The Gnawing Problem in The Walking Dead

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There’s something rotten about The Walking Dead, but I haven’t put my finger on it until the last few episodes of this second season.  The problem is this: The Walking Dead isn’t about zombies, it’s about the survival of traditional conservative moral values in the face of a social breakdown.

You're running the wrong way.


Zombie films are basically war films in which civilians are pitted against an easily defeated invading army.  The prospect of zombies is frightening only in their definition: they are undead, which is unsettling to those of us who previously considered death a permanent state of immobility.  But they are also slow, stupid, unorganized and as it turns out quite killable, which makes avoiding them or fighting them not especially difficult.

Consider which would actually be worse: to be stalked by a dozen zombies, or by a dozen hungry tigers?  And yet that is never the basis of a movie.  But it was the basis of human civilization untold thousands of years ago.

The function of zombies in these stories is to destroy the social order without the prospect of it being revived quickly or replaced with a revived central authority. And that is the case in this series as well.  There is no cure, and the radio and TV don’t work.  Therefore, society is finished and what civilization survives depends on the few survivors.

But The Walking Dead has spent most of this season telling us that the survival of civilization means clinging to that now-dead soziety, in maintaining the traditional conservative American values in the face of their complete obsolescence, as if those values themselves were the sum total of civilization.

Zombies? Sure, the zombies in Hershel’s barn represent his clinging to the past, the unspoken tension between the two groups of people on the farm, and Shane’s bottled rage.  But beyond that, the zombies have been little more than fan service, a quick jolt of action to break up the tedium of endless dialogue that focuses on property rights, enforcing gender roles, the sanctity of marriage and relationships, gun rights, and every other conservative talking point.

The Walking Dead reinforces a suspicion I’ve long held: that American television can never be countercultural.  It is always  slightly right-of-center.  It is always safe and predictable, reinforcing the status quo.  It is never progressive, never threatening.  Film on the other hand, can be countercultural, challenging to the status quo.  And it can be dangerous.

At no point in this season of the Walking Dead, which focuses on the clashes between the farmer’s family and the itinerant travelers who have camped on his farm, did any character ever present the idea that they didn’t need to ask for permission to stay on the farm, because the idea of property ownership died the moment the first call to 911 went unanswered.  No one suggested that now that society has collapsed, this is a chance t finally build a socialist utopia in which everyone owns everything in common.

Or conversely, at no point did any character ever present the notion that now that the dead walk the earth, it turns out that might actually does make right.  That property can be owned only to the extent that its possession can be enforced with direct violence.  If Group A has more guns than Group B, Group A automatically owns everything Group B thought it owned. Rick’s group showed up on Hershel’s farm armed to the teeth. Hershel doesn’t carry a gun, therefore Hershel is trespassing on their farm, not the other way around.  Priority is irrelevant.

Likewise, we’ve been treated to more scenes of women being maternal housekeepers and men being the hunter gatherers than I could possibly list.  Wouldn’t the men be just as relieved to find a house worth keeping as the women that they would jump at the opportunity to maintain it?  Wouldn’t women be just as frightened and nervous about the lack of a predictable food and medical supply that they would seize any opportunity to forage, scrounge, or hunt for food or supplies?  But we don’t see that.  Once they set up camp on the farm, it was Father Knows Best all over again. Women make the food, women hang the laundry, men keep watch, men look for Sophia.

Why are we expected to believe that the issue of Shane sleeping with rick’s wife would cause problems?  When society vanishes, taking with it every barrier to marital dissolution, wouldn’t marriage itself vanish as well?  Marital relationships are tenuous even now. The world ending would strengthen the institution.  “Yes, Rick, I banged Shane when I thought you were dead.  By the way, have you noticed that the world has ended?”

Post-apocalyptic stories are typically about how the survivors carry on, about how civilization lasts.  No work has addressed this better than The Road.  But these stories usually show civilization surviving because at it’s most basic civilization is very simple: we self-organize to help each other.  Everything else on top of that, the rules, the morality, and the norms are context-sensitive and unique to the particular circumstances.

