Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Monstrous Dissection...

... of monsters, in an interesting and provocative way, can be found at the Chronicle of Higher Education today, in Monsters and the Moral Imagination by Steven T. Asma. For long-time monster-afficionados such as we, his revelation that a close reading of Dracula " will reveal not only a highly sexualized description of blood drinking, but an erotic characterization of the count himself," or that the lesson of the Frankenstein movie franchise is "We must overcome our innate scapegoating, our xenophobic tendencies," may seem a wee bit obvious.

But Asma goes on to suggest that the idea of monster might serve as a kind of moral playground for people - that by objectifying threats in a fantastical way, we can imaginatively map out our response to threats, menace and the world as it actually presents itself.

Writes Asma: "The monster concept is still extremely useful, and it's a permanent player in the moral imagination because human vulnerability is permanent. The monster is a beneficial foe, helping us to virtually represent the obstacles that real life will surely send our way. As long as there are real enemies in the world, there will be useful dramatic versions of them in our heads."

I'm not sure how I feel about this. Because while it's true that thinking about how you might deal with a brain-eating zombie that's gotten into your house one night might give you some ideas about how to deal with a burglar who's done the same, the legal and moral implications of taking out human thieves with head-shots are fundamentally different than are those of doing the same to the maggoty brain pans of the walking dead. Given that, I'm pretty sure I'm not anxious to equate monstrous behaviour in our species with fantastical monsters, as Asma does with a band of suspected Taliban members who murdered Malim Abdul Habib, a headmaster in Afghanistan who dared educate girls along with boys.

Writes Asma: "My point is simply this: If you can gather a man's family together at gunpoint and force them to watch as you cut off his head, then you are a monster. You don't just seem like one; you are one."

Drawing lines like those maps out a dangerous country. Because as much as we ought to be outraged by the behaviour of murderers, assigning them mythical otherness is the same thing as denying their humanity. And that is a fast route to bloodshed, a long road to genocide.

Sometimes, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, a monster is just a monster. Or it should be.

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