Back in September, I watched a film on Netflix called In the Shadow of the Moon. The premise is—spoiler alert—that a terrorist attack happens in Philadelphia in 2024, igniting a new Civil War; a scientist has developed a radioactive bioweapon, and has sent an assassin back in time to inject the isotope into the white nationalists who will carry out the attack in the future, at four nine-year intervals during a lunar phenomenon. It’s a culturally relevant take on the thought experiment, “What if you could go back in time and kill Hitler?”
The film received a great deal of praise online, with more than a few outlets citing its “wokeness.” After all, the central message of the film, as evinced in the killer’s cringeworthy, slogan-fodder closing monologue, is that, if we fight hard enough, we can eradicate hate in all its hideous forms.
Succinctly put, I disagree.
To be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t work ardently to eradicate hate. On the contrary; it may be, along with our too-long-ignored mandate to forestall climate catastrophe, the salient struggle of our existence. And, unlike many, I believe it's one that we will, in the foreseeable future, have the tools to overcome. But I have two issues with the film’s ethos.
First, its view of hate is painfully simplistic. I’m reminded of another recent Netflix misadventure, Bright, which took a lot of heat for seeming to trivialize institutional racism to a byproduct of the base bigotry of individuals, ignoring historical, sociological, etc. factors. Yet here we have a film that seems to insinuate that hate exists because of bad people, and if you go back in time and kill the right people, hate will never enter into existence. It's Bright without the Orcs.
Right. All we have to do is build ourselves a cozy little egg-shaped hydro chamber that goes backwards through time, kick Mommy Hitler in the belly, and Nazism will never have happened. Because that’s how racism works. It’s not a complex disease that evolved with its host or anything like that. It’s not a fatal flaw in the algorithm that is humanity. Kill the first racist, kill racism. By that (travesty of) logic, I ought to go back in time, kill the first person known to have gastroparesis, and I'm all set.
And that brings me to the second objection. The more fundamental one, the one that offends my humanism, yet one that seems depressingly pervasive. The one that says we’ll change the world by killing people.
Because I believe there’s a better way.
Here’s a radical proposition for you. What if, instead of killing baby Hitler, we went back in time, connected his brain to an advanced computer, and reprogrammed his mind so that his worst offense was being a mediocre artist? If we recalibrated Genghis Khan to want nothing more than to be the world’s greatest equestrian? If we wired Donald Trump so that he wasn’t an insecure shit basket who’s willing to burn the world to the ground just to get back at people who made fun of his tiny hands?
Call it brainwashing if you want. I prefer “moral augmentation.”
“The blasphemy!” I hear you say. Right. Fixing the broken code that makes up the human machine is evil horrible madness, but wantonly killing people is progressive (as long as they're reeaaaallllly baaaaaddd people).
The film’s aforementioned closing speech contains populist buzzwords like “fighter” and “sacrifice”—the language of the warrior. And therein lies the problem. The human species will never experience genuine progress while it clings to this martial approach to problem-solving. We need to stop seeing ourselves as soldiers and start seeing ourselves as engineers. Soldiers destroy. Engineers create.
It’s no surprise to me that so many viewers agreed with the film’s premise. So many of our ideologies posit that violence is an acceptable means to an end, should it bring about a “greater good,” and the innocent people who die as a result are acceptable collateral damage. Yeah, bullshit. For starters, the “greater good” is a fallacy. Good and evil are concrete concepts, and therefore, undefinable and, as a result, unattainable in a human experience that is entirely subjective. Sure, you’ll argue that there are “shades of grey,” but where you see a sliding scale of moral relativism in which a lighter shade is arbitrarily deemed “good enough,” it’s no more good than a dog is an elephant.
Oh, and settling upon that arbitrary paradigm never seems to work. Any “change” is superficial at best, and any “progress” is swiftly undone by the underlying glitch in the software.
I want you to ask yourself a question—and put aside your religious, spiritual, sociological, etc. conditioning, if you can, for a moment. If there existed means to reverse engineer the human mind, to alter its components and delete the destructive tendencies, would that not be the more humane means to eradicate hate? Last time I checked, we don’t treat diseases by killing the patient. We immunize, we medicate, we practice healthy living. We put our knowledge and technology to good use. We work the problem, we don't just blow it up. Maybe my metaphor of the engineer isn’t the most apposite. Maybe we need to see ourselves as physicians working to eradicate the disease of hate instead of warriors trying to kill the enemy. Is it not more compassionate to cure the disease and save the patient?
Maybe they don’t deserve that. Maybe they do. I’m not qualified to judge; if you are, then congratulations, you’re a better person than I am. Pat yourself on the back and wallow in your sanctimony.
What I’m supporting—because I’m far from the first person to propose moral augmentation—is radical. Perhaps even outrageous to some. Sacrilegious? Why not? Playing god? Well, if there is a current occupant of that position, he’s doing a really lousy job, so perhaps it is time for a regime change. A violation of our rights and individual liberties? Absolutely! Dangerous? Maybe, but I’d argue it’s no more so than maintaining the status quo and deluding ourselves into thinking that we can legislate away behaviors that have been honed over eons of humanoid evolution.
And, of course, it can never happen. Until it does.
But I'm convinced it’s the right thing to do. Sure, it’d make for a boring movie; would anyone really rather see a time-transcending altruist forcibly wireheading some diseased minds back to moral health than watching Nazis bleed their brains out their eye sockets? Nah! We love to pretend we can solve our problems by blowing shit up. It’s fun! It makes us feel powerful, and power is the only language the primitive human mind seems to comprehend. And so we create dark lords and death stars and devils, avatars onto which we can project our myriad vices and sins, and delude ourselves into believing that, if we kill the dark lord, blow up the death star, slay the devil, our problems will all go away. For all our pontificating about the righteousness of the struggle, we choose to follow the path of least resistance.
That’s fine in fiction. Fiction is supposed to be cathartic, and while the film in question fell flat for me, it was a clever enough premise. But there are too many who can’t delineate the fictional from the practical. Hate isn’t a dark lord, a death star, a devil. It’s a disease, substrate-independent, feeding off the evolutionary detritus left rotting in the proverbial fridge that is the human psyche. You see, we humans still suffer from a form of pack mentality. It doesn’t take much for this simple glitch in the software to become malignant, to become conscious hate. Killing the host won’t kill the disease. The disease will simply burst forth from the corpse and spread like wildfire.
We need to fix the glitch, to rid the disease. And if it takes some judicious recalibration of our innate hardware to clean all that junk out of our heads, then so be it. But more killing, more violence will not fix the problem, only make it worse.
We are entering a time of profound change, scientifically, technologically, spiritually. The advent of a humanity that has the means to reinvent and redefine itself, to take the reins of Evolution and chart the course of its own future. Are we going to enter this brave new world (because I know at least one person is going to make that connection) as mindless foot soldiers in an endless battle that we cannot hope to win, or are we going in as engineers with the gumption to change the parameters, adjust the variables, correct the equation?
Because human nature, like Nature itself, is an algorithm. And like any algorithm, it is susceptible to flaws. The seminal question for the future of humanity is: Do we have the willpower to fix that algorithm?
I suspect we don’t. A pity. And so we’ll go on throwing rocks and pipe bombs at each other, pretending that we’re changing the world, when all we’re really doing is getting high off the power trip.
In closing, I have a message for those of you who want to kill your way to a better world: Kill me first. Consider this an open invitation. I’d rather die with my humanity and dignity intact, with my hands and conscience clean. I want no part of your bloodsoaked utopia.
And if that’s not “woke” enough for you…I’ll just go back to bed.