But the The Walking Dead confuses civilization with modern society, which in some respects is monstrously uncivilized.  Would the homeless be better off or worse of after a zombie holocaust? In the Walking Dead, civilization survives only while the traditional ideas of property rights, gender roles, and family relationships survive, because for the show’s viewers, those things constitute the entirely of our existence.  We know of no other form of civilization. But we only have this institutional and moral baggage <i>because</i> of society , which has to reinforce them capitalize on them for the benefit of the many, even if it is to the detriment of the few.  But if the few are all that is left, does it make sense to keep carrying that baggage?

If society collapsed, civilization might be better served by abandoning these ideas.  In fact, a scenario like the one depicted in this show–in which the social order collapses but society’s collective knowledge is still retained–might call for an entirely new set of ideas, ones that turn the small population, the vast stores of knowledge, and the complete absence of central authority, and the consumer society into advantages.

Yes, the dead walk the earth, hungry for the flesh of the living.  But look on the bright side.
 

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25 Responses to The Gnawing Problem in The Walking Dead

  1. thecobrasnose says:

    Most horror movies are conservative in nature because as Margaret Thatcher once said, “the facts of life are conservative.” The most successful zombie movies (and I’ll stick with movies for now because there isn’t a sampling of zombie TV shows to legitimately compare) tend to be especially conservative because the problem is so irreducible–the walking dead are the uncanny and awful remnant of the living and of loved ones. Because it’s so simple a principle, the best examples lend themselves to interpretation: The Night of the Living Dead as a critique of the Vietnam War, Dawn of the Dead of consumerism, Re-Animator of academic jealousy and politics (“Plagiarist!”), Dead Alive as oedipal nightmare, 28 Weeks Later of the tragedy that ensues when hard rules are broken, etc. Bad zombie movies often do exactly what you accuse The Walking Dead of; for example, the ludicrous cash economy of Land of the Dead.

    So I disagree that the problem with The Walking Dead is its conservative tendencies, but that it is a boring and terribly written program. I bailed after season one and from what I’ve heard and read here, it’s only gotten worse.

  2. operator says:

    The function of zombies in these stories is to destroy the social order without the prospect of it being revived quickly or replaced with a revived central authority.

    Were that entirely the case, the zombie hordes could eventually desiccate or rot into oblivion – but that is not the case, as zombies are typically a persistent threat. As tvtropes.org describes the function of the zombie apocalypse: “the breakdown of society, the fear that your Fire-Forged Friends could be infected and turned against you without warning, are just as or more important to a zombie story as the zombies themselves”

    Sure, Walking Dead is full of “walkers”, but if you’re watching horror serial with a cast of more than two or three characters, you know that some percentage of those with speaking parts will be sacrificed to keep you watching (alternative reading: “dead men walking”).

    The Walking Dead has spent most of this season telling us that the survival of civilization means clinging to that now-dead soziety, in maintaining the traditional conservative American values in the face of their complete obsolescence, as if those values themselves were the sum total of civilization.

    … and that is hardly reading between the lines – dialog between characters has included statements like “perhaps you’re better adapted for this [zombie apocalypse free-for-all], but I’m glad I’m not [because I cling to traditional values]” – but it seems presumptuous on your part to suggest that strangers thrown together in a crisis would seek to maximize interpersonal conflict by questioning social mores.

    … at no point did any character ever present the notion that now that the dead walk the earth, it turns out that might actually does make right …

    Actually, that is part of the present plot arc (with the aforementioned encounter between Dale and Shane). Shane is presented as an anti-hero because it is probably safe (within the diegesis, if not for the audience at home) to assume that his actions would be considered cause for his expulsion from the group – who wants to attempt survival with a man who will readily sacrifice others to ensure his own safety?

  3. Dan Dravot says:

    Whatever the zombie show may have to say about traditional gender roles, the rest of TV is still busily normalizing gay relationships (IIRC I read recently that Glee had a teen gay kissing scene this season; is that true?) and telling us that men are oafish archaic geldings, inevitably outsmarted by the women who grudgingly tolerate them. Law and Order had an episode where people who wanted to enforce immigration laws made habit of ceremonial human sacrifice of children, because Rush Limbaugh told them to. But at least they left out the bad guys’ matzo recipe.

