Thursday, 24 December 2009

A Na'vi Tarred (By A Human's Brush)?: Part 1

(If you haven't seen Season 3 of BSG yet, the post below has mild spoilers. Really, though, what's wrong with you? Season 4 is the shit one.)

(Edit: Wait, forget that. It's the second post that will need that spoiler warning. I blame still being all weak and pathetic from the fever).

Hurrah! At last, I can sit at a computer for an extended period of time without my brain worrying I'm going to get swallowed by the monitor.

The good Sek makes an interesting case over at Obsidian Wings as to whether or not that Avatar film what everyone is talking about can be considered to be racist.

Much of his argument is impressively put together. It's certainly difficult to shake the obvious echoes of Dances With Wolves style implications that the fact a race is being wiped out necessarily makes it a better, more noble and more spiritual (or am I off-base with regard to DwW; I don't remember it in great detail). One may consider such a race to be all those things in addition to one that is being destroyed, but if Sek wants to argue that to many people there is a correlation between the former and the latter, I would at least consider it plausible, with the fairly healthy caveats that a) an awful lot of people romanticise the past in general anyway, and b) for every person who desperately traces his family tree looking for a sliver of Cheyenne heritage, I'd submit that there is someone else working on the principle that if them thar "Injuns" weren't inferior to Whitey, they would have invented rifles and pocket watches.

That aside, there are a couple of points that I think warrant further attention, with regard to a larger issue. In the end, this post got so ludicrously unwieldy that I decided to split it into two sections, which can roughly be described as "Is it racist to assume aliens will be markedly different to us?", and "Is there an alternative way at looking at what the film is doing?". This post deals with the first question, and is somewhat longer than the next one.

I think the moment at which I diverge significantly from Sek's essay is when he says this:
The Na'vi are not merely distrustful of "the space people," they're inherently xenophobic, incapable of trusting any sentient being that doesn't look like them. If that mistrust is justified for some other reason (like a hairy first contact), the film never mentions it, meaning (in a classic case of projection) the humans assume that the Na'vi will be xenophobic before they even meet them.
It would perhaps be unfair to ask who is projecting what at this point, but I certainly think it's a danger sign when an argument relies on the assumption that if we didn't see something in a film, it didn't happen (though it might weaken the film to leave it out). I won't listen to that argument when people tell me Cameron fucked up Terminator 2 because the T-1000 has no organic skin covering (though I know Gooder feels very differently on that point), and I won't listen to it when they're telling me that without seeing the reason why two groups are so hostile to each other, it necessarily makes them both racist. Besides, didn't Grace at least heavily imply that relations had recently gone downhill, which certainly suggests some kind of specific, off-screen incident? Anyway, at its most basic, you may as well argue that until Sully gets into his wheelchair for the first time (and the film deserves points for delaying that reveal for as long as possible), he must have use of his legs.

I'm also not entirely convinced that "The film made me do it" is a particularly healthy arguing tactic. Yes, Avatar is goddamned fucking dumb, but Sek isn't, and that means conflating species to race and racism to xenophobia is a highly questionable move. I think the latter two words in particular drift apart in meaning pretty much in direct proportion to the number of parsecs between the two groups.

At this point I must pause to confess that this might, in fact (oh, irony of ironies) be a case of me projecting, but let's consider Sek's final analogy:
For decades, coaches and scouts wished they could find a black body with a white brain in it. ("If only someone could find a way to stuff Peyton Manning's brain into JaMarcus Russell's body!") The essentialist logic at play there is obvious: black people are more athletic than white, and white people are smarter than black. No matter how descriptive these people thought they were being, in truth they were creating the conditions they claimed to describe: black quarterbacks were increasingly valued for raw athleticism, white athletes for their pocket presence and tactical acumen. That's an expectations game based on racist expectations ... and it works according to the same logic behind the narrative of Avatar.
Emphasis mine.

To this observer, it appears that Sek is arguing from the perspective that it is racist to assume another race will be different from your own. This is also my own assumption, when we talk about humanity at least, so it's worth unpacking.

Here's a question: do you believe that there is no statistically meaningful difference between the athletic prowess of black people and white people, and/or that there is no statistically meaningful difference between the intellectual dexterity of black people and white people?



