The Epic Dollhouse Article of Doom: Episodes 1-6

by Dan H

Dan Talks About Joss Whedon. And Talks. And Talks.
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So I finally got around to watching Dollhouse. I’m writing this article as I go, episode by episode, so you can expect it to get a bit incoherent and a bit rambling.

Obviously I went into the show with a fair few preconceptions about what it was going to be like, and it would be remiss of me not to admit that this coloured my experience of it.

I should also say that I am in no way disputing the fact that Joss Whedon makes excellent TV. The problem is that he makes excellent TV which sometimes whacks you in the face with a gigantic disembodied penis with the words “look how serious and morally complex I am” tattooed on the side.

Got that image firm in your minds? Good.

Also. Spoilers.

Episode One: Ghost

The first episode opens with a fragment of Echo’s induction into the Dollhouse. Something bad has happened, and the Dollhouse is willing to make it all go away if she’ll sign up for a five year mission to explore strange new … umm … to work for them for five years.

There’s a bit of classic Whedonesque dialogue in this scene which set my teeth on edge. It goes something like this:
“What we’re offering you is a clean slate.”
“Have you ever actually tried to clean a slate? You can always see what was on it.”

Two things. No. Three things:

First. Step away from the Themehammer. Okay, we get it, they’re going to erase her personality but because of her Awesome Girlpower they won’t succeed. Fabulous. You don’t need to drive it into my head like a railroad spike.

Second. Okay, Joss, we know you like playing with language, we know you like deconstructing metaphors (he’s like Pratchett in this regard) but really “have you ever tried to clean a slate” what the hell?

Third. Who the fuck has tried to clean a slate? Was Echo some kind of slate-studies graduate? Was she majoring in sedimentary rock formations? About the only people I can think of who would work with slate regularly are art students, and in that case you’d think they’d view a “clean slate” as something like a “clean piece of paper” – something completely new rather than something that has had the old stuff scrubbed off of it. In fact, surely that’s why one needs a “clean slate” – because one’s old slate is dirty from all the stuff that’s been on it.

Sorry, that was a massive digression.

So we go on from Echo being spunkily inducted into the Dollhouse to Echo riding around spunkily on a motorbike, where she flirts spunkily with this rich dude who she appears to have been having an awesome weekend of hot bondagey sex with. Then he goes to get a drink, and she goes spunkily outside and gets into a spunky black van, where she is taken back to the Dollhouse for her “treatment”.

As she goes, the hot billionaire likens her to Cinderella at the ball, getting back into her coach before it turns into a pumpkin.

Back at the Dollhouse, she talks animatedly about how happy she is, and how glad she is that she’s finally found the right guy. Then they wipe her brain. Then there is a metric arseload of exposition.

I’m not going to go too far into the “is it rape or isn’t it” question right now – I’m sure there’ll be time to cover that later. What I am going to mention is the way that this is presented.

Echo's “Engagement” (as the Dollhouse insists on calling it) with Rich Dude is presented in an unremittingly positive light. She's happy, he's happy, it's just All Over Too Soon and she has to go back to the Magic Kingdom to be put into her Enchanted Sleep. The only flaw presented in the scenario is the fact that it is not “real”. The fact that Echo spent three days having sex with this guy because she had been compelled to do so by high-tech mind control is not addressed – not merely addressed ambiguously, or addressed subtly, not addressed at all. Not directly and not indirectly. We are asked to view her time with Mr Millionaire as a brief moment in the sun, and its erasure from her mind as a violation.

More on that later.

Anyway, after that we are presented with the main plot of the episode. A billionaire's daughter is kidnapped, and for spurious reasons he goes to the Dollhouse. For even more spurious reasons, they decide to program Echo with a composite personality made up of hardened hostage negotiators, asthmatics, and an abuse victim who killed herself (don't worry, it was an empowering suicide). They then dress her up as a sexy librarian and send her out to negotiate with the kidnappers. This she does extremely badly. Her first act is to randomly offer them an extra three million dollars (so they will “get used to doing things her way”) and she goes on to blow the entire handoff because – surprise surprise, one of the kidnappers is the guy who abused one of the people who were jammed into her head in a process that somehow makes her an amazing hostage negotiator.

Words cannot describe how much this pissed me off. Mr Paedophile Guy (who apparently kept telling suicide!Echo that “You Can't Fight a Ghost” for no reason other than so it would be ironic when suicide!Echo confronts him about it) is basically one of Whedon's vast numbers of cardboard misogynists, the characters he puts into half his shows whose basic function is to distract you from the fact that a lot of his characters are actually sexist assholes. You could construct the argument that we are supposed to compare paedophile guy to Rich Dude, or the other clients of the Dollhouse. That argument would be bollocks. He's an evil man, and Echo takes him down by spuriously convincing his friends to shoot him. This is sort of presented as providing closure for the dead abuse victim whose fragmented personality was stitched into Echo's brain. This is an example of something “good” done by the Dollhouse, which we are regularly told “helps people”.

Two things really stood out for me in the pilot. The first was how consistent Echo's personality is. When you get right down to it, sexy-bike-chick and sexy-hostage-negotiator chick feel more like people Echo is pretending to be than like artificial personalities grafted onto a zombie. Similarly just plain Echo feels a lot less personality-deprived than I would have expected from somebody who had just had every shred of their identity removed by a sinister hyperbrothel. Early in the episode she finds her way into the operating theatre where a new Active is being wiped. In so doing she displays both curiosity and compassion, two traits which remain consistent throughout the episode, regardless of what her “personality” is supposed to be.

The second thing that stands out about the pilot is how little it actually feels like a pilot. There's a lot of exposition but you don't really get a handle on any of the characters. It feels more like the first chapter of a novel than the first episode of a television series. As ever, I'm a bit of a heretic in that I think this is a bad thing, instead of awesomely true to the creator's individual vison.

And for some running tallies:

Percentage of Echo's “Engagements” In Which She Is a Glorified Prostitute: 50
Straw Rapists: 1

Episode Two: The Target

This episode is irredeemably stupid.

Observation the first. So there's this FBI guy who's on the trail of the Dollhouse. He has two colleagues who don't believe the Dollhouse exists. The problem is that they keep making really sensible arguments about why it makes no sense for the Dollhouse to exist.

At the start of the episode, they discover the wreckage of the previous episode which, as you should remember, Echo completely fucked up because it's stupid to expect an organisation whose primary function is providing custom-made fucktoys to rich men to be able to handle hostage negotiations. FBI Guy insists that the Dollhouse is somehow involved, and his colleagues point out that this is a stupid suggestion, because it makes no sense for an organisation whose primary function is providing ... well you get the idea.

There are many ways to deal with inconsistencies in your work. You could just try to avoid having them, or if they are unavoidable you could do your best to distract people from them by including lots of explosions or putting your hot female protagonists in a new wig and short skirt every episode. Alternatively you can find all the most obvious and sensible arguments that people might have for why your work makes no sense and attribute them to stupid people.

Anyway, episode proper.

The second thing that struck me about this episode (in which Echo is hired out to an outdoorsman who tries to hunt her through the woods in order to “prove that she deserves to live” - and that's pretty much all I'm going to say about that) is how consistent Echo's personality is turning out to be. Outdoorswoman!Echo is functionally identical to spunkybiker!Echo from the previous episode. She's still the same feisty, inquisitive, determined compassionate chick that she was in all the flashbacks, and in the previous episode, and in the videos that we are shown of her before the Dollhouse. She has changed only cosmetically.

I'm going to talk more about this, because I find the characterisation of Echo at once deeply fascinating and deeply annoying. There's a very telling sequence in episode two of the Dollhouse in which Hunter Guy teaches Echo to fire a bow. It's worth noting here that Echo has been totally amazing at everything else Hunter Guy has tried to do with her, but for some reason she doesn't know how to shoot a bow. Then, when he gets her to aim at a deer, we see her take aim and loose the arrow, but we don't see it hit or see her reaction to the kill. I don't think this choice was accidental. The writers obviously have a very clear idea about the sort of person they want Echo to be – powerful, compassionate, a little bit damaged, quick thinking and good in a crisis. If she had shown any genuine relish in the act of hunting, that would have given her character an edge of cruelty which the writers didn't want her to have.