    The only way to argue that TV can never be countercultural is to true-scotsman it by claiming that anything on TV is mainstream by definition (certainly, zombies have shambled over the shark pretty hard this year). Either that, or you could claim that there’s no common culture any more anyhow, so nothing is really countercultural: By Hollywood standards, any privileging of traditional gender roles is just as countercultural as smoochy queers are in Indiana (NTTAWWT). Anything counter to any culture in America is congruent with some other; we’ve become Post-Thingy Whatever. That’s much closer to the truth: From where you sit, conservatism is subversive and countercultural. But you say film can be countercultural, so it can’t be that.

    No. All you’re feeling is the progressive’s apocalyptic panic at the thought that somebody, somewhere, is still thinking unapproved thoughts. Geez, take a deep breath and relax, Archie Bunker. You don’t have to exterminate every single survivor before you can run the place.

    The “conservative” ideas that bug you are a distorted and idealized folk memory of 19th century rural American life: Sturdy Jeffersonian yeoman farmers and pioneers and all that, with all the horrible stuff like racism conveniently left out. It’s a) idealized, and b) distorted. Nevertheless, it’s still got a lot more connection to reality, particularly a post-apocalyptic reality, than the only other competing cultural narrative we’ve got: One that’s obsessed with status jockeying around fashionable careers, green/wholefoodsian/Ivy-league upscale consumer spending choices, and how elaborately you perform your reverence for persons who are in the protected classes community. After you step away from that routine, it just seems like a pointless treadmill to hell (imagine undead Wooster stepping on Jeeves’ face — forever!) . Except for the cookware. That All-Clad stuff’s worth every cent. Cold dead fingers, baby.

    But that’s not what this show’s writers are thinking. They’re not thinking. They did a focus group to find out who’s into this zombie stuff, and they write the show to pander to that demographic. It’s a paycheck. It could have been a lot more interesting if they tried to visualize a plausible zombie-infested future state of America rather than taking some old crap off the shelf and slapping it in there intact, but that laziness is creative, not political.

    ‘Course, I haven’t bothered watching. The only TV worth discussing is Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David is by far the greatest living American, now that Jeff Cooper’s in the ground.

    • JohnJ says:

      I have to agree with Dan on this. There are plenty of “mainstream” tv shows that go left. I’d include Boston Legal on that list of the more prominent ones, but there are lots. Saying that “all” tv is center-right is surprisingly blind coming from you, Pastabagel. Good lord, counter-examples abound.

      And yes, in a progressive society, conservatism is subversive. Subversive does not equate progressive, or the anarchists would be progressive, and they most definitely are not.

      • MikeWC says:

        I think it’s wrong to equate capital-L Liberalism – as in the popular American left – with capital-P Progressive concerns. A distinction between Liberalism and Progressivism needs to be made.

        Liberals do not seem to do anything other than repackage conservative ideas as “progressive,” heavy on the air quotes. There needs to be another word for the attempt to create entirely new forms of politics; a leftism that is qualitatively different from Liberalism. Communism has too much baggage, as much as I like the sound of it, so I just tend to say Progressive. Though that word is developing baggage as well, thanks to people like Jonah Goldberg.

        Take gay marriage. It is a repackaging of traditional marriage to fit a new discourse about sexuality. Gay marriage is a Liberal issue, but that does not make it a Progressive issue. It is just a re-capitulation of the Oedipal triangle. Variations on a theme. Why not come up with a wholly new concept for relationships?

        Our culture has an allegedly permissive take on sexuality; the doctrine of hedonism largely holds among Liberals, to some degree or another. But who in the history of the hard left has been a hedonist? Hedonism, while not obviously conservative, has little to no active political content. Demanding one’s right to fuck whoever and whenever one wants is actually depoliticizing, if we think politics is something more than sticking our thumb in Pat Robertson’s eye. We need to think a leftist politics of community and discipline.

        Take another Liberal issue: the repeal of DADT. This is one that has endlessly confused me. I do not know why people would first protest a war, then protest their inability to participate in it. “How dare you tell me I cannot pilot a drone to blow up an Afghani wedding because I am gay?” The military is one of the greatest bastions of conservatism the U.S. has; Liberals want it repackaged rather than dismantled.

