Netflix is great. The endless catalog of movies that would normally be unconsidered creates the opportunity to experience stories ranging from the unheard of to familiar friends you had forgotten that you missed.
Today, I watched Animal Farm, an adaptation of the book written by George Orwell as a commentary on the political climate that gave birth to the rise of Stalinism in the era between World War II and The Cold War. I had read the book some years ago, and some of the memories of the reading came flooding back. The political undertones are, of course, evident, and many an intellectual has spent countless hours, words and breaths debating the nuances of the story.
So, to prevent the beating of a dead horse (poor word choice?) let’s expand the scope of Animal Farm as it relates to Politics to cover an equally messy, complex subject : relationships. After all, is politics not the study of relationships between and within states? Are relationships not one of the most politically charged of enterprises?
Two themes became readily apparent as the demise of a revolutionary movement led by pigs unfolded across the screen this morning: control and denial.
Lack of control over their own destinies and maltreatment created the climate for the Animals to revolt successfully and, initially, do away with their human overlords. Unifying principles and a code of conduct that had been established before the overthrow created solidarity initially, but the dynamic changed when fear that the unity would not remain in the new regime. The unifying principles became a threat to the pigs who had previously been in control as the architects of the revolution.
So the pigs in Animal Farm did what anybody seeking to remain in control would do: they changed the rules and manipulated through fear. By making exceptions for their own morality, the pigs began to adopt the very behaviors, the boundaries that separated them- the animals- from the oppressors -the humans- that were condemned at the beginning of the revolution. They broke the covenants set forth at the founding of Animal Farm to remain in power and to maintain the pleasures of privilege afforded to those in power.
Similarly, relationships fall apart because the promises and commitments made to each other to love, to protect, to share with one another are bent, manipulated or outright broken for the convenience or pleasure of one of the partners. Perhaps it’s a self-defeating, subconscious operation-feelings of not deserving love, growing up with a parent who showed their “love” through violence, being afraid of the relationship falling apart-manifesting itself as a shift from being a part of a loving cooperative relationship to one of dominance and control. Maybe it happens after somebody gets an education, moves onto healthy habits. Something upsets the roles people have played to this point, and in order to maintain the familiarity of roles, people bend or break their commitments.
So why do humans bother to get ourselves into these messes in the first place?
We choose loyalty because it has benefits. You know that free cup of coffee you get after purchasing 10 cups? It’s a little like that.
We choose relationships because we want to feel complete, to belong. We give ourselves over to them initially because we know that on our own, something is missing, and our lack of connection to others makes us feel vulnerable and as though it is the one thing keeping us from joining the ranks of humanity. Grown-up stuff.
We choose patriotism in a similar manner; we want to belong and feel part of something greater than ourselves. We know that without the unity of our compatriots, without a unified economic structure, an army, legal system, we are vulnerable to rampant vigilantism and decimation or conquest by those nation states who are united. United we stand, divided we fall kinds of things.
This doesn’t always mean we make great choices. It doesn’t mean we pick great partners. And it doesn’t mean we make great partners just because we want it so badly. In fact, if we feel a compulsory need to have relationships to validate our existence chances are better that we make really awful partners, friends and family members. These are the people who have never been without a significant other, swinging like Tarzan from one relationship to the next, not letting go until another vine is firmly in hand. These are the mama’s boys, the daddy’s girls, and the zealous “fuck yeah, ‘murica” crowd.
This brings in the risk of being a whistle blower. People who identify corruption in a regime, point out an error in calculations on a project, or who point out damaging or hurtful behaviors in a relationship put themselves at great risk – to point out weakness can be seen as challenging somebody’s authority or worth. A handful of characters in Animal Farm try at different points to question the hypocrisy of the pigs’ actions when the pigs begin to behave exactly as their previous oppressors.
The failure does not exist in the weakness, the stumble, the fumble, the deviation from the principles. The failure occurs when those who have the power or responsibility to make the corrections or changes to simply improve or restore functionality to the system not only choose not to do so, but turn around and condemn the whistle blower for even suggesting the possibility of an error on their part in the first place. Indignantly they cry “how dare you?!? If you were a patriot, if you were a loyal party member, if (my personal favorite) you really loved me, you would not say that anything is wrong!” Ironically, it is because of love – of a country, an ideal or a person – that people point out these things. It is because they see the potential of the framework, of the raw materials that they bring these things to light. What was an opportunity to strengthen the structure of the new government, of a relationship becomes the first step towards its perversion. The denial becomes the flaw. The failure to act or respond becomes the harm.
A slightly tangential historical example: the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster. In January of 1986, the shuttle exploded a mere 73 seconds after liftoff. Engineers had warned middle management of problems not only with design flaws in critical components that maintained pressure, but of the performance of such components in such low temperatures. The shuttle launched anyway, and seven people died. In the aftermath, investigations, finger-pointing and more government oversight ensued. The shuttle program was also severely handicapped. While there were flaws with the raw materials, they were found in time. The people responsible hid the information in order to try and save face, look good. They denied the problem existed.
This series of denial, in turn, prompts the accused to set up a punishment. In regimes, it becomes very legalistic. You get sued. You pay a fine. Sometimes the exposed flaw can be so damaging that the legal system gets completely bypassed. You get sent to the gulag. You get sent to Guantanamo. You are a traitor, a terrorist.
In relationships it’s a little different, and legitimate disagreements or points of contention have different consequences than challenged authority met with denial. Maybe you’re broken up with. Or maybe, you’re physically assaulted – beaten, raped. Maybe you’re psychologically assaulted, called crazy, told you’re imagining things, told you aren’t important, told that your needs don’t matter. This latter “gaslighting” scenario is particuarly favored by those who wish to keep up appearances, who can’t handle the dissonance in their own psyche that maybe they’re being a real jerk. (For a GREAT discussion on this particular topic, go here). They manipulate the situation so that they’re seen as the victim.
The theme of those who deny becomes “See! Look what you made me do!” In all hilarity, they justify every single one of their actions when confronted with reality. They don’t admit the information they’re presented with is legit, but they sure do spend a lot of time justifying their responses.
And the sad part is, this denial isn’t always because of malicious intent. Its because people don’t know what to do with the information when it’s presented to them, and they don’t want the responsibility for being blamed for a failed response.
The point: until people realize that they are not in control of the world around them, they will have to turn to denial to compensate. Or, like David Bowie, maybe we are all just Fat Korean women, so lost in making up all these excuses and defenses we are out of touch with our principles and people we love. It would explain the mullets.