I might still be proven wrong on this one, but while the entire premise of the show is that Echo gets her personality rewritten for every new “Engagement” it seems a lot more like she gets the same basic personality, and has a bunch of matrix-esque skill packages “imprinted” into her brain. It's this central inconsistency which seems to be at the heart of a lot of the controversies over the Dollhouse. Put simply, what it's okay to get somebody to do by downloading a bunch of superpowers into them and then asking nicely is very different two what it's okay to get somebody to do by mind control.

Episode two also includes a lot of flashbacks about Alpha. At this point making the “isn't it interesting that Whedon decided to make his terrifying, sinister, extremely powerful extremely mysterious villain a man” point is just kinda cheap.

Running Totals

Percentage of Echo's “Engagements” In Which She Is a Glorified Prostitute: 75
Straw Rapists: 1

Episode Three: Stage Fright

Brief summary of episode three: uppity black woman doesn't know what's good for her, white folks smack her around until she learns her lesson.

There is so much wrong with this episode I don't know where to begin. There's this singer, right, and she has a psycho fan who wants to kill her, and obviously if you want to protect your Beyonce-esque diva from a maniac who wants to murder her your best bet is to hire a brain-wiped prostitute.

So Echo is programmed to be a backing-singer-slash-ninja, as well as being given an instinctive desire to protect the target. It seems that the Dollhouse worked a little reprogramming on the target as well, because she immediately takes Echo into her confidence despite having no particular reason to do so, other than to save the writers the trouble of having the plot of this particular episode evolve naturally.

Long story short, it turns out that the singer feels that she isn't in control of her own life, and that by being murdered by an obsessive fan, she will attain the “freedom” she so desires. The freedom/slavery themes are revisited throughout the episode – her stage show puts her in a cage, when Echo auditions she sings a song about how freedom is all we need.

To put it another way, it seems to be saying a lot about the legacy of slavery on the psyche of Black America which I'm not entirely sure Joss Whedon is qualified to be saying. Particularly when one of those things seems to be “what this woman needs is a good smack in the mouth.”

Sierra also appears in this episode, allegedly as backup but in practice she just gets kidnapped, so what her backup role was supposed to be I have no idea.

I'll also mention that in this episode, Echo once again has effectively the same personality as she did in the previous episode, and the episode before that.

I honestly can't remember what happens with Agent Ballard this episode. He gets closer to the Dollhouse I suppose. Part of the problem with having these two parallel threads in the show is that neither one gets properly developed. The Echo plotline in Episode three basically boils down to “Hi, you're hired, I want to die, you're fired, ow! You've hit me! I don't want to die any more” while the Ballard plotline winds up as “Where's the Dollhouse! There is no Dollhouse! Yes there is! But it's clearly stupid! Nuh uh! Uh huh!”

Running Totals:

Percentage of Echo's “Engagements” in which she is a glorified prostitute: 60
Season Peak: 75
Straw Rapists: 1
Total Number of Dolls Identified: 3
Of Whom Male: 1
Of Whom White: 3

Episode Four: Gray Hour

For no discernible reason, this episode begins with Echo acting as a midwife.

I mean seriously guys, what the fuck. Come on now, all together: why would you hire an international conspiracy of ...

Seriously, what the fuck.

Seriously.

The main plot of the episode starts with Echo playing a spunky safecracker called “Taffy” who talks and acts exactly like every single other persona Echo has had thus far. They're busting into a vault to steal one of the Elgin Marbles (which are, for some reason, in Los Angeles). Things go south first when the resident art critic double crosses them all and secondly when Alpha – by some mysterious remote method – manages to cause Echo to wipe in the middle of the job, rendering her entirely helpless.

I watched episodes four, five, and six in a batch, and so they've sort of blurred together for me, but one of the things that I really started to notice in this episode was how much more interesting the men in this series are than the women. FBI Dude Ballard and Echo's handler Boyd are both serious, competent, highly trained and (particularly in Boyd's case) totally awesome. By comparison the female characters are either two dimensional (De Witt), incidental (the doctor played by Amy Acker, who seems to be in it primarily because Joss loves to reuse the same cast members) or just plain subordinate (there's an Asian girl with a nose stud who appears in either this episode or the next, whose basic function seems to be being Less Good Than Topher). Then of course there's Alpha (incidentally, the Dolls seem to get their names on a rotation, what're the odds that the guy who went evil was the one with the appropriate name – had he been recruited a few months later he might have been called Hotel). Alpha's awesome, Ballard and Boyd are awesome, even Topher is pretty cool. The girls in the show ... well ... even the ones who aren't brainwiped zombies are pretty lacklustre.

To go off on one for a bit, I think this is part of why Firefly was so good. The main character was male, as were most of the supporting cast, and Whedon just plain Does Guys Better. It's why Angel was better than Buffy, it's why Xander was the coolest of the Scoobies.

Sorry, I digress.

Anyway, basically everything goes to hell. Boyd saves the mission (because he's awesome) and echo escapes by authorial fiat, but not before she gets to have a long conversation with the bank robbers about art and the sky and how we all start out whole but end up being broken (Themehammer!).

That's about it for episode four. Sierra is in it again, and is useless again. She does a better job of being convincingly different than Echo does – possibly because the writers are actually treating her the way the Dolls are supposed to be treated: as a disposable body who can fill any role they happen to need, whereas Echo seems to be consciously written as a consistent character.

Numbers again:

Percentage of Engangements in which Echo is a glorified Prostitute: 42 (below fifty percent! Wow!)
Straw Rapists: 1
Number of Dolls Identified: 3
Of Whom Male: 1
Of Whom White: 3

Episode Five: True Believer

I've sung the “so obviously, you go to the international hyperbrothel” song so many times it's getting absurd. This episode, the problem to which the obvious and rational solution is to hire a hot zombie chick is “infiltrating a suspicious cult”.

At least she's still avoiding the hooker work.

For no clear reason, in this episode they have to make Echo blind. This is allegedly so that they can hide tiny cameras in her eyes but seriously, dude, if you've got the technology to stick tiny cameras in somebody's cerebral cortex, you've got the technology to do it and leave the person's damned eyes intact. In fact, isn't there technology that would allow you to do this without sending somebody in at all? In fact, isn't there something with insects and listening devices that has been genuinely tried out by real intelligence agencies? Or failing that, don't they have spy satellites?

Were I feeling cynical, I'd suggest that Eliza Dushku wanted to show that she could play a blind woman.

Anyway, Echo is programmed to be a “true believer” so that the cult will in no way suspect that she might be an infiltrator. This works which, once again, seems to show that the Dollhouse has mind control powers that go well beyond their Actives, and extend to their clients as well.

To give the cult their due, they don't actually trust Echo immediately. They take her away into a dark room and shine light into her eyes in order to check that she's really blind (which will somehow prove that she isn't a spy – perhaps the US government has a really bad record with disability discrimination). It is somewhat less to the credit of the cult leadership that they decide to perform their test in their secret locker full of guns and ammo. This gives the clients (the US government in this case) all the evidence they need to move in.

Taking a step back for a second: how the sweet holy hell was this plan actually supposed to work? Echo was not programmed to investigate the cult, just to join it. She didn't know she was supposed to be looking for anything. If she hadn't been taken directly into the Gun Room, she would never have found it.

Anyway, Echo miraculously recovers her sight, and the FBI raid the compound. The cult leader decides that the only hope they have of survival is to set themselves on fire. Why? Who knows. Fortunately, despite being programmed to be a “true believer” Echo decides that mass suicide is a bad idea (I'll be charitable here, and assume that it's evidence that either the Dolls are programmed with Asimovian survival instincts or that this is supposed to be another “glitch”). She then immediately starts acting, you guessed it, exactly like she does in every other episode (seriously, these brain wipes do not seem that big of a deal) informing people that “God sent me with a message, and that message is move your ass”.

Everybody is evacuated, except the cult leader who faces off against echo before being gunned down by Laurence Dominic – who occupies some kind of security position at the Dollhouse. Dominic, who has decided that Echo is a threat to the Dollhouse, then proceeds to whack her in the face and leave her to burn. But not to shoot her. Because. Umm.

Numbers!

Percentage of Engangements in which Echo is a glorified Prostitute: 38 (falling)
Straw Rapists: 1
Number of Dolls Identified: 3
Of Whom Male: 1
Of Whom White: 3

Episode Six: Man on the Street

This episode is framed by a “vox pop” in which an interviewer asks members of the general public their opinion on the mythical “Dollhouse” - whether it exists and, if it did exist, what they think of it.

