A monstrous (trick of the) mind

Episode review of "Men Against Fire" (Black Mirror S3E5, 2016).

If you’ve not yet heard of the series “Black Mirror”, I assume you’ve either been living under a rock or your ex has changed their Netflix password and you can’t log in anymore.

“Black Mirror” is a satirical anthology series which examines the darker aspects of modern society. A mélange of science fiction and modern drama, it focuses on our relationship with technology, especially fictional high-tech devices.

The episode “Men Against Fire” is set in a near future and explores the potential danger and unintended consequences of high-tech military devices used in warfare. Soldiers, such as the main character Stripe, are fitted with fictional neural implants called MASS, designed to provide tactical information during combat. More menacingly, they are also used to control the processing of the soldiers’ senses, altering what they see, hear or smell, and can even alter their dreams, creating comforting sexual fantasies for them at night.

In this case, the army is seen fighting a menacing enemy that appears to consist of frenzied mutant-humans nicknamed “Roaches”. We are not told where they come from, but the storyline suggests they are the result of some recent apocalyptic event. The soldiers are tasked to seek out and destroy these creatures, a task they pursue with great enthusiasm, competitively notching up the number killed. By effectively rendering soldiers emotionless in combat, the MASS device ensures they can fight and kill their enemies without giving into introspection or retrospection on their actions performed during combat. When asked “how did you feel, emotionally?” about killing their enemies, Stripe replies “I didn’t”. It seems the technology is useful in ensuring that the soldiers’ capacity to suffer feelings of distress, such as those experienced in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), is minimized. This apparent benefit, however, masks insidious undertones: MASS allows the soldiers to dehumanize the enemy, thereby not only making it easier to kill the Roaches but also removing any shame or guilt associated with doing so.

As if this were not bad enough, the Roaches turn out to be fellow members of the human race, the MASS implants distort their appearance and their speech. Once Stripe finds out the truth, he is told by the authorities that their extermination is justified on the grounds that these people supposedly suffer from genetic defects that predispose them to disease and other frailties, apparently threatening the evolution of the species if allowed to remain in the gene pool. The MASS implants prevent the soldiers from seeing them as anything other than crazed zombies, sub-humans to be annihilated for the sake of a stronger human species.

The episode thus evokes the beliefs and practices of Social Darwinism and eugenics, which aim to improve the genetic constitution of the human race. By characterizing targeted ethnic and social groups within society as somehow less than human or of having specific undesirable traits, individuals seek not only to justify the necessity of their actions such as carrying out genocide, but also aim to reduce or remove any feelings of guilt or shame felt by committing such actions.

A striking parallel from this Black Mirror episode is with the rhetorical terms used during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, when ethnic Hutus openly persecuted ethnic Tutsis. Hutu officials took to calling Tutsis “cockroaches”, in order to degrade their humanness and thus justify the need to “finish with them, exterminate them, sweep them from the whole country”. The Hutus were simply engaged in “bush-clearing, being ordered to remove tall weeds (adults) as well as the shoots (children)” (Bourke, 2013, p.489). Genocide typically begins with the rhetoric of hate, enabling us to dehumanize other members of society and thus to rationalize our behaviour towards them. As Kteily and Bruneau suggest, the use of dehumanizing language allows us to deny empathy to others and justify harmful actions against them. The language justifies or even mandates such violence (2017).

Although Black Mirror episodes are intended to depict dystopian societies which may be possible in our near future, the behaviours and irrationality depicted in “Men Against Fire” are all too present in today’s world. The rhetoric of hate and dehumanization is not restricted to wars nor to the military, it’s happening right now, in the societies we live in. The underlying message of the episode, as evidenced by the fact that civilian communities also see Roaches as the enemy, is not that advanced technology could be dangerous by allowing us to dehumanize and justify the harming of others, but rather that we don’t need the technology to do so, we are already dehumanizing many different groups within societies everywhere: “dehumanization is a mental loophole that lets us harm other people” (Resnick, 2017).

The rhetoric of hate and fear mongering may start with opportunistic politicians hoping to win votes through populist policies. But their discourse acts as a catalyst that accelerates the propagation of hateful speech, particularly through social media and other Internet platforms, far more rapidly and pervasively than was possible in the past. In our modern society, the “weapons” used in dehumanization are simply the rhetoric of hate and fear mongering, not some fictional neural implant. They are systematically applied by the propagators of “otherness” rhetoric, allowing for the process of dehumanization to take hold, together with the belief that we can rationalize our harmful actions towards “others”. The process of “othering” can lead mainstream society to perceive certain types of persons as somehow not on par with “us”, as subhuman in some way. The targets for this treatment have usually tended to be minority groups within a society, but more recently the spotlight has turned on immigrants as well as refugees. Some West-European and North American leaders have tried to justify their antipathy towards immigrants and refugees by subtly categorizing them in ways that suggest they are inferior or threatening to their destination countries. Terms used by politicians such as “bad hombres” (Donald Trump) or “swarms of refugees” (David Cameron) seek to both malign and remove the individuality of these persons, making it easier for ordinary members of society to perceive them as an undesirable social group.

The practice of othering involves recognizing “somebody as a stranger, rather than simply failing to recognize them” (Ahmed, 2000, p.21). Of course, the “Other” is not limited to a specific individual, it can represent an entire group of people. Through public discourse that is heavy on stereotyping and the attribution of undesirable traits (such as being a potential threat) to a social group in its entirety rather than to a specific individual, it becomes possible for people to shift from the fear of a potential threat such as the fear of crime to a fear of the Other, that is, a fear of a social group in its entirety, such as the immigrant, the black man, etc. (insert any minority group you wish to discriminate against). Having created fertile ground for fear mongering, it is then a small step to justify harmful acts towards some targeted “Other”.

Perhaps an issue with this episode of Black Mirror is that it suggests to viewers that “normal people” could never commit such atrocities unless under the influence of a mind-altering technology; that such evil could otherwise only occur in individuals who are genuine monsters. Yet, this fails to recognize how even “normal people” with a decent sense of morality can fall victim to the insidious propaganda and practices of “othering”, reducing or removing their inhibitions and emotions to such an extent that they become willing participants in crimes against humanity. The spread of low cost modern mass communications has only made this easier. I suggest we are to be cautious of this fact and of ourselves.

Ahmed S. (2000), Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, (London: Routledge).

Bourke J. (2013). “Why does politics turn to violence” in Zehfuss M. and Edkins J., Global Politics: A New Introduction (Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge).

N. Kteily and E. Bruneau (2017) “Backlash: The Politics and Real-World Consequences of Minority Group Dehumanization”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(1), pp.87-104.

Resnick B. (2017), “The dark psychology of dehumanization, explained”, Vox, 7 March 2017. Available at https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/7/14456154/dehumanization-psychology-explained (accessed 14/06/2018).