Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Hunger Games: Or Why Bloodsport is Bad

When asked to do a blog post motivated in some way by Suzanne Collins' book, The Hunger Games, a post decrying the immorality of bloodsport, or watching other people risk their lives for your entertainment, was my immediate thought. I can write it without serious spoilers to the plot of the book, as the eponymous Hunger Games are explained fairly early in to be a competition of 24 children from the twelve subjugated Districts in which at then end, in classic Highlander tradition, there can be only one. However, I was concerned that there might be no need for such a post, as most modern societies find the concept of human duels to the death to be, at least overtly, in poor taste. Upon further reflection I feel that there is a bit to say on the subject, and so I shall say it here.

After my initial moral repugnance to the notion of forcing children to battle to the death for entertainment, my first thought was to ask why I had such an aversion to this practice. The narration makes it clear that even outside of the Arena, site of the Hunger Games, life in the Districts of Panem is fraught with uncertainties. To be sure, a survival rate of less than 5% is a bit bleaker than in society at large, but if the Hunger Games were in a very real sense metaphorical for the struggle to survive in the Districts, was my horror at them explained merely because they were more lethal than society at large?

The answer I came to in the end was no. There was a key difference between the indifferent cruelty that perpetuated a system where starvation was a very real and pervasive threat, and the deliberate sadism displayed in forcing people to kill each other for sport. The difference is neatly summed up by my favorite Kantian maxim, that we ought always respect the agency of other people. We all go into the world each day and take our chances with our newest chance at reality, and every day some of us do not survive to see nightfall again. Certainly perpetuating a system in which a large number of people find their mortal end so young in life ought to be immoral by some other standard, but at least it preserves their right to make their own way through their world. On the other hand, to purposefully place them into a situation of mortal combat is as extreme an example of using other humans purely as an instrument to an end as I can think of.

"So what?" you may be asking, after all, most people agree that making playthings out of people is in poor taste. However, upon further consideration it occurred to me that our society still contains dangerous impulses in that direction. I am not merely referring to our penchant for using other species as playthings, in the cases of rodeos, races, and Mike Vic-esque acts of villainy, but rather the explicit use of people for entertainment. Subtle things like dangerous sports, I have been intending to write a post regarding football injuries since mid-January, and reality television. These endeavors are characterized in that they serve no apparent purpose other than entertainment and seek to convey a sense of danger to the participants.

Of course, you might argue that they are structured so as to minimize, or at least mitigate, the chances of a fatality. One cannot dispute the reality of on-field deaths in professional sports, which ignores the host of lesser ills and injuries that occur with disturbing regularity. I also can remember ads on Hulu for an episode of Deadliest Catch in which one of the, quite real, fisherpeople dies. According to Wikipedia, the episode in question is the most watched in the series.

There is a difference between shows like Deadliest Catch, which tape people doing things that, presumably, they would be doing otherwise, and shows like Fear Factor which contrive to put people in situations of perceived danger. However, I bring it up to highlight our fascination with the entertainment of death. I am by no means immune to this allure. Earlier this year I heard about the movie Grizzly Man, which details the last camping trip of a bear enthusiast and his girlfriend, a trip which terminates in both their deaths in a bear attack. While I admit it is macabre, I find the notion of watching the last actions of people who I know are about to die intriguing on some level. "We who are about to die salute you," as it were.

In light of our continued fascination with our mortality, and the endless opportunities for entertainment therein, it seems like stories like The Hunger Games, which reinforce our aversion to such entertainment, continue to have a purpose. Of course, even if you feel no particular desire to watch people fight to the death for your pleasure, I still recommend the book as an all around good read! I think that I shall write a further, more spoiler-iffic post regarding the series as a whole at a later date.


Aislyn said...

I think maybe people's fascination with war movies and things like Gladiator might stem from our impulse for greatness. i think humans have an impulse to feel brave, strong, full of valor, etc, and we get that now through entertainment since most of us don't regularly find ourselves in life-or-death situations. but we like to think that should that be the case, we'd take our cues from the heroes and survivors of such stories. bloodsport is just an extreme instance of that, where people are fighting for their lives, and also for their dignity. humans in general like to think they'd be the winners, the most dignified, the most brave. then we go step over the beaten man on the sidewalk. and re: the samaritan post, i think life was easier when we didn't have to love nearly so many people, but as Americans in the age of globalization, our actions influence so many more lives than we can fathom. we have so many more neighbors than jesus had, and the prospect of being responsible for so large a community is terrifying. if we didn't narrow it down to the people whose lives are most closely intertwined with ours, we'd probably all go catatonic, or nihilistic, or something of that nature.

elfarmy17 said...

Death scares people. It's something we think about a lot, but it's not something we particularly want to have to encounter anytime soon. So instead we have get strange pleasure in watching other people deal with their own mortality-- we then have a greater perspective on our own. But that's just in reference to movies and books and such.

As for actually causing things like the Hunger Games, perhaps knowing that people other than yourself are dying is comforting in a very perverse sort of way, since they're dying, and you're still alive?

Kenny said...

@Aislyn: I certainly agree that our desire for vicarious valor plays a part in our enjoyment of such movies, as do Russel Crowe's abs. However, I think there is something darker at work in our enjoyment of such spectacles in reality, rather than in fiction.

I definitely agree that the more interaction we have, the harder it becomes to engage humanely in each one. I am fairly sure I heard about a study that found that people who live in urban environments have much higher filters for what information they even are aware of than those in less stimuli rich environments.

@ElfArmy: Perhaps. I would imagine that part of it is a dehumanization of the participants. "They're just Christians/barbarians/terrorists/Tributes," or whatnot.