        Or the Liberal enthusiasm for electing Obama. Shouldn’t we have room for the concept of a left that considers the whole electoral process comprimised? Without jumping straight to anarchism, that is.

        In other words, Liberals are conservatives with a nicer, more sexually permissive attitude. John, I think this is what you see on television. I agree that television is overwhelmingly Liberal, but it is nothing more than a disguised, repackaged conservatism.

        Conservatism can only be considered subversive if one completely denies that there is a qualitative difference between the popular American left and a harder left that has no interest in re-packaged conservatism. Conservative ideals absolutely dominate all forms of popular media; it’s just a little harder to see nowadays.

        • Guy Fox says:

          There needs to be another word for the attempt to create entirely new forms of politics; a leftism that is qualitatively different from Liberalism. Communism has too much baggage, as much as I like the sound of it, so I just tend to say Progressive.

          Listen to yourself. Figure out what’s right for you, whatever that may be, but quit worrying about how to brand your movement. Once you know what’s right and actually live it, who gives half a lizard’s ass what it’s called? If you know what’s right, it shouldn’t even matter much who agrees with you, ’cause you’d do what’s right even if a thousand angels condemned you. Wouldn’t the world be a lovely, simple place if words like ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive’ actually helped people orient themselves in reality? If you believe that’s how the world actually is, please be careful in using the 1st person plural, and be sure to give the rest of us an exit option.

          • MikeWC says:

            Guy, Dan said that Pastabagel was falling into the no-true-scotman fallacy when PB claimed that TV cannot be countercultural. JohnJ pointed out that TV is full of examples of liberal politics. I was trying to make a qualitative distinction between popular leftism as repackaged conservatism and a more innovative leftism that searches out genuinely new patterns – thus avoiding the scotsman fallacy and explaining why PB’s original claim is not off the mark (Your mileage may very on the very idea of that qualitative distinction, of course, you are free to consider it bullshit).

            If that is branding a movement, then ok, sign me up for marketing classes.

            As for knowing what is right and just getting on with it, individuals can’t do anything. Signifiers do at least some of the heavy work of group cohesion. Doing what is right when a thousand angels condemn you is awfully beautiful soul-ish.

          • JohnJ says:

            I want to respond to Mike’s thoughtful remarks.

            I see this as a problem with defining something as in opposition to something else. I agree with a lot of what you say about the problem of deciding whether something is “liberal”, “progressive”, or even “conservative” for that matter. This question started as whether television is inherently “conservative” since it supposedly cannot be subversive. Pastabagel even uses the term “right-of-center”, which to me implies that by “progressive”, he means anything “left-of-center”.

            Of course, I think there are plenty of examples of television being subversive (and even more examples of being “left-of-center” than you can shake a tv remote at), but I was really trying to point out that “progressive” doesn’t require subversiveness. This is a not uncommon idea that, I think, is based on the idea that progress requires change and change requires subversiveness. I don’t think that’s true. In fact, progress often requires things to be built on top of existing structures. (For example, standing “on the shoulders of giants”.) Tearing down existing structures isn’t progressive, it’s regressive, practically by definition.

            That may be why you have an issue with liberals “repackaging” conservatism. Repackaging what exists is how progress is made. Maybe progressives are the real conservatives after all.

            Of course, I agree with you that these terms are almost entirely defined in the mind of the user only, and often bear little relationship to any commonly-held definition. I’m just spit-balling here. As you say, “your mileage may vary.”

    • cliche says:

      Although Glee may seem as though it helps the cause of homosexuality, or whatever, just like everything else on television, it only features gays are easy to hate, due to their stereotypical flamboyant manner.
      In other words, TV doesn’t promote the acceptance of homosexuals, it only promotes a tolerance of flamboyant “queers”.

  4. stucky says:

    Consider which would actually be worse: to be stalked by a dozen zombies, or by a dozen hungry tigers? And yet that is never the basis of a movie.

    That was the premise, more or less, of THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (1996), one of Val Kilmer’s few good movies post Tombstone.

