Sunday, May 24, 2020

Keep Alert | Seventh Sunday of Easter 2020

Public Domain
In D&D and Pathfinder, two tabletop role playing games, the adventuring party usually has to set a watch at night when traveling. The group divides up the night into shifts and keeps a lookout for wandering monsters or opportunistic bandits. Often, something will disturb their night, leading to an all-out battle to the death in the wee hours of the morning. This is, after all, a game, and extended periods of calm aren't generally very thrilling. Within the context of these games the assailants have traditionally be considered 'evil,' just like the monsters lurking in deep, dark dungeons. Since the beginning, rooted in the type of high fantasy that Tolkien envisioned and shared with the world, races of beings have been described as 'evil' or 'good.' Now, people are questioning those assumptions. In their critique, I see something of value to us for this Seventh Sunday of Easter. 
"Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering."1 Peter 5:8-9 NRSV
Kobalds are little lizard-like people, as depicted in the image above (note that physiognomy varies somewhat between editions of D&D), and are generally considered evil. In fact, here's how the Wikipedia entry about Kobolds describes them:
"Kobold society is influenced by their lawful evil alignment. They will plan and dig mines industriously, while laying cruel traps for interlopers. If they must confront an enemy, they will mass their troops for an ambush. Among the monstrous humanoids, they are known for cunning plans; unlike many, they also share those plans among the tribe. General plans and goals are common knowledge, and detailed plans are shared with all who ask, to allow them to work fruitfully for the good of the tribe. Kobolds have a natural hatred of other non-draconic creatures because of mistreatment of their race."
If you read that, hopefully you see the problem. First we're told that the lawful evil alignment of Kobolds influences their society. Then we're told that they work hard and take steps to protect their home from aggressors. Further, they're xenophobic, and that's attributed to how they're mistreated by other races (dwarves, goblins, etc). Can you really blame them? This being from Wikipedia, it's quite possible the confused description is the result of many editors. Someone described them as evil, and then others came along to justify. If anything, that only helps further my case. Any amount of reflection on the topic makes it more difficult to suspend disbelief. 

Among evangelicals it's common to hear everyone else in the world (but especially 'the liberals') described as moral relativists. It's a little pathetic, if you ask me. Moral absolutists have no patience for serious ethical reflection, because it might end up at a different place than their interpretation of a book supposedly handed down from on high tells them. Any variation from the established conclusions is viewed as a risky prospect, an opportunity for doubt to take root and topple their faith. So, what I have to say now won't settle in well with them.

Evil is not a substance. 'Lawful evil' is a concept that's useful for playing games, to an extent, but has no relevance to life. Often times the people who do the most harm are those with hardwired issues, such as sociopaths. There's no curing a full-fledged sociopath. The best that can be done is to keep them away from society and in positions to cause no harm to guards, staff, and other prisoners. They are not 'evil,' though their deeds are evil. They have a biological condition that has to be managed. 

Others do harm not for psychiatric reasons, but out of greed, panic, fear/hatred (they go hand-in-hand), or other selfish motivations. A woman murders her husband so that she can get his life insurance money and run off with her boyfriend. A teenager rapes a classmate because of raging sexual desire and an opportunity they chose to take. A man embezzles funds because he resents upper management 'getting all the perks.' Human beings are complex creatures, and there can be all manner of underlying motivations for such behavior. Abuse and other traumas earlier in life, along with neglect and related issues, contribute to people saying and doing things that harm others.

And there's the real point. Harm is done, and that is the evil. It isn't that an energy or material exists that is itself by nature 'evil.' It is the injurious, damaging use of means that can be characterized as evil. For example, sex is good between consenting adults so long as they don't violate covenants. If there is a commitment between two to monogamy, or a polyamorous arrangement with set boundaries and rules, then going against the terms of those relationships is a violation, and in some degree 'evil.' While adultery is a violation, worse still is rape, which is truly violence. Different degrees of harm are done, and in different ways. They are not the same, and yet both are evil because they are misuses of things that otherwise could be used positively.  

Making certain fantasy races have 'evilness' as a trait gives people leeway to kill without compunction in games. Since they are just games, there's no direct harm in that. The baddies make everything morally less complex. It is a sad human tendency, though, to do the same with people in the real world. In gaming, it might make for a more efficient experience, but for some like myself it takes away important texture. And, as mentioned above, it is harder to suspend disbelief for people like me. Demonizing entire races goes back at least as far as Tolkien and his orcs. 
The extent to which the orcs are demonized, by the other characters if not by the author himself, can be measured by the vastly different treatment of orcs when compared to other characters. Notably, in the midst of terrible bloodshed, Legolas and Gimli maintain a friendly competition to see who can kill the most orcs. This grisly entertainment would seem almost inhuman were it not for the demonization of the enemy in the case. Contrast the positive glee these heroes express when killing orcs to the famous scene in which Sam for the first time witnesses a battle between armies of men. Looking upon the corpse of a “swarthy” Southron soldier, who had been cut down while fleeing, his “brown hand” still clutching a broken sword, Sam “wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on his long march from his home; and if he would not really have rather stayed home in peace” (Tolkien 1965c, p. 301). In The Lord of the Rings, Sam witnesses orcs both living and dead, but never does he wonder about their motivations and preferences, and needless to say, despite frequently longing for home and peace himself, Sam never considers what potential “lies and threats” have brought his own friends to wage war on diverse peoples and races of the South and East. Later, after the war had ended, Aragorn (now King Elessar) releases the Easterlings who had surrendered on the battlefield, makes peace with the swarthy men of the South, and frees the thralls of Mordor, granting them lands in that region (Tolkien 1965b, pp. 266–667), but no reference is made to any such accommodations or humane treatment of orcs. It is assumed that the orcs of Mordor simply die off after the ring was destroyed, but, as noted above, that seems rather unlikely given what the reader would have gleaned about orcs and their character from earlier scenes. Moreover, living orcs are not even taken hostage or held as prisoners of war by the heroes, who instead happily slaughter the enemy even as they recognize the baleful effects of war on men and elves. Within these pages, Tolkien’s characters may view even humans in the service of “evil” as being potentially good—note Frodo’s sympathy and kind treatment of the treacherous renegade Wormtongue, for example—but the reigning assumption is that orcs must be inherently evil, demons to the end. — Demonizing the Enemy, Literally: Tolkien, Orcs, and the Sense of the World Wars by Robert T. Tally, Jr.
We don't have to look far either in history nor the present day to find othering taking place. It was said of the enslaved people taken from Africa that they didn't feel things the same as white people do. Taking away an enslaved woman's child to sell was said to be a hard thing, but that black women would pick up and move on just fine after a few days. Horrific to think that is part of our past, but the same mentality exists in the United States today, and not just whites about blacks. When scenes of Hispanic women and children being kept separately in holding cells in completely different locations, there's something in the minds of many white people that tells them it's not that bad, because Central Americans are accustomed to hardship and don't have the same exact feelings as 'we do.' It is disgusting, but I know it to be true, and have heard its likes in years past while living elsewhere in the United States.  

The writer of first Peter may have been embodying Roman or local persecution in the form of a lion with this words, or perhaps it was about resisting 'sin' as is commonly interpreted. Kobolds and orcs could just be convenient enemies to beat down in fantasy adventures. The reality beneath such symbols is much more layered, as I see it. A starting point, which I will leave here as the end point, is considering that the roaring lion, the scheming kobold, and the raging orcs are not only among us. They are within us. And so we must understand them, and resist them.