This is a thinly veiled excuse for Joss Whedon to tell us exactly what we are supposed to think about the Dollhouse.

Before you all write in, yes I know that there are multiple interpretations of the Dollhouse presented in the interviews: some people think it sounds terrible, some think it sounds romantic, some think it's a stupid idea for a TV sh... I mean “organisation”. This is one of the many cases of Joss having his TV show address the audience directly (see also every speech Buffy makes in season seven, the line in episode four where Echo tells somebody “you can mention this when you blog about it later”).

The interpretations of the Dollhouse which Whedon lays before us are, in order:

  • It's slavery


  • Being a Doll sounds great


  • If they'd had it in my day, I'd have had Betty Grable every night


  • [incoherent girlish giggling]


  • “I think it could be maybe beautiful”


  • It's human trafficking, end of story


  • If this technology exists then: “it’ll be used. It’ll be abused. It’ll be global. And we will be over. As a species. We will cease to matter. I don’t know, maybe we should”


This pretty much runs the gamut of opinions expressed by fans (except for the last bit, which is just Whedon wanking) and in theory that's fair enough. Whedon is saying that the Dollhouse is open to multiple interpretations, which is great.

Except it isn't great. Giving your audience a shortlist of possible interpretations, is effectively a way of saying “you must interpret this work as being deep and complex, and full of hidden layers and ambiguities, you must be AWED by my GENIUS”. To put it another way, it's a way of passing off incoherence as subtlety.

Something I've been thinking about a lot recently, as a consequence of racefail, dipping into the feminist blogsphere, and getting into arguments on the internet, is the bias inherent in supposed “open mindedness”. If somebody is offended by something, or considers it racist, or sexist, or literally criminal (in the case of the Dollhouse if it actually existed) then saying “I understand that you feel that way but you should accept that is only one of several possible interpretations” is actually just a long winded way of telling somebody to shut up and stop trying to stand up for themselves.

Put simply, if the Dollhouse really is “human trafficking” then it cannot be “beautiful” it cannot be romantic or empowering or cool. It can only be wrong. Unambiguously, entirely, unremittingly wrong, and the people who are involved with it are bad people for being involved with it. Yes that includes Boyd. Yes, that includes Fred from Angel. Yes, that includes the Asian girl with the nose stud. If Joss genuinely thinks that it's possible for “it's human trafficking” and “it's beautiful” to be anything other than mutually exclusive then he either hasn't thought it through at all, or his ideas about human trafficking are deeply fucked up.

There are three main plot threads in this episode. The first involves Agent Ballard drawing ever closer to the Dollhouse, and finally getting together with his neighbour Mellie, who later turns out to be a Doll (bringing the number of recurring female characters in the show who are not Dolls to a mighty two, and one of the two who remain apparently turns out to be a Doll around episode ten). This is tied in closely with the sad story of Joel Mynor, a fat whiny geek who hires a Doll once a year to pretend to be his dead wife, who after struggling to support Joel on her nurse's salary, died in a car accident on the very day he became a millionaire. The final plot thread involves the discovery that Sierra has been raped by somebody in the Dollhouse.

It's the rape plot I want to look into most closely, because it's another excellent example of Whedon paying lip service to complexity while actually living in the same happy magic hooker la-la-land that he's been living in since his wife invented the character of Inara when he was working on his space western.

Long story short: Sierra freaks out when another Doll touches her, which of course means she's been raped because (a) all rape victims freak out when men touch them and (b) the only women who don't like to be touched are rape victims. A implies B, B implies A. The Dollhouse thinks it was Victor (who has been getting supposedly impossible “man reactions” while looking at Sierra in the shower), but it turns out that the perpetrator is her handler Hearn.

Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention, but I spent the first half of the episode thinking it might genuinely have been Victor, which would have raised all kinds of fascinating questions: to what extent could he be held responsible for his actions? How will the Dollhouse deal with the fact that their Actives can pose a threat to each other? Isn't it interesting that attractive, sympathetic characters can still be rapists? By instead passing the blame onto somebody who is clearly Capital-E Evil they manage to avoid all these questions, as well as neatly sidelining the “hang on, isn’t the Dollhouse all fucked up” question.

Specifically, once he’s been caught (by Boyd, again, awesome) Hearn is sat down in front of various members of the Dollhouse staff who tell him that he’s in serious trouble and by the way is also a big sicko. His response is incoherent, arrogant, and includes the following line:
“But if you put her under some fat old Emir, that’s different, because she’ll think she loves him for all of a day? We’re in the business of using people!”

Throughout Man on the Street Whedon puts a variety of responses to the Dollhouse into the mouths of a variety of different characters. The problem is that the nature of these characters cannot help but colour the reaction we have to the attitudes they express. The woman who compares it to slavery is black, so we assume she knows about slavery. The woman who says it sounds beautiful is herself beautiful, which makes the idea attractive. The man who says that the Dollhouse technology makes human race obsolete looks intellectual, so we assume his opinions are weighty and considered. The woman who says she’d like to be a Doll is physically unattractive and sounds uneducated, so we take her statements with a pinch of salt.

The attitude that the “Engagements” of the Dolls is rape – not “like rape” not “similar to rape” but actual rape – is a common one (particularly among people who actually know something about the issues) and to have it used as the self justification of a “real” rapist is extremely distasteful. It’s not only a valid point, it’s an absolutely correct interpretation of what the Dollhouse is and does, but none of the other characters react to it. They all remain on their moral high horses. Supposedly decent Boyd just shrugs it off. Supposedly amoral de Witt dismisses it. Nobody engages with the accusation, and they don’t have to. Hearn is a rapist. He is therefore a bad person. Therefore nothing he says is worth listening to.

This attitude to rape and to rapists is profoundly destructive. It’s destructive because it seems, on the surface, so harmless. After all, they’re saying that raping people is bad, and that rapists are bad people, that’s alright, right?

The problem is that the attitude to rape displayed in Dollhouse is not that rapists are bad people because they commit rape, but that rapists commit rape because they are bad. To put it another way, it’s the attitude that rape is something that happens in the mind of the attacker, not the mind or body of the victim. What Hearn does to Sierra is rape because he explicitly intends to rape her, because he is a bad guy.

There's an episode of The West Wing in which Ainsley Hayes, the resident Republican, calls out the Democrats on their anti-gun politics, telling them that the real reason they're in favour of gun control is that they don't like the sorts of people who like guns. In the same way, Dollhouse judges the morality or immorality of peoples actions not on how those actions affect other people, but on whether that person is – for want of a better word - “nice”.

Echo's “Engagement” in this episode is with internet billionaire Joel Mynor. Mynor hires a doll once a year to play the role of his dead wife Rebecca, who died tragically while she was on the way to the dream home he had bought her as a surprise. Let's make no bones about this: what Joel Mynor does to Echo is no different from what Hearn does to Sierra. He has sex with somebody who is not capable of consenting, because they are under the influence of the technology of the Dollhouse. Hearn gets beaten up, insulted, and eventually killed while Mynor gets Echo coming back at the end of the episode to let him finish his fantasy.

Let's be clear here. There is no difference whatsoever in what happens to either girl, except that Echo presumably gets dinner first. Neither one actually knows what is happening to them, or has any control over it. The only difference between the two “Engagements” is the degree to which the two men's “Fantasies” are accepted by the writers and the audience. Hearn wants to stick his dick in somebody he has total power over, and we don't like that, and we don't like him, so we call him a rapist. Mynor wants to stick his dick in somebody who reminds him of his dead wife, and we find that sweet and affirming, so we don't.

And I know that somebody out there is going to say “But that's the point, it's about making you ask questions!” The thing is, it doesn't make you ask questions. In fact, it stops you asking questions. Put simply, the general public, if asked to compare obvious, explicit rape with – say – date rape or rape by intoxication, will be extremely reluctant to call them the same thing. The public perception of rape is that it's a guy with a knife in a dark alley when the reality is that it's your boyfriend when you're a bit drunk and you can't remember saying “no”. By waving the spectre of the Straw Rapist at us, Whedon does not highlight the inherently abusive nature of the Dollhouse, he distracts from it. By asking people to question whether getting somebody into bed with mind control is rape, he's effectively arguing that it's not.