    Something that’s been hanging out in the back of my head ever since Alone asked why THE WALKING DEAD doesn’t ever use the word “Zombie.” The main characters (I’m referring to the as yet undead characters) are the figurative walking dead. It’s just a matter of time until they join the winning side (the tasty side). The writers cause their characters to refer to the Zombies as walkers & geeks to prolong the inside joke.

  5. Guy Fox says:

    I’ve never seen the show, but this analysis seems to assume that people comply with social norms because of some kind of instrumental rationality. I.e. “I shouldn’t/can’t throw my boss out of his nicer house because the cops would get me and punish me.” That might make a certain amount of sense in some cases, like compliance with laws against insider trading, but it doesn’t make sense in most.
    Just about every spouse in most western societies has nearly unlimited opportunities to cheat. If they don’t, it’s because they believe in something that is bigger and more important than criminal justice institutions. If society collapsed and your partner goes sodom & gomorrah with everybody’s ex-milkman because now s/he feels less constrained, that would sting a little, no? If all Americans/Germans/French/Canadians stopped paying their taxes tomorrow, there wouldn’t be enough room in all the stadiums in any of those countries to incarcerate everyone, and most people know it. They pay their taxes because they consider it right and proper (i.e. legitimate). Or do you think that it’s just an uncertainty problem in an n-person mixed-motive game that prevents everyone from coordinating? And if you think we’re all so skeletally rational, you got a lot a ‘splainin’ to do WRT how we repeatedly make a total hash of economic decisions.
    My point is that a lot of what people do is determined by norms, and in almost every case they follow those norms (or not) because of where they personally set the goalposts of right and wrong, not because they are constantly cowering in fear of what the societal Leviathan will do to them. Conservative values might survive a real apocalypse because people genuinely prefer them.

    (Try this in another context: At the end of the Road, the kid’s dad dies, but another father from another family approaches and invites the kid to join this new family. Was the new father going to eat him, sell him as food/a slave, or did he think that weak individuals like kids deserve protection from stronger individuals and/or any possible future society would need kids to exist in the present, and these kids would need to learn that not everyone is a psychotic cannibal? If not the former, why not if the new father had every opportunity to do as he pleased?)

    • MikeWC says:

      My point is that a lot of what people do is determined by norms, and in almost every case they follow those norms (or not) because of where they personally set the goalposts of right and wrong, not because they are constantly cowering in fear of what the societal Leviathan will do to them.

      There is a contradiction in this sentence, and I think it is the reason why you are are not understanding PB’s claims. Norms are inherently inter-personal; they are norms because no one individual has set those goalposts. It is possible to pick and choose which norms to abide by, but setting one’s own norms is like trying to create a personal currency.

      Norms are inter-personal, and they are historically bound. They come into being, persist and pass away for a myriad of reasons, both cultural and material. Equality under the law is a very easy example of a historically bounded norm. PB’s examples of property rights, gender roles and gun rights are also examples of norms that once did not exist (at least in their current form) and may not exist in the future.

      The problem is that The Walking Dead cannot imagine such a future. The apocalypse, a complete break in history, would inevitably create new norms with it. The Walking Dead is like a person who was shocked that anyone would have the indecency to accuse Nixon of a crime.

      • Guy Fox says:

        setting one’s own norms is like trying to create a personal currency.
        To thine own self be solvent, yo.

        Okay, so you and PB are arguing the intersubjectivity and contingency of norms, if I understand correctly, and Zombie television is stupid because it in general and this programme in particular fail to grasp this contingency, instead presenting all/conservative norms as if they were necessary. And it would be totally gnarly if the producers would take the opportunity to show the masses that they’d be better off collectivized, under the explicit dictatorship of their neighbours rather than the implicit version we’ve got now. Man, how could anyone not be down with that?

        The problem is that The Walking Dead cannot imagine such a future. The apocalypse, a complete break in history, would inevitably create new norms with it.

