Punishing Viewing


Something I wrote a while ago, somewhat rewritten.  I'm re-posting it to mark the release of 'The Mind of Evil' on DVD.  In brief, being in colour doesn't make it any better.

There is a very old idea about ‘human nature’, that we are born with certain social characteristics already implanted or programmed in our brains, usually inherited from our parents and ancestors. You will find this idea laced throughout the whole of modern Western culture. Ruffians and villains in Conan Doyle are often said to have "vile antecedents". Oliver Twist is incapable of being a pickpocket because, despite being raised in a pauper's orphanage, he is a middle class child displaced amongst the scum classes. Similarly (because J.K. Rowling is nothing if not studiedly unoriginal) Harry Potter is filled with love just like his late mum, despite being systematically emotionally and psychologically abused up to the age of 11.  I could go on at great length.

This conception of human nature (please take the quote marks as read whenever I use that phrase) is directly and inextricably linked to class, and to questions of social role, crime, etc. It is still claimed today that people end up in prison because they have inborn tendencies which lead them there. These days we use the language of genetics. Before genes, people used the language of blood. Before that, people used the language of the Bible. The medieval church claimed that drastic and dreadful social divisions were justified because people were born into one category or the other, based on their bloodline. They were the descendents of Cain or Seth, and thus carried the blood of a vile murderer or a goody-two-shoes. Of course, the idea that the peasants were peasants because they had murderer's blood doesn't account for the massive amount of warmongering and killing and torturing and executing done by the supposed descendents of Seth (i.e the Kings and Dukes and whathaveyou). Of course, even today a great deal of chin-scratching cogitation goes into deciding what genetic factors might be causing black urban gun crime... while nobody wonders if the carpet-bombing Prime Minister must have killer genes. And, as John Ball pointed out, if we're all descended from Cain or Seth, that also means we're all descended from (non-murdering) Adam and Eve... so how does that work?

As many thinkers have pointed out, being in prison isn't necessarily a mark of violence or evil (or even, in many cases, actual criminality) so much as a mark of refusing to play your assigned social role. It starts in childhood, with kids medicated for personality disorders for such heinous sins as "disrespecting authority" etc. Also, prisons are a massive system of social control and punitive reinforcement. Vast numbers of people in the American prison system today (which increasingly resembles a kind of privatised system of gulags) are there for non-violent drug crimes. There are many examples of, for instance, disabled people sent away for life because they were caught with a few ounces of weed that they obtained to use personally as a palliative. Meanwhile, the captains of finance who devastate our world and societies, or the politicians who demolish populations in the Middle East, somehow mysteriously avoid trial and incarceration.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I don't like 'The Mind of Evil'.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to say that we're born without any innate characteristics. We're all born with the grabbing reflex, with "face recognition software", possibly with syntax (if you believe some people), etc... and we're probably capable of being born with the innate set of mental aptitudes that can lead to, say, musical ability, etc. But the tendency - even amongst people who, for instance, edit the journal Science or flog lots of popular science books - is to talk about "genes for homelessness" (which wouldn't be the only silly thing that Matt Ridley believes) or "genes for crime". "Crime" is artificially essentialized into something called, say, "aggression" or "anti-social behaviour" and all sorts of varied and contingent social behaviours are artificially lumped together under this term, while others (the warmongering of leaders, for instance, or the drug dealing of big tobacco firms) are mysteriously ignored, presumably because they are seen as inherently non-criminal.

There's a very interesting (and largely amicable) discussion about this stuff between Richard Dawkins and Steven Rose, here. I particularly like the fact that Rose is wearing a long, multi-coloured scarf.

It’s been pointed out to me that there’s nothing in the story that directly implies that the prisoners are ‘born bad’. They might, it is suggested, just as well contract the evil via their experiences. Well, okay, but that is still hugely reductionist. I’m no fonder of environmental or social or economic determinism than I am of genetic determinism. And the serial depicts prison simplistically as a place where violent, selfish, ruthless, brutal thugs go. No other perspective is even nodded at. We have to confront the text as it stands, and that is where it stands.

Plus, in a story that features an American ambassador during the time of the Vietnam war... well, the show seems completely unaware of any idea that an American ambassador during the Vietnam war (or a Chinese ambassador during the reign of Mao, for that matter) would probably be directly or indirectly complicit in more murder, destruction, violence, rape and torture than all the crims in Stangmore combined. Imperialism is even namechecked at one point... as a bit of rhetorical Maoist flim-flam for the Brigadier to smirk at.

None of this would be quite so bad if the story didn't also revolve around a dirty big nuclear missile. The cumulative impression is the standard bit of wishy-washy liberal twaddle about "oooh, the darkness of mankind... oooh, there's violence in us and that's why we have nukes and stuff...". Crime can't possibly stem from alienation caused by hierarchical and unjust societies, nor is it something that leaders do too... these notions are completely beyond the story's ken.  Crime is something that people with Evil in their heads do, and people like that go to prison. If you're in prison, you're Bad. It's that simple. This is implicit. Also implicit is the assumption that humans are clockwork oranges.  Use technology to remove the Evil from the brain and the brain will function properly again.  A 'properly' functioning brain, at least for the working class, seems to be a brain that makes you mild, quiet, childlike and inclined to doglike obedience.

If the story was intended as a 'homage' to A Clockwork Orange, it seriously misunderstood that text.  Whatever its faults, Burgess' story understands that behaviour is more than just mechanistic conditioning.

Also implicit is the notion that the weapons of mass destruction with which imperialists threaten the planet are not economic phenomena, or chips in a power play, or actualisations of the conflict inherent in capitalist competition between states, but expressions of our collective guilt, our original sin as a species. My question, as ever, is: who's "we"? 

Judging by the story's racial and gender politics, 'we' are the Westerners, lead by proper male, ruling-class authority.  Chin-Lee, being both Chinese and a woman, is a puppet.  Meanwhile, the ultimate horror - at least as far as the American Senator Alcott is concerned - is that this deadly combination of sneaky otherness - the Eastern, the Communist, the woman - will bare its fangs and burn 'us' all with its breath.  If 'we' have to worry about the working class getting uppitty as well, 'we' are in serious trouble. 

In other words, this is a classic bit of reactionary Cold War ideology, albeit mediated through the Doctor's occasional bouts of scepticism. 

Still, at least it looks colourful now.


AndyRobot800 7 years, 7 months ago

"The Mind Of Evil", for me, is the ultimate "how to enjoy something that's problematic" case - probably second only to Talons.

It's a story I really, really like - it's pacy and full of intrigue. I love cold war history and find the '70s preoccupation with mind control really fascinating.

It also depicts mental illness in a pretty offensive way, and the whole plot hinges on there being only one Chinese girl in England. So that's kind of... umm.

However, I always read Senator Alcott's fear of "the Chinese dragon" as more of a "typical American politician, seeing commies everywhere" kind of thing, rather than an implicit suggestion that we were supposed to agree with him.

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