Sunday, December 1, 2013

12 Years a Slave

I watched 12 Years a Slave recently and liked it, particularly for its portrayal of different types of people in different types of situations. You don't think (spoiler alert) that you'll be tricked by people pretending to be your friends, kidnapped, shipped thousands of miles away, and sold to someone who is "eccentric," possibly insane, but with the legal upperhand. But this ends up happening to someone and you see how he deals with these situations, as well as the reactions of countless others in related positions. People like to think that they would do the "right" thing in most situations, whether the morally right thing or the smartest choice in terms of survival and self-promotion. A dominant message of the film, at least for me, is to question this belief.

Instead, it seems that the popular reaction of viewers to the film is one of outrage or at least deep discomfort that almost seems to eclipse any other message. This is the theme (and criticism?) of this NY York Times review:

What had bothered me the first time is that the movie is basically an anthology of beatings and whippings, each one more severe than the last, culminating in a moment of deep horror when the hero-victim — Solomon Northup, a free black man shanghaied into slavery — takes the whip himself and administers skin-flaying lashes to a young girl (Patsey) whose only crime is wanting a bar of soap. It’s like the special-effects films that come out every other day where there is an escalation of mayhem: bodies and buildings blown up in ever more ingenious ways leading to a last scene in which everything in sight is blasted to kingdom come. In “12 Years a Slave,” the escalation is not technical — brutal realism, not video-game pyrotechnics, is the mode — but a ratcheting up of the level of pain for both the characters and the audience.

I felt no ratcheting up of pain. But sociopaths have a much different reaction to theodicy, or the problem of evil seen from a theological or existential point of view. In other words, we not only have different responses to the question "how could bad things happen?", we rarely ask the question, at least framed in that way. The truth is that bad things are happening this very moment, equally as brutal and hopeless as anything that happened in the film. I know that and accept it as reality. I think other people know that, but don't like to think about it. Instead they spend their moral outrage on things like people's choice of Halloween costumes or people's out-of-the-box solutions to climate change.  Some have suggested that not being aware of worldwide suffering is due to the downside to empathy, that we feel more strongly for victims that come wrapped in a package of pretty sick white girls whose photos are splashed on the covers of newspapers than babies dying of malnutrition out of sight.

The most interesting part of the film was seeing the different reactions people have to their situations. There is the mother who is so happy to see her lost son, that she lets her guard down and becomes kidnapped herself. There is the man who talks about uprising and is quickly dispatched when he makes the slightest move to protect a fellow prisoner. There is the very educated man who courageously talks almost Black Panther style until when he is freed by his master he clings to the sure slavemaster in blessed relief that he won't be sold to some unknown danger. There are also many characters whose actions and reactions may seem so foreign that it is tempting to write them off as being unfathomable -- those of a sociopath. Sarah Paulson discusses her "evil" character's motivations:

I think the only way to do it, for me, was to try and figure out the "why" of her behavior. The idea of playing someone who is just evil to be evil seemed really boring to me and not realistic. Because nobody does anything for no reason. It may not be one I agree with or one that makes sense to me, but there will be reason. What I really came up with was that she's a product of her time. She was probably raised by ignorant and racist people, and I don't think she's of a complicated enough nature -- or self-aware enough nature -- to challenge what she's been taught. I think she just decided what she was taught is the right and true way, which many people in this country, and this world, sort of live by. Then, you add into that the reality that she's deeply, deeply, deeply jealous, because her husband is in love with another woman right under her nose, in her own home. It's humiliating. So when you're dealing with a person who's not very self-aware, who was raised by racists, who is not a deep woman, and who deals with surface feelings and emotions and appearances, then you might behave the way she behaves. That's how I could get into it.

Interestingly, despite people's strong reactions to the film, I haven't really seen this perspective a lot -- "I could have done these things in a similar situation". But that is the awful reality. There is no way that in all of history, horrible things were always done by sociopaths or the deranged. Normal people did these things. Normal people who lacked a bit of self-awareness and didn't bother to question the dominant moral teachings of their time.

Another reaction that I have not seen is people -- nobody seems to have been moved to go out and dedicate time, money, or effort to prevent the various forms of modern slavery that are popping up in their own backyards. Instead, one of the more common reactions has been to criticize the previous Hollywood portrayals of slavery as being impossibly rosy: "the paternalistic gentry with their pretty plantations, their genteel manners and all the fiddle-dee-dee rest." It's an odd criticism to make when so much of most peoples' daily lives are spent in deep denial of the horrors around them.