Aside from the rape, the other thing this episode is about is Fantasy. And by Fantasy, of course, we mean sexual fantasy. Fantasy is, apparently, the business of the Dollhouse (although they apparently have sidelines in hostage negotiation, bodyguarding, midiwifery, safecracking and assassination). One of the other things I found a bit creepy about this episode is precisely how narrow the Dollhouse's idea of “Fantasy” is.

When Ballard is confronting Mynor about his Engangements with the Dollhouse he taunts the guy by asking (sarcastically) whether his wife looked like Caroline (Echo's real name, for those who haven't seen the series). He responds smugly by saying that yes, she was in fact totally beautiful, and she knew it, and she was a nurse and she supported him while he was being a big fat loser. I don't know about you, but it sounds like this guy's whole life was a Dollhouse-supplied wish-fulfilment. Anyway, the fact that the late Mrs Mynor apparently really did look like Eliza Dushku helpfully avoids the all important question of what poor old Joel would have done if she – well – hadn't. What if his wife had been short and kind of fat, and he'd wanted a woman who looked like that? There's no short chubby dolls that I've seen. And perish the thought that the late Rebecca Mynor might have been black.

The Dollhouse is in the business of letting people live out their fantasies. But apparently only those fantasies that involve young, thin, conventionally attractive white people. And you're not allowed to do anything nasty to them, because that would be wrong.

I'm halfway in, and I sort of regret bothering.

One final numbers count.

Percentage of Engagements in which Echo is a Glorified Prostitute: 45 (we're rising again)
Straw Rapists: 2
Number of Dolls Currently Identified: 4
Of Whom Male: 1
Of Whom White: 4
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 10:13 on 2009-05-19
You know, it strikes me that the big problem with what Hearn did wasn't so much what he did as the fact that he didn't pay for it. Presumably, if he'd saved his money and then paid the Dollhouse for the use of Sierra everything would have been perfectly fine.

So basically, Hearn used Sierra and wrote it off on the expense sheet. And as we all know from recent events, if you fiddle your expenses you're WORSE THAN HITLER.
http://vectoreditors.wordpress.com/ at 10:20 on 2009-05-19
It's tricky to respond to this, because we watch the show from such different initial standpoints, but a question: what was your response (emotional and intellectual) to the way in which Hearn was dispatched at the end of "Man on the Street"?
Rami at 11:02 on 2009-05-19
Sorry to pick up pedantically on an entirely trivial point but I've not seen more than the first episode and figure I should before I comment on anything substantive...

Who the fuck has tried to clean a slate? Was Echo some kind of slate-studies graduate? Was she majoring in sedimentary rock formations? About the only people I can think of who would work with slate regularly are art students

Actually, lots of people still use chalk and 'slate' in schools in the developing world, and it's not unusual for idealistic young Westerners to go volunteer in developing countries (often at schools). So it's by no means impossible that Echo would have experience cleaning slate.

Of course, I agree it's much more likely a clumsy attempt at some "clever" wordplay...
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 11:27 on 2009-05-19
By asking people to question whether getting somebody into bed with mind control is rape, he's effectively arguing that it's not.

I think that summarizes everything that is wrong with Dollhouse. Thanks for nothing, Joss.
Dan H at 11:37 on 2009-05-19
It's tricky to respond to this, because we watch the show from such different initial standpoints, but a question: what was your response (emotional and intellectual) to the way in which Hearn was dispatched at the end of "Man on the Street"?

Unfortunately, as you say, we watch the show from such different initial standpoints that my answer to that question probably won't be useful. I already knew that Mellie was a Doll, so I pretty much guessed that Hearn was going to get taken out. My emotional and intellectual reaction, therefore, was essentially "oh for fuck's sake" with a side order of "there is so much that could have gone wrong with that plan".

What was your reaction?
Dan H at 11:42 on 2009-05-19
So it's by no means impossible that Echo would have experience cleaning slate.

True, but again I'd think that anybody who had actual experience of "cleaning slate" wouldn't object to the use of the term "clean slate". If she'd volunteered in schools in Africa, she'd presumably have occasionally had to provide people with clean slates.
Rami at 11:45 on 2009-05-19
again I'd think that anybody who had actual experience of "cleaning slate" wouldn't object to the use of the term "clean slate"

I think we're getting confused here. Yes, if someone had experience putting the metaphor into practice, then they probably wouldn't object to its use. If someone had experience with the literal reality of scrubbing a stubborn slab of rock, I think the opposite would be true, because they'd know slates are a bugger to wipe clean and the metaphor doesn't work for them.
Arthur B at 12:01 on 2009-05-19
Unless you take the metaphor as implying tossing away the old, messy slate and getting a brand new one.

At which point it doesn't apply to the situation Whedon was applying it to.
Dan H at 12:03 on 2009-05-19
I'm rather amused that we're having this much discussion about one bit of cheesy dialogue:

Surely the term "clean slate" does, in fact, come from a time when slates were regularly used in schools. It's not like it was a phrase that was cooked up in 1987 to sound cute.

I could be wrong, but nine times out of ten, people who object to metaphors are people who *don't* understand where they come from. Not people who do. People who object to things like "straight as an arrow" or "black as pitch" tend to be smug gits who have never fired (sorry "shot") an arrow or worked with pitch in their life.

Sorry, metaphor-nazis are even worse than Grammar-nazis in my book.
Everything I read about this show makes me more and more determined not to watch it. It sounds like the three dolls should be named Whiskey, Tango, and Foxtrot...
Rami at 12:34 on 2009-05-19
Surely the term "clean slate" does, in fact, come from a time when slates were regularly used in schools.

Up till the 50s or 60s (in some bits, even the 70s) in the US, and I would have thought a similar time frame would apply to the UK?

I'm rather amused that we're having this much discussion about one bit of cheesy dialogue:

I'm sorry about that -- as I mentioned, I've not seen them so I don't want to comment on the show without actually having watched more than one episode.

object to things like "straight as an arrow" or "black as pitch" tend to be smug gits

Which is why we have much better metaphors these days, right ;-)?
http://vectoreditors.wordpress.com/ at 13:29 on 2009-05-19
Daniel, my reaction was whiplash: that's a typical Joss Whedon moment -- no, wait, that's a *parody* of a typical Joss Whedon moment. Seeing Mellie snap her rapist's spine can clearly be understood as viscerally satisfying ... except you're immediately pulled back by the realization that it wasn't Mellie, that it was a sleeper personality; that *in the moment of her empowerment* she has still been raped -- mentally, not physically, but raped nonetheless.

It's very much a lynchpin scene for my understanding of the show; I find the dollhouse acts as a frame that corrupts everything within it. The fact that the sequence at the start of "Ghost" turns out to be a lie *is itself a critique*, and a sufficient one so far as I'm concerned. It's not "this was a moment in the sun, it's sad that it has gone"; it's "this was not a moment in the sun, after all".

Similarly, no, I don't find Mynor "sweet and affirming", nor do I think the show encourages us to -- not with Echo-as-wife shouting "porn!" when she discovers his plan, not after the conversation with Ballard, not with the oh-so-ironic ending montage. So I don't think there's any question, within the show, that getting somebody into bed using mind control is rape, that Mynor is raping the dolls he hires. It is, and he is, just as the imprinting of dolls is itself a form of rape; that's why, in the same episode, after Hearn has been discovered, when Topher imprints Echo he asks her if she "wants to play" -- surely a deliberate echo of Hearn asking Sierra if she "wants to play the game".

Moreover, what's missing from your analysis of the rape story in "Man on the Street" is Ballard -- first, the degree to which Mynor's critique of Ballard strikes home and is valid (I do not have words to state how strongly I disagree with your assumption that how we take commentary about the dollhouse should be shaped by who says it; Hearn's critique *is* absolutely valid, and just because the characters shrug it off *does not mean we should as well*), and second, that by the logic established in the Mynor and Hearn threads -- that dolls cannot meaningfully consent -- Ballard rapes Mellie. (And, possibly, the dollhouse rapes Ballard via Mellie at the same time.) That, to me, is where the interesting question asked by the episode lies; not "is this rape?" but "how do you avoid being complicit in this system?"

