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Black Mirror: “Men Against Fire” Recap and Analysis

Stripe wears a beret with tears in his eyes

If you haven’t seen Black Mirror, well, I’m not sure why you’re here. If you have, you know it is arguably one of the most important and thought provoking shows of our era. TV Obsessive is proud to feature analyses of each and every episode. Here, Caemeron Crain digs into Black Mirror S3E5, “Men Against Fire.”

It is clearly not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of this inclination of aggression. They do not feel comfortable without it. The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised. It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness. – Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930)

“Men Against Fire” presents us with a story about soldiers fighting “roaches.” When we first see them, these beings appear to be something akin to vampires. They are monstrous, as they fight and shriek. They live up to the fear of the villagers the soldiers responded to, who complained of their food stores being ransacked (and now tainted), and pointed them in the direction of Parn Heidekker’s house. The remaining food is to be burned, simply because the roaches touched it.

But, it turns out that the frightening appearance of the roaches is only because of the “mass” that has been implanted in the soldiers; our protagonist Stripe among them. This is clearly a variation, or development of, the technology seen in “The Entire History of You,” as is evidenced by what happens to the eyes of the characters at certain points. But here, the tech is not just being used to allow one to access memories—it is being used to control the present experiences of the soldiers in question.

We learn this first as Stripe’s mass malfunctions. He begins to see the roaches as they are—that is, as human beings who look just like the rest of us. He fights with his partner Raiman, who does not understand why he all of a sudden is trying to save the life of a roach.

Significantly more information is provided, however, in the scene that follows these events, when Argyle lays out the facts to Stripe in his cell. It turns out that the roaches are not monsters—they are simply human beings with problematic DNA. Argyle defends the plan to exterminate them by listing a number of genetic predispositions they purportedly have to: cancer, MS, substandard IQ, criminal tendencies, and sexual deviance. He further defends the manipulation of the senses of Stripe and others via the mass, by pointing to an innate human tendency towards empathy, responsible for soldiers in WWI not firing their weapons, and the psychological effects that accrued for the increased number who did by the time it came to the Vietnam War. He points to mass as the solution to this problem: if one believes one is fighting monsters, one will be a far more effective soldier.

Stripe sits in a blank cell as Argyle stands behind him

Everyday people, such as the villagers Stripe met earlier in the episode, do not have a mass, however. They see the roaches as human. This explains why it is that Parn Heidekker is motivated to help them, and casts the scene wherein Medina insists to him that he cannot still see them as human in a new light. The fear and antipathy displayed by the other villagers, however, shows the extent to which human beings do not need to be technologically manipulated in order to see other human beings as monstrous.

The Other can serve a social purpose in terms of binding a community together, as Freud notes. It is for this reason that he says that this human tendency to label some groups as the Other, or the enemy, is not to be despised. It serves a psychological purpose. On Freud’s view, our drive to aggression has to find an outlet somewhere. Of course, there is something about labeling a group as the Other that is the source of all of our social problems that is, in fact, despicable. This is the way of thinking that led to the Holocaust, after all. But it is also what is at play in rhetorical structure of discourse pertaining to terrorists, following 9/11, and of course in the discourse pertaining to immigrants. It is there in the rhetoric of the Cold War. In George Orwell’s 1984, we see it in the figure of Emmanuel Goldstein, and the notion of an underground resistance. It would seem the Party recognizes the psychological importance of being able to blame some element of society for all of its ills.

1) Is it possible to have a society without such an Other that it sets itself up against?

It is noted several times over the course of “Men Against Fire” that these events are occurring in the aftermath of a war, although no further details are given about this war. It is also worth noting that Stripe is clearly American (if the accent weren’t enough, we have the fact that he uses the word ‘flashlight’ when describing the device that caused his mass to malfunction). The villagers, on the other hand, are Danish. There is thus a background question to be noted as to what has happened in this world, as opposed to ours. One possibility would be that the U.S. has taken over, but it could be more complicated than that.

Regardless, this is clearly a world where DNA testing has been employed to check for problematic genetic dispositions, since this is the very basis of the plan to exterminate the roaches. While the problems that Argyle lists are fairly severe (though the inclusion of a reference to sexual deviances makes him sound like quite a Nazi), this still amounts to not just a eugenics program, but engaging in what is basically genocide on the basis of DNA.

2) Does it even matter what the basis of a eugenics program is, morally speaking?

We may be thankful for the passage of laws such as the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, but it is always possible that such laws could be changed in the future, or simply ignored. After all, we aren’t talking about job discrimination here, but the perpetration of a war—the roaches are the enemy, the Other, and we have already seen how the characterization of terrorism suspects as such can lead the U.S. to deprive individuals of their rights.

Immanuel Kant contended that a human being has intrinsic worth; that is, that one does not have to relate a human life to anything else, such as social utility, or even personal happiness, in order to be dealing with something of value. If this is right, then the intrinsic worth of a person is also something that could not be lost, or taken away. The reason for this, on Kant’s view, is not biological humanity, but our autonomy, or capacity for self-determination. We are rational beings who can thus determine our own behavior. Taken on its face, this would make the plan being enacted in “Men Against Fire” straightforwardly immoral.

