As I mentioned yesterday, my essay on racism in the movie Priest sparked a fair bit of discussion at Splice Today. It also led to some (significantly more productive) discussion on Twitter and elsewhere. I thought I’d reproduce some of the conversation I had with Ed Sizemore. I’m grouping together the tweets into paragraphs, incidentally, so please make allowances for any lack of coherence on anyone’s part. Also at points we were typing at the same time. Why does anyone use twitter again?
Anyway, here we go:
Ed Sizemore: I just say I disagree. I think you see racism because you want to, not because it’s there.
Noah Berlatsky: Right; I enjoy going to a film and seeing a racist genocidal fantasy. That’s much more fun than enjoying the movie. Have you even seen it? Or is it just that hollywood never makes racist movies?”
Ed: I saw it and enjoyed it for the what it was. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I see it as a Judge Dredd rip-off.
Noah: It rips off the Searchers. In order to make it more racist. I’ve got no problem with mindless action movies. I just don’t want them to get off on genocide of native americans. It seems like a fairly low bar.
Ed: Noah here is how I perceive out differences. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I’m neither a postmodern nor a deconstructionist.I don’t think everything revolves around race, gender, & class. My impression is that you [do]. Therefore you can’t help but see racism n Priest. Whereas, I do not see it because I don’t use that matrix of analysis.
Noah: Everything doesn’t. This movie does. Racism and sexism exist. If you refuse to see it, that’s a political choice with unpleasant consequences. My analysis of priest had nothing to do with deconstruction or postmodernism.It was a basic look at racial issues. It’s really straightforward.
Conservatives have largely forsworn racism. They’ve replaced it with anti-anti-racism. The idea that race might still matter is considered delusional and racist. That’s a way to avoid dealing with ongoing inequity. So sure, it’s a choice of mode of analysis. But you’re presenting it as if that choice is divorced from political or moral content. You’re kind of being postmodernist yourself; you’re claiming that perspective determines reality. I’m the one claiming a reality exists — racism — and you’re determination not to see it is doesn’t erase its existence.
Ed: Yes and no. Perspective shapes how you see reality and thus how you respond to what you think you see. If you see racism then you react to the book, person, event, movie in a manner accordingly. The way you’re denouncing Priest. I would argue believing you can choose your perspective free of moral and political influences is the old model Enlightenment. It’s what postmodernity was a reaction to. Postmodernism says you are mired in a socio-political historical context that takes training to overcome. And even then you will always have to be on guard against it reasserting control.
Noah: You’re still just being a postmodernist. Does racism exist or not? Does not seeing it mean it doesn’t exist?
Ed: Racism exits. I’m saying there is no discussion of race in Priest. I see why you think there is and I think your wrong.
Noah: Then make the argument. You haven’t said anything about the movie. It’s all just hand waving. Is the film not based on the Searchers? Are the vampires not associated with Indians?
And postmodernity is hardly the first philosophy that suggested that there might possibly just maybe be some link between how people act and their society. Rousseau? Hobbes? Basically everybody, because the contrary position is idiotic.
Ed: I say it is not based on the Searchers and no vampires don’t equal Indians in Priest. I say it’s based on Judge Dredd and vampires are simply monsters. You base your comparison on plot. I base my comparison in the world building.
Noah: On what grounds do you deny it’s based on the searchers? It’s the same damn plot. There’s the settler there’s an attack by monsters leaving the reservation, there’s a kidnapping of a niece, there’s concerns about the rescuer killing her if she turns.
Aha. So the plot is based on the searchers. So it is just you refusing to think about the plot because that would make you wrong.
Saying it’s based on Judge Dredd is nonsense. Judge Dredd was derivative crap. It’s all from bladerunner.
Ed: BTW I’m trying to understand why we disagree and if there is a middle ground. I just realized this might sound like a personal attack and I apologize for that. That’s not my intention.
But the Searchers isn’t the only film with that plot or even the first film with that plot. Heck, Dracula had a lot of that plot.
Noah: Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m thicker skinned than that! There’s not really a middle ground, though. You’re wrong!