All of which said, I'd agree that the first five episodes are roughly as worthless as you have suggested here; I just think "Man on the Street" is significantly more successful than you're allowing. To take one more example: to take the beautiful talking head's assertion that being a doll could be beautiful as in any sense having equal weight to some of the other opinions on display seems manifestly wrongheaded; the show is heavily tilted away from that idea. On the other hand, the idea that an ugly thing could be *presented* as *superficially* beautiful ... well, that shapes every aspect of the show, I'd say.
Dan H at 15:08 on 2009-05-19
I do not have words to state how strongly I disagree with your assumption that how we take commentary about the dollhouse should be shaped by who says it


That's problematic, because I think it's actually quite important. There is a world of difference between an idea being placed in the mouth of a character we admire and respect, and the same idea being placed in the mouth of a character we despise and reject. Ideas expressed by cool, friendly, or attractive people are very much not given equal weight to ideas given by uncool, abrasive, or repulsive people. The only person who compares what happens in the Dollhouse to rape is himself a rapist. I'm not sure how you can deny that this colours the way people will react to the concept.

That, to me, is where the interesting question asked by the episode lies; not "is this rape?" but "how do you avoid being complicit in this system?"


And that is why the attitude to rape in Dollhouse is so fucked up, because that's actually classic rape apologist logic. One of the most important steps to take in dismantling rape culture is to get people to accept the idea that the responsibility for rape prevention falls entirely on the rapist. The moment you start asking questions like "how do you avoid being complicit in this system" you are shifting responsibility back onto the victims.

Ballard clearly can't know that Mellie is a doll. It is literally impossible for him to know it and he therefore bears no moral responsibility for his decision to sleep with her. Moral responsibility in that case lies entirely with de Witt, who sent her there. Mynor and Hearn know exactly what they're doing. Therefore they bear full moral responsibility for it. It's not rocket science.

"How do you avoid being complicit in this system" is the classic straw man argument people put forward when other people suggest that date rape is a real problem. I can't really know if a girl is consenting, therefore I don't have to worry about whether she does.

Essentially the problem we have here is that people think "asking questions" is a way of taking a neutral stance on a complex issue. It isn't. By asking questions and not proposing any answers, Dollhouse lets rapists off the hook. This is a real problem, not a science fiction problem. A real problem. And it's not complex, it's not interesting, it's just disgusting.

The text does not treat Mynor the same way it treats Hearn. Hearn is condemned by the entire cast, and then violently killed. Mynor gets his fantasy handed back to him. Not only that, but there is a very strong implication that Echo goes back to him *deliberately* (insofar as anything a Doll does can be considered deliberate). Directly before the ending montage which you describe as "ironic" she expresses distress that "it isn't finished." We then see her going back to Mynor to finish the Engagement, to let him have his wife back for one more day.

Throughout the series we are shown that the Dollhouse is not merely "superficially beautiful" but an active force for good. We are shown, and told, time and again, that the Dollhouse allows people to have their dreams and their fantasies, and we are told in no uncertain terms that this is a good thing. When Echo goes back to Mynor at the end of the episode, the tragedy is not that Echo is still a slave and multiple rape victim, it is that Mynor's wife is still dead.
Dan H at 15:09 on 2009-05-19
Everything I read about this show makes me more and more determined not to watch it. It sounds like the three dolls should be named Whiskey, Tango, and Foxtrot...


They almost are. The names very specifically come from the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. I'm pretty sure there's a Whiskey later on.

Perhaps when Zulu shows up they'll finally have somebody black as well.
Wardog at 15:47 on 2009-05-19
Essentially the problem we have here is that people think "asking questions" is a way of taking a neutral stance on a complex issue. It isn't. By asking questions and not proposing any answers, Dollhouse lets rapists off the hook. This is a real problem, not a science fiction problem. A real problem. And it's not complex, it's not interesting, it's just disgusting.


Excuse me while I wring my hands girlishly for a moment but I'm not sure if you're not over-stating your case here. I mean ultimately there is no "answer" to the problem of rape except "it's bad, m'kay, don't do it." Yes, there's are some not entirely helpful attitudes to it implicit in society but, for all its flaws, I don't think Dollhouse ever set itself up to be The Show That Decided To Tell Us That Raping People Is Wrong And Here's Why. And although violation (I'm moving away from the word rape here), emotional and physical, is a theme of Dollhouse I think it's important to remember the premise of the show is not "what would happen if we set up a Dystopian rape factory" but "what would Eliza Dushku look like in this outfit", as Niall suggests, "what would be the consequences of this technology."

Whether you think it suceeds in living up to its premise is another matter.

But I genuinely don't think we can look to fiction and expect answers to the questions it may raise.

I think Dollhouse would be stronger and the whole business would be less problematic if Joss could put down the Sex Abuse Hammer for thirty seconds. I'm actually kind of getting bored of rape.

I know you haven't seen this episode yet but I think it's Spy In the House of Love when we see Victor involved in a romantic engagement ... and the more I think about what you've written here, the more I'm starting to examine my own reactions to it. Basically I didn't give a second thought until now. Which is interesting. Or everyone can point at me and accuse me of misandry because I don't care about men getting raped...
http://vectoreditors.wordpress.com/ at 16:34 on 2009-05-19
I'm not sure how you can deny that this colours the way people will react to the concept.


It colours the way the characters react to it. It should not colour the way that we, standing outside the show, react -- or rather, it inevitably will, but we should be able to recognize and stand back from those reactions. Characters can be horrible and right; they can be beautiful and wrong.

For what it's worth, in the specific case of Hearn, even leaving aside the fact that he *is* right, I take his commentary to be rather *more* reliable than the reactions of the rest of the dollhouse employees: they all have a vested interest in dismissing what he says, because they want to pretend they can lay claim to a few shreds of self-respect.

One of the most important steps to take in dismantling rape culture is to get people to accept the idea that the responsibility for rape prevention falls entirely on the rapist.


Hmm. What do you mean by rape prevention, here? Because my first reaction is, responsibility for rape falls entirely on the rapist, but responsibility for rape *prevention* falls on all of us, because that's what rape *culture* means: that the problems are endemic; that you and I and everyone else need to be as self-aware as we can, and call out misogyny and abusive behaviour when we see them.

Essentially the problem we have here is that people think "asking questions" is a way of taking a neutral stance on a complex issue.


That's not what *I* think. The question I suggested "Man on the Street" asks is not a neutral stance; it is, in itself, a condemnation. Asking questions is, in fact, a great way to force people to *define* their stance, as long as they're the right questions.

Throughout the series we are shown that the Dollhouse is not merely "superficially beautiful" but an active force for good.


But surely those claims are demonstrably dishonest, and hence superficial. A few good acts does not a force for good make. You can't -- much as the dollhouse's employees would like to -- separate what's done on "altruistic" engagements, or even the undoubtedly genuine, if limited, comfort that Echo brings to Mynor, from the rest of their activities, or from the dolls' origins. Nor can you slice that ending montage away from the rest of the episode, which is why it's ironic: because it is, precisely, a fantasy; a delusion; a denial of reality.

On doll names: there is a Whiskey, and I'm pretty sure there's a Foxtrot at one point. I don't remember a Tango, though.
Shim at 17:23 on 2009-05-19
I think I've spotted a miscommunication here?

Dan: The problem is that the nature of these characters cannot help but colour the reaction we have to the attitudes they express.
Vector: your assumption that how we take commentary about the dollhouse should be shaped by who says it
Dan: I'm not sure how you can deny that this colours the way people will react to the concept.
Vector: It colours the way the characters react to it. It should not colour the way that we, standing outside the show, react -- or rather, it inevitably will, but we should be able to recognize and stand back from those reactions.

It looks to me like in this specific case, you're both saying the same thing; that is, we do subconsciously react to the context of the commentary. Not that we should, but that we do. I don't think Dan is saying we should let our opinions of the speakers affect the way we respond to their views, which seems to be what Vector is objecting to.
Arthur B at 17:49 on 2009-05-19
More to the point, vector's point hinges on the idea that authors/scriptwriters never create characters with unappealing characteristics in order to spout the "wrong" side of an argument - in short, to raise the points that the writer wants to rebut.

Except, you see, writers do that. A lot. It's an ancient rhetorical technique which extends back at least as far as Plato. And it's common enough that it's a natural assumption for most people that in stories the Bad Guy's arguments are false, or at most have a grain of truth to them from which the Bad Guy derives inappropriate conclusions.