Or as a reader recently wrote to me:

People often think sociopaths are creepy for compartmentalizing and being able to hurt other people.

But  how great is empathy, if it allows normal people to go along with slavery? How can they take the moral high ground?

Sure, I'd be the sort to be a bounty hunter and track down slaves, happy to bring them back to the plantation and get paid. Or I'd be happy to punish a bad slave.

But what happened to normal people, that they went along with slavery? Maybe they aren't that different from sociopaths after all. Maybe they beat up on sociopaths because we remind them of their character traits that they hate the most.


  1. According to Darwin, the species that survives is not the most intelligent, nor the strongest, but rather the one that adapts faster, and better. So it is my humble purpose as a natural empath (as you seem to classify the non-sociopaths interested in your website) to ask you wether ethics play a part in this game of survival. It has seemed to me as a rather intriguing thought the fact that many philosophers (the kind of Marx, Thomas Paine, etc. I really could't bother to name them all) as well as some common mortals have bothered to think that there's this kind of universal code of conduct or some sort of basic laws of morality in the sense that they can somehow identify some pattern across cultures and ideologies about what is perceived as "good and just", ¿do sociopaths somehow share this idea? and if they don't, ¿what are their arguments against them? I do not intend to defend these ideas beyond the arena of the logical. I precisely inquire due to the fact that I've become somehow stimulated by this debate in what respects to the importance of morality in relation to what is my career of choice (political science, I also somehow suspect that this may somewhat be related to my subconscious knowledge of the fact that I am lacking a bit of callousness for the performance of it, I do admit that I consider myself a bit too soft, yet I precisely chose it due to the fact that I am trying to change that part about myself). And, lastly, according to what I've read regarding to what you've written about sociopaths, ¿what do you mean when you speak about that point of no return when, once you've somehow crossed that bridge between being normal and not so much anymore, you cannot go back? A dear friend would use to joke that it always starts with asking, but I don't mind. Personally, I believe that the fear of asking will forever keep you in ignorance, and if curiosity killed the cat… well, we'll all die for some reason, won't we?

  2. People are in a state of "waking sleep" and are creatures of habit,
    that's why they are oblivious to evil. In thier "hypnotised" state, they
    can convince themselves that they were "just doing their job" even
    while comitting the most vile atrocities.
    Many "regular folk" were recriuted for the extermination pits during
    WW2. In thier civilian life they were police officers. The killing of 100's was "all in a days work for them.

  3. Haven't seen the movie yet, but I will. Just saw Hunger Games,Catching Fire. Also about killing innocent people and 'outsmarting' the government of the various districts. Katniss seems to be on that razor's edge of allowing her feelings/emotions, and having to watch her back at every second, or she'll be killed.

    Heard Dr. Fallon on public radio yesterday and he stated he believes the reason he is a sociopath that doesn't behave criminally is because of his very loving upbringing. He said he wouldn't of said that 1.5 years ago.(listen to the interview.) He stated having a psychopath brain is a 'loaded gun', which is strongly directed my chemicals,
    brain pathways/neurotransmitters that are strongly influenced by the love and care a child receives during those earliest years.

    I'm wondering why make movies like Hunger Games, and about killing children for 'entertainment'? Am I missing something, or is this fucked up?

    I think we're all 'shaped' by everything we say, do, don't do, experience, read, our histories, etc. We can't change how are brains are when we are born... but we're all making decisions/choices every second of our lives.

    1. ...there is a concept called the "pain body." It's one way to explain what you're missing.

  4. it's world aids day
    annyone positive here?

  5. "There is no way that in all of history, horrible things were always done by sociopaths or the deranged. Normal people did these things. Normal people who lacked a bit of self-awareness and didn't bother to question the dominant moral teachings of their time."

    The banality of evil

    Arendt's book introduced the expression and concept "the banality of evil."[1] Her thesis is that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.

    1. Specialists believe, Eichman was "compensated sociopath". Because of his inability to feel moral values from inside, he tried to compensate it by strictly following the rules and regulations.

  6. Well, I know a bit about Arendt, and these "ordinary" people are a lot like the sociopaths next door, utterly lacking in any self-reflection, conscience, or empathy. Eichmann's real crime was that he didn't think about what he was doing. He just did his job. Why would he bother thinking about what he was doing when he lacked any emotional depth or conscience? i saw the Twelve Years a Slave movie, and now I'm reading the book, and all I can think is that the people who kidnapped and sold Solomon Northrup into slavery were sociopaths.