        Is the problem that the writers of the show can’t imagine such a future, or that you are terrified by the prospect that your preferred future is a non-starter, that most people would pretty much default to the status quo because they wanted to and like it better that way? The writers are under no obligation to be critical, and if social criticism would hurt their ratings, they might be under an obligation/considerable pressure not to be critical. Conservative values aren’t necessarily any better or worse than your progressive ones (and there’s no objective way to decide one way or the other), but let’s not pretend that we know which would prevail after an apocalypse, or that if there is a Truth, that we’re gonna hear it on TV. Some people (c. 50%) would vote for Nixon in a heartbeat if they could. See you in November 2012 or 2016.

        Norms are inherently inter-personal; they are norms because no one individual has set those goalposts.

        If you let others tell you what’s right, you’re exempt from blame. Eureka! Why didn’t I or any moral philosopher of the last two and a half millennia think of that!? The Nuremberg defence for moral subjectivity! Sonnammabeech! Why don’t we just let the Pope decide what’s right? Oh, you don’t like organized religion? By ‘interpersonal’ and ‘progressive’, you mean we need to let ‘the collective’ decide because we hold everything in common? Tell ya what, while you’re dazzling all with your striking poses in the Panopticon, I’m C4ing the door and haulin’ ass to Switzerland. Thanks for creating the distraction, pardner.

        Bonus question: are norms still inherently interpersonal if they diverge diametrically from your own, or are they then just the individual illusions of mentally unstable idiots?

        (Sorry if I laid it on too thick with the sarcasm. I acknowledge and appreciate that you took my comment seriously. No time to rewrite this, but hopefully you get the point.)

        • MikeWC says:

          Guy, in your original post you said that people’s behavior is largely determined by norms, and that whether or not they follow these norms is determined by where they set their own personal goalposts.

          So which is it? People’s actions are guided by norms, or they set their own personal goalposts?

          Your response to me depends on the assumption that the personal goalposts are identical to norms. If personal goalposts and norms are interchangeable with one another, than this criticism makes no sense:

          If you let others tell you what’s right, you’re exempt from blame. Eureka! Why didn’t I or any moral philosopher of the last two and a half millennia think of that!? The Nuremberg defence for moral subjectivity!

          If personal goalposts and norms are identical, then you are the one preaching moral subjectivity. You establish a norm by saying “I believe X is correct.”

          If they are not identical- as I think – then obviously both norms and personal goalposts have their roots in at least slightly different causes.

          If they are not identical, then how do we learn to identify and/or develop norms? Cultural and material factors — both of which will radically change once the dead walk the Earth!

          And once more: if they are not identical, then you as an individual have very little say in what those norms are, barring an expensive ad campaign or the ability to write a game changing book.

          Finally, how could the word “norm” mean anything other than “what is normally thought of as correct”? The norm is what is normal. A McDonald’s manager may, in line with his own personal goalposts, pay his workers $20/hour. Do you really want to use the word “norm” to describe that? If you do, I’m not sure how to continue the discussion.

          Bonus question: are norms still inherently interpersonal if they diverge diametrically from your own, or are they then just the individual illusions of mentally unstable idiots?

          I think the answer to this question should be obvious: yes, they are still norms. As I said in my first response to you, people are free* to follow or disregard norms.

          Is the problem that the writers of the show can’t imagine such a future, or that you are terrified by the prospect that your preferred future is a non-starter, that most people would pretty much default to the status quo because they wanted to and like it better that way?

          For varying values of status quo, I assume. Exactly how does the status quo continue when there is no one to maintain roads or build or purchase ipads? Or when there are no police or fireman? Or when cash becomes mere paper? When the only alcohol to drink was made in a tub? When there are no more dance clubs? When Obama and the rest of the state apparatus are actually trying to eat you?

          You do not think there would be a shift in our behavior under those circumstances? That there would not be a shift in norms, if not in personal goalposts? And why shouldn’t we think about how these changes could surprise us? And what is wrong with asking a TV show to try and surprise us? You are, at best, offering a defense of mediocrity.

          And finally… what is it with people jumping straight to Stalinism whenever they hear someone talking about a different way of doing things? Oh, right, PB’s original point! A complete lack of imagination, perfectly encapsulated by Cobra’s quoting of Margaret Thatcher. If the facts of life are conservative, someone needs to run back and tell Marx that writing The Communist Manifesto is a complete waste of time, and that more than a century later a surprising number of his demands would not be met… except oh wait, except for things like the abolishing of private property, huge chunks of the Manifesto were accomplished, right in the face of the so-called conservative facts of life.