Essentially, if we're not meant to take the attributes of the character in question into account when considering the arguments that authors put into their mouths, then suddenly writing becomes an incredibly arbitrary process. If it doesn't matter whether Echo or Sierra or Alpha or Buffy or Angel raises a particular argument, then one of two things are true: either the characters are indistinguishable and interchangeable, which is usually a hallmark of terrible writing, or the arguments being raised and the story being told have absolutely nothing to do with each other, in which case why bother putting the arguments in the story in the first place?
http://vectoreditors.wordpress.com/ at 18:09 on 2009-05-19
Whoops. Let me try again:

More to the point, vector's point hinges on the idea that authors/scriptwriters never create characters with unappealing characteristics in order to spout the "wrong" side of an argument - in short, to raise the points that the writer wants to rebut.


If it does, your argument depends on the idea that it's possible to reliably tell when a writer is doing that, which it is clearly not. In the case at hand, I'd argue that there's no evidence that Whedon wants us to dismiss Hearn's remarks, and substantial evidence -- to wit, the fact that he is right, and the fact that the rest of the characters have good reason to ignore his comments -- that we're meant to take them seriously. His vileness, in this instance, makes him a more reliable commentator.

Kyra:

I think Dollhouse would be stronger and the whole business would be less problematic if Joss could put down the Sex Abuse Hammer for thirty seconds. I'm actually kind of getting bored of rape.


Yes. Although part of me is not sure that trying to backpedal wouldn't end up being worse; once you've asserted that this technology is going to be used in this way, it doesn't seem like something you can ignore. Though there are ways and ways of handling it, it's true.

Also, I should probably register for an account or something, so that I appear as a name and not just a URL, shouldn't I?
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 19:15 on 2009-05-19
I'm fascinated at this whole thing and the discussion, but having not seen the show at all (which is maybe why I react to the question of "how do we not become complicit in the system" by thinking, "Um...maybe you don't volunteer to work for a mind-wiping brothel? I don't get it...") I really get stuck on the whole idea of Echo's non-changing personality.

Because it seems like there's a sort of fantasy set up in that slate metaphor (which bugged me because I just thought of course I've tried to clean a state--I did it in school. And no, you can't tell what was written on it beforehand. You wash off the chalk and it's gone.) If we're really talking about a technology that wipes out the personality, that's a major world-building thing there that it seems like he wants to avoid with the comforting suggestion that there's some essential person underneath her actual brain that will come through no matter what's done to it. But even from the little I've read about brain injuries etc., that's just not how it works. A compassionate person can become indifferent or cruel if their brain is altered. There is no essential self outside of the self you get from your brain and the way it reacts to your experiences.

If Echo is actually retaining her real personality or snapping out of it at convenient moments we were really just talking about something like wacky movie hypnosis or superpowers.

Also in the episode where she's got the personality of the rape victim, who is that supposed to be helping? Is she supposed to be getting revenge on behalf of the original victim as if the victim exists in her personality traits after she's died? Or did I misunderstand that part?
Rami at 20:30 on 2009-05-19
@Vector: Email editor or webmaster @ this domain, and we'll set one up for you.
Wardog at 22:04 on 2009-05-19
Yes, I can see being addressed as Vector is going to be seriously non-ideal =P
Dafydd at 23:08 on 2009-05-19
LotR has many male Characters, but only 3 females: Eowyn, Galadriel and Rosie Cotton. Whedon-verse is more democratic: amidst all the male Characters are 6 females: Buffy, Willow, Fred and their Dark counterparts.

Episode 1/ Act 2: Faith wore her hair slicked back and spectacles. She looked like Dark Buffy when she used her Mary-Sue powers of Perfect potter Intuition.

Act 3: Faith lost her self confidence = Darth Fred.

Act 4: Faith set up a situation which led to Straw rapist dying = Darth Willow.

Finale: Faith sleeps in a Go’auld sarcophagus to cure her of Willow’s guilt.

2 straw rapists: on the rare occasions that perverts get convicted of raping children, they usually get derisory sentences, 6 to 18 months. Government excuses these small sentences because ordinary criminals bully rapists. They are giving criminals a bad name.

Chief Kidnapper is straw and so is Daddy war Bucks.
Daddy is scared: bad guys kidnapped his beloved daughter.
Faith has Mary Sue hostage negotiator skills and Harry potter perfect Intuition.

Daddy questions Faith’s perfect potter intuition and gets shot.
Faith recites her Resume. Daddy don’t care.
Faith confesses that she was kidnapped = she is guilty. Daddy gloats.
Jamie Johnston at 23:24 on 2009-05-19
on the rare occasions that perverts get convicted of raping children, they usually get derisory sentences, 6 to 18 months.
- Dafydd

Slightly confused - is this a statement about what happens in Whedonverse or what happens in a country in the real world? If the latter, which country?
Dafydd at 23:34 on 2009-05-19
Britain is a country in the real World. Government defines the rape laws so that only a tiny percentage of perverts get convicted.

Saudi Arabia and Iran and Afghanistan are countries in the real World. Government defines rape laws so that the Victim is guilty of Adultery and must be stoned to death.

Whedon-verse is a fictional country. When the Nerds raped and murdered Triona, Buffy swore bloody Justice against the Nerds. When the Nerds murdered Tara, the Nerds suddenly became ths Good Guys and Willow becme the Bad guy.
Dan H at 00:29 on 2009-05-20
In the case at hand, I'd argue that there's no evidence that Whedon wants us to dismiss Hearn's remarks, and substantial evidence -- to wit, the fact that he is right, and the fact that the rest of the characters have good reason to ignore his comments -- that we're meant to take them seriously.


I think that's our fundamental disagreement. From where I stand "he's right" isn't evidence that Whedon expects us to believe him, any more than - say "Dumbledore is clearly a manipulative fuck" is evidence that JK Rowling wants us to question his suitability as a role model for young Harry.

I'd also deny that the other characters have a reason to ignore his comments. People like de Witt and Topher are supposed to be totally okay with the fact that they're in the human trafficking business. It's what they do, and they do it cheerfully. De Witt seems genuinely angry at what Hearn has done, and not because he's done the equivalent of fiddling his expenses but because she genuinely considers what he has done to be wrong.

By and large, people who willingly sell other people as sex slaves don't take the moral highground when it comes to rape. They don't need to. They know what they do and they're comfortable with it. They're very much *not* making up justifications for themselves, they're making up justifications for the *audience*.

There's also the fact that what Hearn does to Sierra genuinely harms her. She suffers consequences from it in a way that the Dolls never do from their Engagements. She cries herself to sleep at night because of what Hearn did to her, not because of what is done to her every time she's out on assignment.

The only indications that you are "supposed" to view Echo's assignments as being equivalent to Hearn's rape of Sierra come from external factors. There is nothing in the text which gives equal weight to the two acts. Far from it.
Dan H at 00:37 on 2009-05-20
(which is maybe why I react to the question of "how do we not become complicit in the system" by thinking, "Um...maybe you don't volunteer to work for a mind-wiping brothel? I don't get it..."


And this, pretty much, is why I find Dollhouse fandom so infuriating, because that is, in fact, the correct answer.

Don't work for the Dollhouse. Don't hire people from the Dollhouse. That's it. All this toss about fantasy and social roleplaying and expectations and whatever else the hell is just Whedon waving his cock around.

Essentially Dollhouse spends fifty percent of its time saying "The Dollhouse Is Alright Really! Look! They're doing nice things!" and the other fifty percent of the time saying "The Dollhouse is Really Bad, but the fact that you thought it was alright really shows how powerful and seductive these ideas are". It's cheap, lazy, and disingenuous.
Rude Cyrus at 01:13 on 2009-05-20
Essentially Dollhouse spends fifty percent of its time saying "The Dollhouse Is Alright Really! Look! They're doing nice things!" and the other fifty percent of the time saying "The Dollhouse is Really Bad, but the fact that you thought it was alright really shows how powerful and seductive these ideas are". It's cheap, lazy, and disingenuous.

I love it when a writer manipulates the audience into feeling a certain, then does a 180 and is proclaimed a genius for "defying expectations" or some such shit.
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 08:18 on 2009-05-20
The slate metaphor controversy is funny, but I think Whedon is simply mixing up slate with chalkboards. Or hoping the audience will.

@ which character's opinions should we believe
I definitely think Whedon counts on the audience not believing Hearn. Or, more uncharitably, pondering for a moment how awesome the show is for bringing up such deep and complex themes before forgetting it in the revelation that Mellie is a Doll. (Is that the episode where we learn she's a doll? I can't remember.)

