” “Responsibility,” for whatever reason, tends to bleed into “culpability” which signifies an actual moral wrong; “agency” tends to be used to centralize the experience of the entity making the choice to a point and insulate them from the impact those choices have on others.

[Buffyverse]This is why a lot of the questions about RESPONSIBILITY!!!! In the Buffyverse frustrate me so much. “ARE soulless vampires/magic addicts/whatever RESPONSIBLE for their ACTIONS or AREN’T THEY??!” And people cling to this LACK OF CLARITY!!!! as the objective-sounding justification for being pissed that their fave is arguably accountable/their least fave is inadequately punished in-universe or loathed by other fans, when most of the time, the answer is, quite clearly, “kind of.” No, it wouldn’t be all that useful IRL, but if soulless vampires were real, the moral question of responsibility would be moot because you would stay the fuck away from them regardless. The interesting questions are more along the lines of: in what ways does being soulless influence the thought processes of Buffyverse vampires? Is Buffyverse magic more of an external influence on the mind, or something that’s given life by the personality of the person using it?

Of course there are times when what people mean by “it’s not CLEAR if THE NARRATIVE holds them RESPONSIBLE!!” is actually “but I REALLY WANNA crap on Xander/Wes/whoever for something that happened after we saw them get roofied and congratulate myself on dealing a crippling blow to rape culture!” [COMMENTARY REDACTED.]

Either way, I think we sometimes seem to forget that when we’re talking about fictional characters, we need not - in fact, I would argue that we SHOULD not - treat agency/responsibility as an all-or-nothing concept, where either a character has to be let off the hook entirely or be SHUNNED AND SCORNED FOREVERMORE BECAUSE NO ABSOLUTION &C. Basically, people set themselves up as judge and jury (in a very specific US-ian way), where understanding dynamics between fictional characters must involve a pithy zero-sum evaluation which is both normative and decisive. Whether or not that’s a great way to build a criminal justice system is up for debate, but as a matter of morality in human interaction it’s virtually useless a great deal of the time, and it’s a counterproductive way of looking at fictional characters.

And look, I don’t like this regardless of whether it’s annoying or immoral, but I do frequently object to the heavily binary misframing of the agency issue when we’re talking about abuse, particularly the harder-to-pinpoint types of psychological abuse. Someone who is doing triage protecting their understanding of reality and their very sense of self may well try to maximize their personal agency, or even tell themselves they have agency when they patently do not have it (and hey, no judgment, whatever gets someone in that situation through the day), but that does not mean they are entirely culpable for their actions, or even that they are always the party most culpable for their actions. And I don’t believe acknowledging this undermines a character’s agency, in terms of their ability to be the subject of their own arc - “what it’s like to have your autonomy trampled upon” is a subjective experience which is a totally valid story to tell.

That’s my last issue with the “agency” question. When used as a heavily gendered term, which it more and more seems to be, it’s started to feel like a subtle nudge toward claiming objective superiority for SFCs, women with obvious power and comfort using that power. Bullshit. I think we need more stories about women whose agency is compromised - not because we need to decrease the voices of women in fiction, but because we need to be more honest about women’s lives as we live them.
Lately, I’ve noticed myself being a lot more likely to use the word “autonomy” where I think fandom convention would say “agency.” That’s become a more precise way to articulate what I mean because it emphasizes the individual as subject, whether or not the character in question is a part of the ~action.

FREE WILL: While it can be accurately used to mean other things, the phrase "free will" tends to be used in order to connote theological/existential questions such as: is there or is there not a master plan, a single predetermined narrative, which some external authority figure can force human beings to play out?

-the same thing as agency
-the same thing as freedom from all constraints
THAT IS TO SAY, there can be a universe within which people (/entities with human cognitive processes) would be said to possess free will as the term is usually used, and yet still find themselves in situations wherein they are, as a matter of practicality and fairness, not free to make certain choices, or indeed, in which they effectively have no choice as to how they will act.

Ex: The Pretty Little Liars have free will, in that the Liarverse lacks any evidence of a metaphysical force marshalling the Liars from event to event, from non-choice to non-choice. Everyone on Pretty Little Liars is a mundane non-super who is conscious of their ability to make decisions on their own behalf. And yet, due to the fact that some mundane non-supers regularly choose (or “choose”) to fixate on the girls and the people around them, using the many and various resources at their mundane and natural disposal to blackmail, stalk, and murder in order to control the Liars’ actions, only the most callously obtuse among us would say that the Liars are free in any meaningful sense.

[Supernatural]This is why I dislike the "Team Free Will" thing. It is the reason S5 was a disappointment relative to the previous and following seasons, and frankly the terminology is so abused in fandom that I have come to tune out entirely when I see even a casually affectionate use of the term. The thing is, the characters ONLY had “free will” in the strictly limited sense I’m talking about, on the topic of whether or not there is an enforceable metaphysical master plan. But that’s actually an incredibly disempowering framing of “free will” if you’re a person who thinks in terms of choice and autonomy, because human choice has no bearing on the existence of this particular type of free will. We can’t make it or break it, we can only make certain observations about the world as it is and then take a stab at how to describe it.