          • thecobrasnose says:

            The Communist Manifesto has been the basis for a great deal of horror precisely because it flies in the face of those unruly facts of life and every serious implementation of it (e.g., where private property was abolished on a broad scale) has ended in catastrophe. And since we’re well into theoretical territory, I’d bet Margaret Thatcher in her prime would have a better idea on how to handle a zombie panic than Karl Marx. Might make a good movie.

          • Guy Fox says:

            You’re right that I was inconsistent. I was getting my is and ought mixed up. Yes, people do tend to defer to the a la carte menu of norms/identities they see around them (is), but no, that ain’t what they ought to be doing, which is to think for themselves. They ought not subsume their moral subjectivity (i.e. their existence as moral subjects with obligations and responsibilities, not the antonym of ‘objectivity’) to a predefined category, like liberal, conservative, progressive. Don’t choose the identity first and align your behaviour with it; choose the behaviour, accept moral responsibility for it, and let the identity chips fall where they may.

            I got these wires crossed when objecting to PB’s (and your) argument that a change in material structure (e.g. power stations, fire trucks and sports teams suddenly become irrelevant) necessarily entails a change in the normative structure (e.g. people suddenly realize the folly of their conservative ways and join the One True Church of (re-)distributive justice). Example: Safran Foer tells the story of his Jewish grandmother who was scurrying around occupied Eastern Europe during WWII, trying not to sustain life and limb while not getting genocided. She’s starving, and a farmer offers her some pork. She declines, reasoning something like (from memory) “If our most important values no longer matter, then there’s nothing left to save anyway.” Terror and disorientation can equally make people cling even more strongly to their Truths. After the Zombie apocalypse, I’ll pay you a dime for every God-fearing Republican who finds his/her inner-Gramsci, and you pay me a dime for every one who reckons it’s the warm-up for the Rapture and circumcises himself/rereads Leviticus/Revelations. You game?

            As for TV’s role, I’m not defending mediocrity so much as explaining its persistence. I’d love a world where Inception would count as just a low-brow action movie, Network saw more remakes than Frankenstein, and even porn at least had the aesthetic whimsy of Barbarella (there’s that ‘ought’ again). If it exists, that planet is in a distant dimension. On our planet, the business of the entertainment industry isn’t to make us all as moral individuals question our assumptions about the proper constitution of society, their business is business (bloody ‘is’ keeps budding in, don’t it?). There’s nothing wrong with wanting things to be different, but actually expecting them to be is, begging your pardon, naïve.

            What huge chunks of the Communist Manifesto have been accomplished? You lost me there.

          • MikeWC says:

            Don’t choose the identity first and align your behaviour with it; choose the behaviour, accept moral responsibility for it, and let the identity chips fall where they may.

            I’m not sure how different this is from our culture’s fundamental norm: “Be true to yourself. Do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt others.” I said above that norms and personal goalposts are distinct, but our culture blurs that line like no other ever has in history. How exactly is it possible to establish personal goalposts, as distinct from mindless social norms, when the mindless social norm is itself telling you to establish those goalposts?

            I got these wires crossed when objecting to PB’s (and your) argument that a change in material structure (e.g. power stations, fire trucks and sports teams suddenly become irrelevant) necessarily entails a change in the normative structure (e.g. people suddenly realize the folly of their conservative ways and join the One True Church of (re-)distributive justice).

            Again, I do not know why people are jumping to this conclusion. Neither PB nor I have suggested that the zombie apocalypse would suddenly bring about a Communist paradise! PB’s own examples are about theft through brute force, the violent transfer of private property from one individual to another, better armed individual. I used no examples at all. I suspect people are jumping to this conclusion because they have a strong desire to repeatedly illustrate PB’s point: “Civilization is, by definition, our civilization.”