Similarly, of the opinions offered in the "Man On the Street" interviews, I think the one Whedon ascribes to is the last: If this technology exists then: “it’ll be used. It’ll be abused. It’ll be global. And we will be over. As a species. We will cease to matter. I don’t know, maybe we should” seeing as it is far longer and more eloquently written than the other replies. It's said by a guy that seems more like an expert than any of the other interviewees. It's the final thought we're left with (it is the only interview I remembered from watching the episode) and it's full of shit. So, because a small minority of people abuse a technology, the entire 6 billion human race is beyond redemption? My take on the show is that Whedon sees it as an epic struggle to determine the the potential of the whole human race. It's deep, man.

@ should he have to make a statement on rape
Yes. If you are going to bring up rape and have it be such a pervasive part of the story, you have to address it. I disagree on whether we can expect fiction to answer the questions it raises. Bad fiction asks questions and stops. Good fiction ask questions and then gives an argument for it. It has an opinion. Well thought out themes aren't questions, they are stands on issues. Good fiction is willing to be wrong.

Dollhouse isn't willing to be wrong. It waffles from one side to the other, trying to balance all its plates in the air to keep from anyone pinning it down. Some of this comes from the format. Honestly, I think a normal television series is a horrible medium for trying out complex themes. You have to drag the story out for so long and some viewers will only see some episodes or stop halfway through. Dollhouse would have been much better and tighter-written, I think, if it had been limited to a mini-series.

One thing that drives me nuts in some reviews I'm reading at other sites, is how fans are blaming Fox for all of Dollhouse's shortcomings. Fox can be blamed for showing episodes out of order, but that's it. If you go in saying, I'm going to do X and Y and this will lead to the great Z. And the execs say they don't like Z, then you can't just go ahead and do X and Y anyway and blame it on the Man for keeping you down. The execs clearly wanted some formulaic episodes to start off the series. A not unimaginable desire, seeing as viewership for a new series fluctuates in the first few weeks, but Whedon made some of the sloppiest opening episodes to a series I've seen. I'm amazed it got renewed.
Dan H at 08:46 on 2009-05-20
Dollhouse isn't willing to be wrong. It waffles from one side to the other, trying to balance all its plates in the air to keep from anyone pinning it down


Pretty much this.

Dollhouse (at least so far) is deeply, grossly incoherent. Superficially, this incoherence resembles complexity.

An interesting comparison I was thinking about yesterday was The Sopranos, which also takes as its premise the idea that the protagonists work for a morally reprehensible organisation. The difference is that The Sopranos is actually willing to *show* its characters doing reprehensible things, instead of dancing around the edges saying "and by the way, this is morally reprehensible but look! Boobies!".

One thing that drives me nuts in some reviews I'm reading at other sites, is how fans are blaming Fox for all of Dollhouse's shortcomings


Mother-****ing word
Dan H at 11:48 on 2009-05-20
Further to the "Dollhouse isn't willing to be wrong" argument, this Dinosaur comics strip sums up my issues peculiarly well.

Ultimately there are very few works of fiction that cannot be defended with the line "you are criticising only your own imagination".
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 16:45 on 2009-05-20
One thing that drives me nuts in some reviews I'm reading at other sites, is how fans are blaming Fox for all of Dollhouse's shortcomings.

I've seen these two and they floor me. Actually, they remind me of those elaborate real people fiction conspiracy theories that people come up with for celebrity couples, where the network has them sign a contract that forbids them from dating each other or saying they're gay, and also forces them to do things that imply they're anything but totally in love with each other. Only in this case it's the network taking control of the story and wardrobe etc.
Jamie Johnston at 19:27 on 2009-05-20
Dafydd said:
on the rare occasions that perverts get convicted of raping children, they usually get derisory sentences, 6 to 18 months.


I said:
Slightly confused - is this a statement about what happens in Whedonverse or what happens in a country in the real world? If the latter, which country?


Dafydd said:
Britain is a country in the real World. Government defines the rape laws so that only a tiny percentage of perverts get convicted.


I say:

Well, this isn't the place to discuss government policy and conviction rates for rape in the UK, but I feel I must just quickly correct your original statement, at least as it relates to England & Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland being separate criminal jurisdictions).

The Sentencing Guidelines Council places the starting-point for rape, with any aggravating factors (such as the use of serious violence), of a child aged between 13 and 16 at 10 years, and at 13 years for a child under 13. These starting-points can be reduced to take account of mitigating factors but can also be increased to take account of further aggravating factors.

By virtue of section 225 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 a judge must, in addition, sentence a rapist to indefinite custody if the offender presents a significant risk of serious harm to the public.

You may be thinking of the cases of Keith Fenn and Simon Foster, who were each sentenced to two years' custody; but this was increased to four years each on appeal. This, incidentally, was before the current SGC guidelines (which increased the starting-points) came into effect.

According to the Ministry of Justice's sentencing statistics in 2007 the average sentence for all sexual offences (including minor ones such as exposure and soliciting) was almost 4 years (chart on p. 24); the most recent quarterly statistics show this down slightly in 2008 to about 3.5 years (p.13). These statistics don't include indeterminate sentences for public protection (referred to above). According to a parliamentary written answer the average sentence for rape in 2006 was nearly 7 years.

Of course one may or may not consider such sentences adequate, and there may or may not be cases of excessively lenient sentencing, but the suggestion that child-rapists "usually get... 6 to 18 months" is simply incorrect.

We now return to our regular Whedon-judging...
Jamie Johnston at 19:30 on 2009-05-20
(Sorry, one short post-script: the boyfriend of the mother of 'Baby P' will be sentenced on Friday at the Old Bailey for raping a two-year-old child. Let's see whether he gets "6 to 18 months".)
http://aidansean.livejournal.com/ at 23:54 on 2009-05-20
Then there is a metric arseload of exposition.

Is that more or less than a metric miss?
Wardog at 09:19 on 2009-05-21
Aidan! Joy! I suspect it depends on the comparative weight of the exposition. Which is heavy. Believe me.
Niall at 13:14 on 2009-05-21
Daniel: as you say, we have a fundamental disagreement. I don't really care what Whedon *wants* or *expects* us to believe -- well, OK, that's not entirely true, when it comes to issues as sensitive as the ones Dollhouse deals with, but I care much more about what ends up on the screen. And what ends up on the screen, in my view, is that Hearn is right and the other characters don't have a leg to stand on. (I do think you're substantially misreading de Witt -- Topher, obviously, is a cheerfully amoral little shit, and it's a pleasure to despise him -- but I can't say for sure that my opinion of de Witt was the same at episode 6 as it is having seen the whole season, so I'll leave that for now.) As for Hearn's actions not being given equal weight to Mynor's, I'd argue that that's what Ballard's whole conversation with Mynor does -- Ballard is clearly disgusted, and although that scene starts to ask the audience to question their sympathies for Ballard, I don't think it excuses or defends Mynor (*explains* him, yes, but that's not the same) -- but presumably we're going to disagree on that, as well.

As for "Don't work for the Dollhouse": well, yes, to a point, but it's a bit like objecting to Buffy on the grounds that there aren't irredeemably evil people in the real world so using them as a metaphoric stand-in in a fantasy tv show is doomed to failure, isn't it? (An argument I have actually seen people make.) Metaphors always grind their gears when they come up against reality a bit, otherwise they wouldn't be a metaphor, they would be reality, and the dollhouse is no exception. Of course, the dollhouse functions metaphorically on several different axes, but I'd say the two main ones are (1) the artistic-creative axis, wherein commercial television is figured as inherently exploitative, and (2) the social axis, wherein the sort of programming the dollhouse performs is figured as an exaggeration of any societal conditioning. I am more interested in the latter -- we are all conditioned by the culture in which we live, it is very difficult to stand back and see that conditioning for what it is -- and on that level, the point about complicity is not just about not literally working for the dollhouse, it's about what you do knowing that the dollhouse exists. Ballard investigates, and finds the system working against him -- working, indeed, to make him complicit. (You may not think he's culpable for the rape of Mellie [or, strictly, Mellie/November/original personality -- although that opens the whole other can of worms that is the extent to which the imprints can be considered people, rather than just programs], but how do you think he sees it?) Obviously, in the real world there aren't people pulling levers and making sure that other people are programmed exactly the way they want. On the other hand, in the real world boyfriends don't literally turn into evil monsters after you sleep with them.