Unfortunately, Kant did not have the most enlightened views when it came to race. Like other Enlightenment thinkers of his time, such as Thomas Jefferson, Kant tended to think of various non-Europeans as “savages” and thus as less than human. There are some troubling passages wherein he contends that savages do not possess Reason, for example. That he lived in the 18th century does not excuse him, as there were those who opposed slavery and the like at the time (Lafayette is a figure I find to be of particular interest), but rather brings to light this contradictory tendency in the human soul. How could Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” also own hundreds of slaves? How could Kant, who thought it was immoral in an absolute sense to treat a person like a thing, not see this as a direct and categorical objection to slavery and colonization?

It is by thinking of some human beings as less than human that such logic functions. This resolves the cognitive dissonance. Those others aren’t human—they are savages, or roaches to be exterminated. They are thus pushed out of the moral story, or cast in the role of being the cause of all of our social ills.

The immorality of such a move seems obvious, and yet we constantly struggle with its varying forms. In this sense, “Men Against Fire” pushes the question, because it does not base the issue on race, or gender, but on a more scientifically grounded claim about genetic fitness. The point is that a program that aims to rid society of its “degenerate” element is wrong, even if the underlying claims about that element are true.

Racism isn’t just wrong just because its claims are false—though they are—but because of the way it views certain persons as less than persons. And the same goes when it comes to things like ableism. If we view a human being as only having value in relation to something like social utility, we fail to respect that person’s intrinsic worth. But Kant himself shows how hard it is to truly view all persons as persons; to truly hold that all human beings are equal in principle is difficult stuff. We tend toward tribalism and an Us versus Them mentality. Rather than writing off thinkers like Kant and Jefferson because of their problematic views on race, we should perhaps think about how hard it is to live up to our own ideals, or to be consistent. The irony being that for Kant, consistency itself amounted to a paramount moral standard.

One of the things that is distinctive about Kant’s moral philosophy is his insistence that we have duties to ourselves. “Act so that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, as an end and never as a means only,” he writes in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. To treat a person as a means only is to treat a person like a thing—merely a way to achieve one’s goals. To treat a person as a person requires respecting the person’s autonomy; their right to self-determination. It is OK for me to use a cab driver to achieve my goal of getting across town only insofar as the cab driver is doing this freely. It is not about the money, but the autonomy of the individual. If I were to take the newspaper from your stoop and leave five dollars, it would still be stealing because you didn’t agree to sell it to me. In this sense, it does not even matter how much money I leave.

What is interesting, though, is that Kant applies the same standard to the self. That is, he clearly indicates that it is possible to treat oneself as a means only, and this creates some conceptual tension, insofar as treating someone as a means only amounts to failing to respect their autonomy. If my autonomy is the capacity to decide what to do with myself, how could anything I decide to do violate that?

We discover towards the end of “Men Against Fire” that Stripe signed up for his assignment, knowing full well what it entailed. Argyle shows him a video to prove that he did so.

Stripe is nonchalant as he sits behind a table and enlists

What we see is a much less disciplined version of Stripe, who seems rather nonchalant about enlisting, and agreeing to the mass being put in. He is told by his interviewer that he will not remember this interview, and he basically shrugs it off. Present day Stripe does not remember the encounter, but Argyle notes how the man on the tape says he will not. He agreed to this. He knew that the roaches were just human beings with DNA that those in power thought needed to be eradicated, and he signed up to kill them of his own free will. He is no better than the villagers, and maybe worse.

Now, he is presented with a choice: either have his memory erased, and the mass “fixed” so that he can continue on his mission, or remember everything, without filter, on a perpetual loop. We see him killing human beings now, without the manipulation that makes them appear to be monsters, and he sees the same.

It is no surprise that he decides to re-enlist and have his memory erased, as the final scene strongly implies. But, it does raise a question about to what extent one can freely abnegate one’s own autonomy. Can one freely decide to give up one’s freedom? Sell oneself into slavery? I would contend that Stripe’s example brings Kant’s thought home better than anything he himself wrote. This is not freedom, or autonomy, even if there is an appearance of it. It certainly does not make sense to suggest that Stripe acts freely when he re-enlists and has his memory wiped, since he is clearly coerced by the threat of punishment. But what about when signed up the first time, knowing what he was getting into?

3) Can one freely consent to be manipulated?

Kant would contend that doing so would be to allow oneself to be determined by forces other than oneself, and thus amount to undermining one’s own autonomy. At a certain level, we are of course free to do this, but this is only insofar as we are responsible for what we do. We are morally responsible if we allow ourselves to be determined by instinct, or emotions (fear, anger, etc.), but to do so is to act on the basis of something external to oneself. It is only if one acts on the basis of one’s own reason that one is truly acting freely. As such, we have to ask whether Stripe’s decision to enlist, knowing that this means he will have his mind and senses technologically manipulated such that he believes the roaches to be monstrous, could be a rationally determined one.

We need to think not just about how being deceived by others undermines our freedom, but also about the lies we tell to ourselves. Stripe is not a victim in this story; he is just as implicated as Argyle. He simply does not remember.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

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