For me, I've always said "yes" based on what I can only define as an axiomatic principle: all races are equal. I'm not sure it's possible to lack that foundation and be a liberal (or social liberal at least), though I have a horrible feeling some amongst our ranks would agree that this is true unless they fall into Evil Religion X [1]. Of course, there is a particular subset of conservatives who would do the exact same thing when asked "Are tax cuts invariably beneficial?" [2], so I need more than that. At this point, I reach into my mathematical experience, and argue that because we share the same DNA, it is a reasonable null hypothesis to assume that the amount of variation between sub-groups is zero, and wait to see if anyone can ever prove that supposition wrong. It's not that I don't care whether the hypothesis is true - I very much hope that it is - it's just that I get uncomfortable around any argument that says "It just is", even if I'm the one who's making it (even if the above is probably just a more technical way of saying "Why on Earth wouldn't you assume two sub-groups of the same species would be pretty much the same?").

So that's where I stand. And as far as I know, that null hypothesis is still unassailable. And it's not like nobody has tried, or lacked a vested interest for doing so. I've seen enough people savage The Bell Curve to know it comes nowhere close to doing what it purported to do. When I ponder why in the nine years I've spent in this maths department there has been (to the best of my recollection) only one black lecturer, I assume it is either coincidence, some inner issue of my own that makes that seem remarkable (that's the one that worries me a little), or perhaps one or more external factors, whatever they may be. I would want each and every one of those possibilities proved to me before I could even begin to countenance the idea that somehow maths is a white person's game.

So this idea of the null hypothesis seems inherently reasonable to me. Critically, though, all of that disappears once you talk about alien races.

Sek talks about being encouraged by the film to consider race as analogous to species. He's missing the larger picture here; he's not just conflating those two terms, he's bundling the entire concept of taxonomy into one useless heap. Are the Na'vi even the same class? The same phylum? Does something so locally understood as the concept of a "spine" have any meaning here? Sure, I assume the Na'vi have what look like spines (it didn't occur to me to check). They also have what look like plaits, and that went pretty damn screwy.

If we ever do come into contact with an alien race, I would most certainly hope we don't start trading blows. But it would be downright ludicrous to suggest it demonstrates racist principles to assume that they won't be like us. That's, y'know, probability. If you wanted to take this to its furthest point, could you not argue it's racist to assume an alien race will be like us to the point where disliking us can be considered racist? I think that's probably a stretch, but I hope the point comes through.

While we're on the subject of aliens and science-fiction, of course, it's worth noting that the idea of humanity trampling over shit because we have too much technology and not enough faith/awareness has been a genre staple for decades. That, though, is something I shall go into more detail on later in the day.

[1] Also, just to be crystal clear, while I think that principle is a necessary condition for social liberalism, I am in no way suggesting anyone else necessarily lacks it.

[2] Perhaps that's a little far, perhaps it should be "Do you believe the next tax cut will be beneficial?" I'm guessing it's less the assumption that the world would be rainbows and ice-cream if only all tax was abolished, so much as the theory that if the country's infrastructure hasn't entirely collapsed yet, then there must be room for more goodies.


Gooder said...

I felt it was pretty heavily implied that something happend between the humans and Nav'i that wrecked relations and is the reason why they distrusted the 'skypeople'

As for the other side of things I think it is fair to assume an alien race would be different from ourselves in at least some respects and I don't see how that could be considered rascist.

Even on Earth I assume a man from the far east will culturally be different in outlook to me, does that make me racist or just sensible? Assuming difference doesn't automatically mean you look down\object on the differences

Gooder said...

Having read the post in question I have to say his argument seems fairly weak to me (and I'd certainly not call it an 'essay')

For a start I'd aruge that Jake's final move into his avatar body is more linked to his paralysis than the planet/Nav'i not accepting him in his human body. And there is nothing about him having to foresake is 'humanity' in the film

I'm also pretty sure the humans were being resisted because they were damaging the plant and the nav'i's homes rather than just becasue they looked different.

It's also worth noting the,Weaver's character was recieved openly but many of the Nav'i and we only see them treating her negativily once Cpl Evil starts blowing everything up.

I'm not conivinced at all by the arguement that Avatar is rascist.

If only it were that interesting!

SpaceSquid said...

'Essay' was kinda loosely used, I confess.

jamie said...

I've started reading this and then stopped, because I'm assuming there are spoilers for Avatar as well? Let me know if not...

Gooder said...

No, not really. Sicne Avatar is so simply plotted if you don't know exactly where it's going within ten minutes of it starting then I'd be very, very, very surprised.

SpaceSquid said...

I agree with Gooder that a film so cliched cannot possibly be spoiled, but in the sense of discussing the conclusion, then yes, here be spoilers. I'd assumed the nature of the discussion would make that obvious; maybe I should have put up a reminder.