It deliberately plays with the fact it’s his niece. It’s got a western setting. Arguing that it’s not based on the searchers is crazy. Really. Tons of people have noticed it. I’m absolutely sure it’s intentional on the part of the filmmakers. If you’re analysis depends on that point, you’ve kind of lost. I mean, google priest and searchers. It’s not like I’m a lone nutcase arguing the connection.
Ed: I agree that Priest & Searchers have the same plot. But sharing a plot doesn’t mean they have the same message or meaning. I think of plot like a sentence. It needs a context. That’s where world building comes in. Searchers is historical people. It plays off off real groups of humans and real circumstances. Priest is sci-fi. Fiction can be analogous, but I maintain Priest is not. The vampires of Priest can’t be equated with real Indians. First, vampires are a separate species. Second, with the exception of the queen, there is nothing human-like about vampire. Third, they have always been at war with humans and seek to eradicate them. There is such great divergence between vampires & Indians I find it impossible to equate the two. I hope that’s a better explanation.
Noah: That’s better. Do you deny that historically Indians have been caricatured as subhuman savages who deserve extermination? If you agree that they have, how do subhuman vampires distance themselves from that caricature? Do you claim that putting vampires on reservations and having them attack innocent settler is not deliberately giving them the role of Indians in western narratives?
You seem to believe that the issue is whether *you* equate indians and vampires. The issue is whether the *film* does. I’m sure you don’t equate Jews with subhuman bloodsucking monsters either. Yet people have done so historically. Racism works by caricaturing people as things they are *not* like.
Your argument boils down to simply claiming that nobody could actually be racist enough to equate vampires and indians. But racism gets significantly nastier than that. The only way your argument works is if you presuppose that Priest can’t be racist from the outset.
Oh, and there is something human-like about vampires. They can breed with humans. That seems fairly significant. And Priest and Searchers don’t have the same message! The first is racist; the second is (at least partly) anti-racist. That’s a big difference!
Ed: No, I can’t deny that Indians, and others, have been labeled as subhuman and even nonhuman. The reservation thing is a big plot hole. Why would imprison a species hellbent on your extinction? I confess I never understood that.
After reflection, I concede. I see your point about racism in Priest. I still don’t see it personally, but I have a deep hatred of vampires and so refuse to equate them with anything in the real world. They are part of my pantheon of ultimate evil monsters. Thanks for all the discussion. You were most patient.
Noah: Good lord, you conceded?! Where do you think you are?! This is the internet!
Ed: LOL. I have to bow before superior logic. It’s built in my DNA.
Noah: And thanks yourself. You are exceedingly gracious.
The conversation with Ed (who, as you’ve probably noticed, is a much nicer person than me) also speaks to a related discussion by Mori Theil. Mori writes:
when is something racist? If someone makes a joke, and part of the audience thinks it’s racist, but part of the audience doesn’t, is it truly racist? Does intent matter? Does only the end result matter? We all know that for workplace regulations, anyone feeling offended because of a possible racist interpretation is enough to classify something as racist. But literary and art criticism need not apply legal criteria. Which criteria, then, should apply?
Is it OK to think in ways that parallel racism as long as one isn’t racist in real life? Or should people be on guard against such thought even in fantasy worlds? I rather think this goes into the realm of scientific questions, as it should be possible to demonstrate statistically that repeated exposure to such thinking does or does not lead to racist thought – but who will run that experiment?
I think looking to intent in these matters is largely futile. You can’t read people’s minds, and virtually nobody is going to stand up and say, “yep I’m racist.” I’m sure the folks who made Priest would not advocate genocide of Native Americans if you sat them down to an interview.
Racism is a system of thought. You can participate in that system of thought without necessarily intending to, just as you can be influenced by, say, Kant’s ideas without necessarily having read Kant, or even knowing who he is. You need to look at what is said or what the piece does, not at what the creators say they’re doing. (Some of this does come from postmodernism; I think I disavowed that too strongly in the discussion with Ed.)
The appeal to science is a red herring, I think. Racism is a cultural thing; what is and isn’t racist is difficult to define, and I very much doubt that you could construct an experiment which would tell you anything useful. But…I’d argue that if disputing Priest’s racism had no consequences, then people wouldn’t bother. The relationship between dreaming about racism and committing racist acts isn’t clear or straightforward…but what we dream is part of who we are. And if we don’t want who we are to be racist, it makes sense to think about that when we talk about our fantasies.