            I’ve said that norms come into being for specific cultural and material reasons; they persist for similar reasons, and pass away when those reasons themselves change. Are you disagreeing with this idea? That human behavior has not varied from time to time and place to place? I guess this is what I want to know. Do you think norms are ahistorical? That they have always existed and always will?

            I know there are examples of norms that seem to be universal – e.g., parricide is bad. But what about all the other norms that aren’t? Equality under the law, for one. Why does that exist as a norm, if it isn’t ahistorical and universal? We hold to equality for reason X; could a zombie uprising obliterate reason X? And with it, the norm that X supports?

  6. Madison says:

    “Consider which would actually be worse: to be stalked by a dozen zombies, or by a dozen hungry tigers?”

    I love this statement. Tiger problem would actually require a lot of cooperation and an implementation of ‘conservative’ values on a part of the population under attack:
    – people would rally together against the enemy (no individualistic roaming with a gun like in Walking Dead)
    – a strategy would have to be implemented by a person WITH a backup of authority (army/police/highly organized arms dealers) rather than one very charismatic guy
    -there would not be very many women who would volunteer for hunting missions (probably staying w/kids and elders; concocting tiger poison at home), partially due to size issues (you can kill a zombie with two-inch .38 revolver; but even Melissa McCarthy would have a problem carrying some types of guns necessary to permanently immobilize the tigers.
    -and last but not least, any pro animal rights types would be immediately under surveillance for a possible treason

    It could make for a fun Mission Impossible/Planet of Apes scenario. Tigers are not ‘former us’; it is relatively easy to hunt them down and kill without a second though or regret. It becomes harder when your beloved grandma turns against you. It is even harder when you do not know WHEN the dead relatives will stop showing up.

    I think all those movies are trying to answer the question; “What would YOU (man or woman) do in time of crisis?”
    And the answer is always provided in a form of a very SMALL sample of the population. On Walking Dead it just less than 20 people. It is hardly enough to form a WHOLE society that would be ready to embrace ANY values – it is just a group of grownups caught in an relatively elegant Lord of Flies scenario.

  7. inarticulateinthecity says:

    “There’s something rotten about The Walking Dead, but I haven’t put my finger on it until the last few episodes of this second season.”

    I know what it is. The AWFUL writing. “He saw the deer!”, really? Worst actors ever, awful characters, no tension at all.

  8. RatB says:

    With regards to the distinction between norms and morals (“personal goal posts”) that MikeWC and Guy Fox are on about:

    Internalization is the process by which an individual accepts a society’s norms as their own morals. The removal of the society removes the pressure of norms from the individual. However, the individual is still influenced by those norms that they internalized; made morals of.

    Morals may change to fit new societal norms, but the process is not immediate. It is possible that a moral will not change at all, regardless of new and conflicting norms or lack thereof.

    For example: I’m friends with an extremely progressive older lady, former hippie, votes left, talks left, pretty sure she’d drive left if she could. However, she flinches at any visible instance of homosexuality. The reaction is the result of one of her internal morals which clashes with her socio-normative environment.

    Norms change. Morals can be indelible.

    One of the central conflicts of The Walking Dead, which is only picking up steam now, is the friction between people with varying degrees of moral fluidity. Rick’s viscous, Shane’s fluid. The problem that will be ignored by both parties until it is too late is that the maintenance of cooperation within their group is more important to their continued survival than are the norms they will set to deal with future problems.

    I’m glad you guys think the writing’s bad. TV has been leading me to believe that all Americans are emotionally unstable drama-queens.

  9. Pingback: Norwegian Psychiatry Is Insane | Partial Objects

  10. sdfijoidsj says:

    Well, we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless, and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people.

  11. Will says:

    “Why are we expected to believe that the issue of Shane sleeping with rick’s wife would cause problems?”

    Well to be honest, it really didnt (Rick knew what happened from the beginning and chose to ignore it and move on with more important concerns), and WOULDNT have, if it werent for the obvious fact that Shane was totally intent on murdering Rick in order to take his place as husband to Lori, father to Carl, and leader of the group. All the actual problems caused by the INFIDELITY (rather than by Shane’s own weird fraternal Oedipal issues and growing psychosis) existed almost entirely in Lori’s addled female brain.

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