Saturday, October 29, 2016

Reflections of Societal Discrimination through Fictional Media

I believe I should begin by admitting that discrimination isn't new. One could almost claim that all societies were built upon it, at one time or another. Many people, maybe even most, have faced discrimination at some time in their lives, that isn't new either. There are some, however, that are impacted more often and more strongly by discrimination as a whole. People who are set out by the majority as "other". These people are often feared because of their "other-ness" and that fear can often incite hatred.

While discrimination isn't new, I recently found a medium through which I could analyze a fictional interpretation of the fear tactics and media incitement of discriminatory behavior (and violence) towards a "powerful minority".

In Marvel's Agent's of S.H.I.E.L.D this season, there has been a side story (and occasionally main plot) of discrimination and fear directed at the Inhumans (humans with "abilities" due to a slight difference in genetics). Their approach toward this fear, and subsequent anger and violence, is reflexive of the rhetoric often heard today about Muslims, Blacks, Mexicans, LGBTQ members, and more. It is reflexive of the language used long ago to describe the Jews, the Romany, the Japanese, the Native Americans, etc.

It is true that people fear the unknown, that is why religion is so important to so many people because it explains the unknown and places an imaginary protection around its believers against the evil. In AoS, there is no religion, or it is not the focus of the show when there is, but there is an abundant amount of the unknown. Always has been. It is practically been the main plot device used in the show. Thus, in the show, there is an abundance of fear. This fear needs an outlet and the outlet is anger and discrimination.

The organizations in the SHIELD verse, the Watchdogs and Humans First, which do appear to have a connection, work well to continue the pattern of fear and discrimination that the sheer presence of other, of the unknown, began by just existing. Humans First incites fear by enhancing the beliefs of the other-ness of the Inhumans and creating an "us vs. them" mentality. This is the same mentality that led to the rise of Nazi Germany, lynchings of Blacks in America, Internment Camps, etc. The fear incited is a double-edged sword. On one edge of the sword lies the Watchdogs and the general populace, a main antagonistic group this season and major nuisance/antagonistic group last season. The Watchdogs are a terrorist organization set out to hunt down and kill Inhumans and are willing to go after anyone who aides them. The general public are incited by the rhetoric of the Humans First movement, only their fear turns more often toward discrimination and petty violence (comparatively). However, the general populace has just as much potential for harm against the Inhumans as the Watchdogs do, because they are unpredictable and feel desperate. On the other edge of the sword created by the Humans First movement lies with the Inhumans themselves. They look out at the world every day and they see the news saying that they are monsters, they hear reports of other Inhumans being killed by terrorist organizations, they see the discrimination rampant in their friends, family, and neighbors. Maybe they even begin to fear and hate themselves. Because how can so many people be wrong about them? Maybe the Inhumans are evil and I am just the exception. These influences can cause the Inhumans to either join in the hatred, try to keep their heads down, or become the very thing that incites fear.

Unfortunately, no matter what the Inhumans choose to do, they cannot control the decisions and feelings of the public until the rhetoric of anger and fear is ceased. Look at Yo-Yo. She is an Inhuman and she saved the lives of her friends by disarming the Watchdogs as they were about to execute a trick magician. Unfortunately, instead of reacting with thanks, her friends and the strangers she saved turned on her, pointing her out to the Watchdogs and then throwing her away like trash. The creepy Humans First senator with ties to the Watchdogs summed up the problem with the discriminatory rhetoric in the cross debate scene, "People are scared that Inhumans do not share our core values. And who could blame them?" Her statement summed up the fears of the other-ness of the Inhumans and worked to increase the difference between "regular" humans and Inhumans.

Because there was a required registry of the Inhumans (simply because they are different/other and are seen as dangerous), the Watchdogs were able to track down the Inhumans and kill them. The rhetoric, combined with a preexisting self-hatred and some mental health problems (previous addiction to an age old, practically immortal alien that had power over Inhumans) created a man who hated himself, and others like him, enough that he was willing to sell them out and hand them all a death sentence. While he was not exactly the most stable man before becoming Inhuman, the power of fear-filled rhetoric on the public should not be ignored. History has shown us this. The dangers of registry lists should also be carefully scrutinized, as easy identification of a people also has had disastrous results in the past.

As I watched, the episode "Uprising", the episode that began the descent into the Humans First sub-plot and made the Watchdogs a larger threat than they were before, I was struck with familiarity. The "Inhuman Resistance," which was nothing more than a terrorist group (the Watchdogs) trying to incite negative public opinion on the Inhumans (and kill them). The public and media response where, despite being presented with the facts, they continue to have "a discussion" on the potential dangers of the Inhumans, despite the statistically significant difference in the number of deaths during the Watchdog's EMP attacks (2 humans vs. 17 Inhumans). I sat there watching and I thought of ISIS. I thought of some of the media reactions to Muslims and to Islam. I thought of how the main victims of ISIS are Muslim, how our cruel, uneducated, and insensitive media and political rhetoric is encouraging impressionable or disheartened individuals to join ISIS or commit acts of terror in its name. I thought of the attacks committed against anyone who looks "Muslim" by uneducated, angry, and fearful people. The parallels were appalling.

One person wrote a Facebook comment that they might stop watching the show because of its "political agenda" and that shows should be nothing but "fiction". The truth is, in my opinion, the "political agenda", which has always and will always exist in a show about SHIELD as it is a government agency, enhances the show considerably. It allows viewers to look at the show and see a reflection of reality, see some reflection of their lives and, because this is a fictional show about superheroes and not Supernatural, see the good guys win, even when at times all seems lost. Having AoS portray storylines that reflect reality in some way (and they have several every season, although this season is especially poignant) can give some people hope or further another's understanding of a situation. Some people might stop watching because they want their TV series to be free of "political agendas," but in order for that to happen they had to first recognize the correlation between fiction and reality.

It means that they had to think. And thinking is just a fancy word for changing your mind (yes, I am quoting the Doctor).

The only way that we can combat discrimination and fear and anger is to get people to think, to get people to truly look at the world around them and see that it can be improved. If we have to do that through television shows to get people to actually listen, so be it.

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