    If it's true that 4 in 100 people are sociopaths then, contrary to the previous poster, then much of history's horrid tales can be chalked up to them. And the rest who went along were probably in fear of repercussions from questioning those in power.

    1. Please check this out:

      In that film, you'll see the whole life cycle: 4-year old kids begging (clearly victims of circumstance and their parents. Then older kids "willfully" committing crimes, proud of their exploits. Later you'll see them as adults exploiting their kids and finally as grandparents, exploiting their children and grandchildren.

      Arguably, the humane thing to do would be to break the cycle of exploiting humans. Morally, ending the cycle of abusing humans for gain is the right thing to do. Even if it hurts some people in the short term (e.g. ending slavery hurt slave owners, as they lost their property), ending the misery-producing cycle is best.

      An American empath can reach that conclusion fairly easily; it helps that we don't have a gypsy problem. An American can look at the issue with psychopathic dispassion, the way you'd look at a termite problem or the engineering challenge of building a bridge.

      If you then ask the American, "isn't the European gypsy situation analogous to the American black situation? Don't the adults both raise their kids such that they wind up criminals? How is this humane? Don't they exploit their kids for welfare benefits? Wouldn't it suck to be a black child?" an empath may agree.

      If you ask, "how is it humane to allow black parents to abuse and neglect their kids the way they do do? Morally, mustn't we do something?"

      The fact that empaths never consider these questions shows how it is that empaths go along with things like: slavery, child slavery, child abuse/neglect, etc. You'd like to think you are superior, but it is the sociopath who thinks outside the box who thinks, "this is wrong. Let's change it."

  7. O.k., this is kind of off topic, but has anyone seen Blue is the Warmest Color? (M.E. have you seen this movie?) Does anyone think Emma (one of the main characters) is a sociopath, or at least sociopath leaning? She is subtly cruel to the other main character.(can't think of her name.) It's so subtle and so manipulative, many people probably don't even see it. I'd like to know what other's think about this, possibly in another post.

    1. yes, you are absolutely right. she is self centered, narcissist, controlling, ignoring feelings & emotions, focused on connections, success, manipulating and hurtful

    2. Is there any way to contact you to discuss it. Anonymous email account is OK.

  8. Really appreciated this movie. Glad you are posting about it. It is the first movie that viscerally brought home the often spoken idea that oppression casts a long shadow and that just because the actual physical enslavement is no longer a reality, the shame and disenfranchisement from mainstream culture is still a very real obstacle.
    I took my kids (ages 10-16) to see this. It blows me away how many people consider violent video games and horror movies "kid stuff" and the depictions of violence in 12 years a Slave to be over the top.

    The violence in this movie was integral to the plot line and in demonstrating the level of deliberately destructive action necessary to enslave another human being. For that reason, I feel like this film did victims of oppression a great service. ME, you bring up the human trafficking angle and I think it's an excellent tie in. The reason modern slavery exists is for the same reason it existed so long in the United States. It's because the oppressing individuals could trick themselves into believing "it's not that bad" (Platt's first owner clearly viewed himself as a benevolent owner). The necessity of crushing a slave's spirit is completely ignored so owning slaves is viewed as a lifestyle choice that benefits both parties.

    Until the cover is fully ripped off this blatant lie, slavery and human trafficking will continue to be a booming business.

  9. a good organization that fights human trafficking

  10. Haven't seen the movie-but the question of how GOOD folks can do BAD things, there is such a concept as occupational psychopathy, Doctors develop it as do social workers so as to not be overwhelmed by the emotional crap they deal with, and in the past the NAZI system used a form of magickal thinking to help people stretch their behavioral boundaries while constricting their emotional ones, thus we get the camps of industrial death. A concept most organised armed forces use in a modified way to this day, and the occupationally psychopathic can be seen in many multinationals. And lest we forget the SLAVE GOD religions, Christians enslave themselves to their deities, and in the ISLAMIC world slavery is rife and sanctioned by that disgusting medieval book the KORAN (dont worry I hate the BIBLE and TALMUD as well, an equal opportunity hater in the field of religons.).


Comments on posts over 14 days are SPAM filtered and may not show up right away or at all.

Join Amazon Prime - Watch Over 40,000 Movies


Comments are unmoderated. Blog owner is not responsible for third party content. By leaving comments on the blog, commenters give license to the blog owner to reprint attributed comments in any form.