Philosophy through Film: Crimes and Misdemeanors

I’m taking a class this semester called Philosophy through Film, and one of the assignments is to write a journal entry for each movie we watch.  You can read my previous entry on the Matrix here. Crimes and Misdemeanors and Plato

This film represents a rare occasion where I largely agree with the comparisons made to Plato in our reading, which I will explore more in the next section of this post; before I move on to it, though,  I do want to acknowledge the strong and obvious parallels between my coming points and the philosophies of the Socratic philosophers (among other moral philosophers from philosophical traditions around the world.)

A brief note on semantics

I'm about to start a section titled "Crimes and Misdemeanors and Nerdfighters," in which I'll be discussing the moral questions of the movie in the context of the community and ethics of Nerdfighteria.  I'm doing this for two reasons: 1, because I believe the contemporary existence and popularity of Nerdfighting makes a better case for the plausibility and practicality of these philosophies in the 21st century than Plato's writings do, and 2, because I find the language used by Nerdfighteria to describe moral decisionmaking is:

  • clearer,
  • less weighted with diverse and mutually exclusive connotation,
  • more unambiguously consistent with itself re: moral philosophy, and
  • more fun,

than the language of "Right and wrong," "Good and evil," "Vice and virtue," or other variations of classic moral jargon.

Crimes and Misdemeanors and Nerdfighters

There's a community on the internet, known as Nerdfighters, centered around the fan community of John and Hank Green, two YouTube personalities and writers.  I'm not going to cover the origins of the community, but it has grown to stand for certain principles and ideals that connect the Nerdfighters with each other and the world in a positive, life-affirming way.

The two moral principles of Nerdfighting I want to focus on are worldsuck and awesome levels.  I don't believe they're directly analogous to any other moral dichotomy, except in very personal ways that are hard to translate from person to person.  And I think they're both pretty self-explanatory -- they mean what they sound like.

I also want to add the labeling terminology of Nerdfighters, in 3 categories of people described (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive) -- a Nerdfighter, which is a person who, instead of being made of organs and bones and stuff, is made entirely of awesome, a Decepticon, which is the opposite of a Nerdfighter, and a Giant Squid of Anger, which is a person who gets very angry in YouTube comments.  I'm going to be using those labels somewhat loosely describe characters in the film.

Starting with Judah:  The central question we've been focusing on in discussion about this film is, if you can get away with doing harm to others for personal gain, why shouldn't you?

Judah does progressively more horrible things in his life pre-film, and then throughout the film, reaching a climax in which he orchestrates a woman's murder.  And you can argue that he suffers no consequences from this, he even seems mentally stable by the end of it.  But in reaching this point, Judah does a lot of damage to his worldview that would be hard to repair.  He describes a "Real world," in which horrible acts are a fact of life, and simply fade into the background.  In this way, he implicitly forgives himself of future acts which increase worldsuck, by mentally separating the "Kingdom of heaven," his world of privilege, and the "Real World," and only judging his acts against the standard of that third category.

In reality, those three worlds are all the same world, and his actions affect, and should be judged against the standards of, all of them -- and not just against that standard, but against the standard of the potential futures of that world.

Judah constructs himself a mental state that allows him to systematically increase worldsuck.  In that way, he's very clearly a decepticon.

He also consistently takes things very seriously, imbuing everything with more gravity than it necessarily deserves.  This distinguishes him from Lester, and bars him from increasing awesome levels.

Lester, on the other hand, takes very little seriously.  He's a writer and producer, and creates art that makes people happy.  We don't see any examples of his work, but if Cliff's assessments are trustworthy (which I think they are, but only to a certain extent) it's lowest-common-denominator art that's not challenging to its viewers.  We know it makes a lot of people happy, I would guess that it also doesn't do much to break down the stereotypes in the contemporary media surrounding its production.

Lester has no trouble increasing awesome levels, but he's not at all concerned about worldsuck.  I wouldn't call him a decepticon, but I also don't think he's a nerdfighter -- and not just because nerdfighters didn't exist at the time.  Vitally, though, I think there's a good chance that if he were exposed to the nerdfighter community, he could be influenced by it in a good way.  More on that later, though.

Lester is fairly benign as far as not-very-awesome people go, and I think he illustrates one of the great advantages of the Nerdfighter construction of morals: worldsuck and awesome levels are not connected concepts.  They aren't two ends of a spectrum, they're both spectra unto themselves.  But they're not completely independent of each other, either -- the existence of awesomeness decreases worldsuck, but an effort to increase awesome isn't the same thing as an effort to decrease worldsuck, and a person can pursue both.  A person can also increase both awesome and worldsuck simultaneously by acting in a way that benefits one community at the cost of another, which is not an altogether positive way to behave.

Cliff is treated as a reasonably good character in the reading, or at least he's addressed sympathetically.  But the Nerdfighter worldview offers another view of Cliff:  the Giant Squid of Anger.

He may not be on YouTube, but Cliff's behavior, while largely benign, consists mostly of complaining.  He's capable of identifying worldsuck and awesome, but he doesn't do much about it.  He doesn't leverage his resources in an effort to change things, he leverages his resources to complain that things aren't already the way he'd like them to be.

The character in the film who I think could be best described as a Nerdfighter is Lester's brother, and Judah's patient and confidant, Ben.  He's a rabbi, and expresses faith not just in God but in humanity.  It's argued that he gets the short end of the stick in going blind, but he takes his malady in stride, accepting that sucky things happen without letting it interfere with his efforts to decrease worldsuck, increase awesome, and enjoy his life.

The intrinsic benefits of a positive worldview are, I think, best captured in the brothers' videos here:

Most relevant quote: "Hank, I don't want to exaggerate the effect that this project is having on my life, but it's sort of starting to make me believe in humanity again. I find myself saying and thinking outlandishly optimistic things lately.  Like I'll be staring outside at this weather. [shot of pouring rain]  And I'll say, 'wow, that's going to be really great for my plants.'"

Ben not only makes the world a better place for other people, but enjoys the personal benefit of a worldview that emphasizes the bright side of things, like the rain, which is more or less neutral in itself, and only really increases worldsuck if the people experiencing it take a pessimistic view of it.  In that video, John doesn't, and I imagine Ben wouldn't, either.

I want to talk a little bit, as well, about the answer to the question I wrote earlier:  if you can get away with doing harm to others for personal gain, why shouldn't you?

And I'd like to suggest that the answer to this question is that if you're asking it, you're already in a place where you'll gain more from being a Nerdfighter than from being a Decepticon or a Giant Squid of Anger.

Further, I think the answer to the question, "What about other people?" implied by that question, is:  don't worry about it.  Fighting worldsuck and increasing awesome is its own reward, and on top of that helps build a world that will reward you for it.  As Hank puts it in the below-embedded video:  "Sometimes a troll comes in and spoils it for everybody, but most of the time it's just a lot of people who want to do something fun together."

Furthermore, the more people participate in fighting to make the world a more awesome and less sucky place, the more opportunity there is for new people, or people who are on the fence, to see the opportunities for sincere optimism and joy in life and join the fight for awesome and against worldsuck.