If you broaden the scope of “free will” a little bit past the theological connotations, to a place where it can actually be about the basic human dignity of choices made with meaningful, non-knife-to-your-throat CONSENT, things are a lot dicier. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a narrative failure - both of my all-time favorite shows are about the fundamental truth that human beings live in a world where we have theological free will but often lack meaningful choices in important circumstances - but the fact that the show leaned so hard on a term with such disempowering connotations even at rally-the-forces type moments was and is distracting in a bad way for me.

I think the waters get especially muddied on this due to the Greek tragedy structure of S4. Sam’s arc in S4 is purportedly about hubris in the Sophocles-thought-so sense - that is, of a human being trying to fight back against the destiny selected for him by divine forces and being smacked down hard for his troubles. If S5 were really a win against that, then I’d be willing to roll with it as a subversion, but actually it ends with…the apocalypse averted, which is a net draw (ie, NOT a win) for The World, and with Sam in hell anticipating an eternity of torment for his HUBRIS, the great sin of not liking the decisions of those more powerful than himself and doing something about it. I’m comfortable calling that whole situation a net loss. That is to say, S5 continues and buttresses the classically fatalist arc of S4, and just because you say “team free will!!” a lot does not mean you are actually demonstrating that the characters have free will. IMO it just makes them look even more like pathetically deluded puppets who don’t even know what hand is up their ass.

In terms of the show overall, I don’t think this is make-or-break, because S6 and especially S8 have done a lot to acknowledge the complications there, but it’s something that fandom at large (especially, but not solely, the should’ve-ended-there-ers) tends to take on face value even though it hurts the intended philosophical thrust of the season.

And the converse: I’m not going to do DESTINY/FATE/DIVINE WILL “is” because (1) that is something that will vary from mythverse to mythverse and (2) these each also have a bunch of fine-tuned philosophical connotations, and various fandoms tend to conflate them in service of the same fallacy, so we’ll just put them under the penumbra of determinism. My main thing here is that a ‘verse which postulates the existence of a higher power does not actually mean that determinism as we usually think of it exists. Plenty of religions have noninterventionist deities, or deities that aren’t interested in this particular plot, or deities that make a point to give people a series of options in order to allow for free will within certain parameters.

[BSG]So, no. The end of BSG wasn’t “God did it.” I am 100% on board with saying that the end of BSG was stupid and offensive and awful for many reasons, but this isn’t one of them.

CONSENT IS: An agreement between at least two parties to a particular interaction or transaction. In order to be meaningful, consent requires such factors as (non-exhaustive): the lack of force or other coercion, the lack of material deception, an awareness of the right and ability to refuse, and soundness of mind (eg sobriety and adequate developmental capabilities).

I am a stickler about the use of the term “consent” for many reasons, not least of which is because it tends strongly to have connotations very specific to conversations about rape culture. Consent, sexual or otherwise, is something that most of us have internalized a lot of seriously awful messages about, and fiction has great power both to deconstruct and reinforce those messages. (I can't really pick out a source on this, but recommended reading: [1] [2] [3].)

-begrudging acquiescence in situations involving use of force, threats made against the person involved or third parties, or psychological manipulation strong enough to compromise a person’s understanding of their actions or options
-apparent assent which occurs while the person is under a mind-altering influence
-an all-access lifetime pass. Consent to a pattern of interaction or transaction over an extended period must be reaffirmed.
-a whole lot of other things, which I actually don’t think I so much have to rehash. I think we should bear in mind, though, that the basic principles that a critical mass of society is starting to get wrt sexual consent can and ought to be implemented on a wide range of situations where consent is a relevant factor.

Examples from fantasy shows: consent is not present in body-swaps or possessions or any time one entity has control over another entity’s body. Consent is not present when vampire compulsion is used on TVD. Consent is not present when Buffyverse vampires utilize or threaten to utilize their superior force on humans. Vessel “consent” on Supernatural is anything but meaningful consent.

So, let’s walk this through: imagine someone walks into a corner shop, holds a gun to the clerk’s head, and says “give me all the money in the register.” The clerk, who reasonably fears for their life, complies.

Does the clerk have agency in this situation? Yes. The clerk could have told the robber to go fuck themselves. They, as subject in their own right, decided that arguing back with the robber was not worth their life. Another way of saying this is that they are responsible for their own behavior - indeed, I would commend the clerk on behaving responsibly in a normative sense by trying to keep the situation from escalating. This does not, of course, mean that any reasonable person or society would hold the clerk culpable for making the responsible choice.

Did the clerk have free will in this situation? Absent any evidence of an interventionist higher power taking an interest in the clerk’s end of this situation, sure, the clerk had free will.

Did the clerk consent to participation in the robbery? No. Not even if they squeaked out a coerced “yes” or “okay.” (If you got this last one wrong, you need to go to the back of the class and think about what even made you this way.)

So. The lack of clarity about this obviously grates. Culpability disappears or materializes through agency/responsibility sleight of hand. “Free will!11!!” gets used as a victim-blame-free card. “Consent” means one thing for a character whose situation we can identify with, and something a lot less stringent for one we can’t. &c, &c.

supernatural, words mean things, pretty little liars, meta-fantastica, btvs/ats, tvd, rape culture

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