The 100, Factory Farming and the Banality of Evil
Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core – Hannah Erendt
Warning: Spoilers Ahead. If you haven’t seen season 2 of The 100, I encourage you watch it first and then read this piece!
The 100 – cultural critique masquerading as teen melodrama
Over the past few months, I’ve become a fan of a tv show on Netflix called The 100. Originally aired on the CW, The 100 is set in a post-apocalyptic world where 4,000 people have survived a nuclear Holocaust by living in a space station referred to as “The Ark”. After waiting 97 years, they send 100 of their own to earth to determine if its habitable. At first it seems like paradise, until they learn they are not alone…
As of Season 2, the Ark residents are aware of to two other distinct groups of humans who have also survived the nuclear apocalypse: the Grounders – who seem to have survived life on the ground with a combination of sheer will and genetic good luck – and the Mountain Men – remnants of an advanced civilization who have survived underground in an elaborate fallout shelter known as “Mount Weather” through superior technology and a fair amount of shameless exploitation and murder.
One of the best things about fiction, and science fiction in particular, is that it allows us to subtly view contemporary society through a different lens. In season 2 of The 100, writers examine what civilization really means, and force viewers to question how far they would go to survive.
Initially, Mount Weather looks like the last bastion of civilization. The Mountain Men speak english and dress in worn – yet distinguished – suits. They even have a President! Visitors from the Ark are particularly astounded by their delicious food, including chocolate cake.
Alas, this advanced civilization harbours a dark secret (SPOILER ALERT!!).
The price of civilization
Paradoxically, the survival of Mount Weather is dependent on the blood of the Grounders, both literally and figuratively. Through a rather complicated scheme involving zombies (“reapers”), they kidnap Grounders and harvest them for their blood, which protects the Mountain Men from the effects of exposure to nuclear radiation.
After nearly 100 years of life on the outside, the Grounders are immune to the effects of the radiation. Conversely, the Mountain men, ensconced in the safety of Mount Weather, are protected from the harsh reality of life on the surface. But as a result, they haven’t adapted, and are completely vulnerable to the radiation.
The Grounders have inferior technology and are easily controlled through Mount Weather’s technology. This makes them easy to manipulate, capture and harvest for their blood. It also makes it easier for the Mountain Men to rationalize using them as a renewable resource, rather than seeing them as fellow human beings.
Kidnapped Grounders live in cages (further dehumanizing them), where they are kept until harvest time. The “reaping” itself involves hanging the tranquilized victims upside down and bleeding them out (their blood arrives in the medical facility through an innocuous system of tubes that sanitize the horror for the eyes of the recipients).
It turns out that Mount Weather’s residents are aware of where the blood comes from. Despite living nearby the facilities where the Grounders are kept, most of them have never seen the process themselves. A few Mountain Men abstain from the treatments, but the vast majority accept them without much thought. After all, the Grounders are basically sub-human savages. Mount Weather’s primary concern is the preservation of their culture, and if that means the death of a few Grounders, so be it.
The parallels between Mount Weather and the Holocaust are inescapable. You can’t watch these episodes without thinking about the Nazis and the “banality of evil” so eloquently described by Hannah Erendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Eichmann in Jerusalem
For those who haven’t read Hannah Erendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, I will attempt to briefly summarize its key points here. Adolf Eichmann was a key Nazi architect of “The Final Solution”, in which Jews were deported to concentration camps and slaughtered by the millions. When questioned as to his motives, Eichmann startled many by appearing to neither hate the jews nor demonstrate remorse for his actions. He repeatedly stated he had merely been doing his job, as had the officials who enforced his directives.
Eichmann was a disappointment and puzzle to those who met him. They expected the personification of evil in human form. Instead, they were confronted with a pencil pushing bureaucrat who had engineered the slaughter of millions simply by “following orders”. Erendt’s hypothesis was that, while we prefer to imagine the Nazi leadership as heartless psychopaths bent on the destruction of the jews, they had more in common with Enron executives than they did with Jack the Ripper.
Eichmann in Jerusalem is an indictment of Eichmann and an entire society where the majority abandoned their empathy and simply followed orders. Yes, Eichmann was an evil hypocrite. But he was far from alone.
The Mountain Men’s casual mistreatment of the Grounders in The 100 is reminiscent of the Holocaust, because they set aside all concern for outsiders so long as their abuse remains safely out of view. In exchange for abdicating their moral responsibility, the residents enjoy perceived safety and distance from outsiders who might threaten their civilized existence.
But the writers don’t make it easy for their viewers to write these people off as futuristic fascists. Instead, we face a profound dilemma: unlike the Nazis, these people actually do seem to require the blood of the Grounders in order to survive. They are not engaging in genocide out of capricious nastiness, but because they cannot see another way out of their dilemma. As a result, they have perpetuated this systematic slaughter for decades – most have been born into this tradition and cannot recall any other way of surviving.
Those who choose to forgo the treatments face social isolation and put their health at risk, but do so because they know it is right (I will leave it up to you to draw your own parallels here).
In this respect, the use of Grounders has more parallels to factory farming than it is to the Holocaust. It is a tradition (even the agricultural language of “reaping” is used), and the majority of Mount Weather’s citizens use Grounder blood for health reasons (it objectively makes them stronger). The slaughter of the Grounders is based on perceived necessity. They never go so far as to use the Grounders for entertainment purposes or wear their bodies as decorations.
I’m certain most viewers who see The 100 find the harvest of Grounder blood morally unacceptable – at least I hope so! Except the vast majority of us eat, use and wear animals even though it is in no way necessary to our survival. The Mountain Men would have to sacrifice their lives in order to stop using Grounders. Yet we have no difficulty determining their actions are unethical and well worthy of our disdain.
As a society, we can move past our own archaic traditions at little or no cost except cultural tradition and taste preference. Interestingly, even those barriers will soon be overcome as faux meats improve and we can produce animal flesh in laboratories without any need to use actual animals (see this fascinating article in Fortune about Memphis Meats, a startup that uses stem cells to produce real meat, no slaughter required). Unlike the occupants of Mount Weather – who face the difficult choice between their own well-being and that of strangers – we simply need to choose between following tradition, and using our moral intuition to enter a modern era where we kill from necessity rather than impulse.
Conclusion and disclaimer
I believe it goes without saying that I by no means intend to equate factory farming with the Holocaust. My intention is to show that the greatest horror does not require the presence of evil, but merely the absence of the empathy. Our moral compass is not destroyed by any outside force, but by our own failure to think through the consequences of our actions. We cannot rely on authorities to do our thinking for us.
The results of surrendering our faculty of reasoning to our leaders has resulted in some of the greatest atrocities in human history, including eons of sexism and racism (not to mention the persecution of scientists by religious authorities, but I digress). The only way to prevent a dark future is if we learn to think and reason for ourselves. Adolf Eichmann may have engineered the final solution, but it was the inaction of a nation that permitted it to come to fruition. I am grateful to shows like The 100 for reminding us that the threat of evil cannot be erased as long as we value our own comfort above that of our neighbours.