I agree that Whedon holds the can for Dollhouse's failure. The one point I would make on that topic is that I'll be interested to see how the show develops and changes in season two -- the entire first season was filmed before the first episode aired, which means the writers had no chance to adjust their course based on audience response. Oh -- and I also agree with the notion that Dollhouse would have worked better as a miniseries. I think a defined endpoint would have done it a power of good, as descrime suggests.
Dan H at 16:46 on 2009-05-21
but it's a bit like objecting to Buffy on the grounds that there aren't irredeemably evil people in the real world so using them as a metaphoric stand-in in a fantasy tv show is doomed to failure, isn't it?


I'd say it's more like objecting to Buffy on the grounds that it *starts off* presenting irredeemably evil people as a metaphoric stand in on a fantasy TV show, but then switches horses atrociously so that, for example, the demons which Buffy has previously - in essence - killed on spec just for being Demons suddenly become an ethnic minority with rights and a culture.

Joss Whedon has real problems keeping his metaphors straight. Magic, for example, started out as a way for Willow to wield power without being able to throw a punch, then became a *fairly explicit* metaphor for lesbian sex ("sometimes I think about two women doing a spell ... then I do a spell by myself") then became bad evil crack, then became super-awesome-shiny-female-empowerment juice, with no clear signals as to what made it switch.

A more pertinent example of this problem is in season seven, when Buffy rejects the offer of the Shadow Men to grant her more power because it's clearly Symbolic Demon Rape, and then at the end of the series she does exactly the same thing to every girl in the entire world. You can't turn your rape metaphors into empowerment metaphors and get away with it.

The Dollhouse has the exact same problem. I don't think it works as a deconstruction of his earlier works, because we clearly *are* supposed to view all the times Echo saves people and is awesome as empowering. By mixing in his empowerment metaphors with his rape metaphors, Joss actually does the whole thing a huge disservice. A good example of this is in Ghost when Echo's persona's childhood abuse experience is supposed to directly contribute to her ability to be an effective hostage negotiator, and her persona's confrontation with her abuser is presented as providing genuine closure to the dead woman. It is very much presented as empowering, not superficially, but genuinely.

I'm actually more than happy to accept the Dollhouse as a metaphor, but as you say, metaphors always grind their gears when they come up against reality. The way to deal with that is to *avoid* putting it up against reality. By comparing your "metaphorical" rape to "real" rape, all you do is highlight all the flaws in your metaphor.

I'd also add that I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of "metaphorical rape" (which I know is an idea I introduced myself, I just thought I'd mention it) - the Dollhouse technology isn't metaphorical rape, it's (to borrow Kyra's term) metaphorical *violation*. I mention this because I think it's important to realize that there's actually a fairly small overlap between "rape" the real crime and "rape" the symbolic thing that happens in books and literature. Again Buffy 7 is a good example of this problem: if you're tied to a stone and a bunch of black guys stick something in you that you didn't ask for, it's Symbolic Rape. If you're just going about your life and a pretty girl does the same thing it's totally empowering.

Sorry, that got a bit rambly towards the end.

Basically I think that Dollhouse writes checks that Whedon can't cash (or maybe it should be the other way around). You raise some interesting questions about the implication of the show, the technology, and the characters, but I don't see those ideas genuinely explored in the series.
Niall at 17:45 on 2009-05-21
Dang, I should have known you'd bring up the Crack Magic. The demons I think are more defensible. The writers never *actually* broke the one rule they established -- no soul = irredeemably evil -- they just came very close to it, and had inexplicable coughing fits every time the soul status of certain characters (e.g. Lorne on Angel) became an issue.

Back to Dollhouse. Again, part of this is that we're just watching it very differently -- I can't forget the fact that Echo is wiped at the end of each engagement, so however empowering anything that takes place within an engagement is, I find myself forced to question the artificiality of that empowerment after the fact. I don't actually dispute that Eleanor Penn finds a measure of closure in "Ghost"; but that closure doesn't take place in a vacuum, and I don't see that the episode encourages you to take it as such.

In conclusion, you should hurry up and watch the rest of the season.
Arthur B at 16:27 on 2009-05-22
(Sorry, one short post-script: the boyfriend of the mother of 'Baby P' will be sentenced on Friday at the Old Bailey for raping a two-year-old child. Let's see whether he gets "6 to 18 months".)

Spoiler: He got life for the rape, 12 years on top of it for his part in Baby P's death, and minimum custody of 10 years.

So a bit more than 6-18 months, then.
Dan H at 00:11 on 2009-05-23
Again, part of this is that we're just watching it very differently -- I can't forget the fact that Echo is wiped at the end of each engagement, so however empowering anything that takes place within an engagement is, I find myself forced to question the artificiality of that empowerment after the fact.


That's basically where we differ, I come at it from exactly the opposite angle. No matter how many times we see Echo get wiped and do the "did I fall asleep" speech, I know that next episode she's going to be running around saving people and kicking bad guys in the head and that, crucially, several key elements of her personality will be exactly the same.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we never actually see a Doll working "as intended". Echo and - it is strongly hinted - Sierra both seem to have far more awareness than you would expect for people who have been brainscrubbed by a sinister conspiracy.

Another part of the problem is that I don't quite believe that the writers know how all this stuff is supposed to work. It's like that bit at the start of Battlestar Galactica where they would say "They Have a Plan" and you'd think yourself "maybe they do, but you have *no idea* what it is, do you?"
Arthur B at 02:19 on 2009-05-23
Of course, it could be pointed out that writing an entirely different personality for Echo each episode would require a monumental amount of work on the part of the writers - they'd have to invent a new protagonist on a weekly basis, for crying out loud. Which is another argument that a long-form TV series is absolutely the wrong format for the show.

Oh, and if anyone's interested, Charlie Brooker (who is Whedon-agnostic but generally geek-friendly) has weighed in on the subject.
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 06:11 on 2009-05-23
Funny Dollhouse article:
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/tvandradioblog/2009/mar/31/dollhouse-joss-whedon-fox)

"Everyone was saying from the beginning, not least because it came straight from Joss Whedon's mouth, that Fox, the show's network in the US, had decreed that the first five episodes should be able to stand alone...And, yes, I have no idea why a network would decide that was the best way to hit an eager and loyal market with a brand new TV show....But for now, I'm just saying: people said don't give up through the first five episodes, and ... um ... OK, I'm repeating that. If you're going to give it a chance, give it at least six or seven hours' worth of chance."

So, basically the myth that the lackluster first five episodes were all Fox's fault seems to have come from Whedon himself. But seriously, any show that asks you to waste five hours (FIVE HOURS!) to get to the actual show, is produced by someone unbelievably arrogant. I could watch the new Star Trek movie twice in that time frame and get a hell of a lot more enjoyment out of it.

Spoiler Alert for later episodes:
The problems with the activities of the Dollhouse getting white-washed or portrayed in a positive light, only get worse after episode 6. The only other episode I watched was a murder mystery where Adele's friend gets murdered, and Adele had promised to upload her into a Doll to let her go to her own funeral (episode 10).

This episode shows the Dollhouse in an unrelenting positive light. Over the course of the episode, Echo:
- solves the woman's murder
- saves the husband's life
- write a final good-bye letter telling the husband how much she loved him
- realizes the woman's family saw her as cold and remote and through conversation and "discovered" letters from the dead woman that she wrote, is able to help the family make peace with the woman's memory and realize how much the woman cared for them
- she is is just a computer program, so this does not impinge the real woman's good perceptions of how her family

And actually, this was far better than any of the first five episodes. Because there was no one whining about how morally duplicitous the Dollhouse was and the FBI guy was absent, there was nothing to take you out of the action and remind you just how screwed up this was. This episode really should have been the second or third episode. It would have offered a wider range of jobs for the Dolls than prostitute and as actually kind of cheerful while having a nice action sequence.
Niall at 10:28 on 2009-05-23
So, basically the myth that the lackluster first five episodes were all Fox's fault seems to have come from Whedon himself.


Well ... From what I understand, yes, the network did ask for a bunch of standalone shows first, but Whedon appears able to admit that it was his responsibility to make them work, and he failed.

This episode shows the Dollhouse in an unrelenting positive light.


Of course, it's also the episode that emphasizes that the use of dolltech in this way could lead to effective immortality for the rich and powerful, with all the negative implications for everyone else that would imply...
Dan H at 14:28 on 2009-05-23

Of course, it's also the episode that emphasizes that the use of dolltech in this way could lead to effective immortality for the rich and powerful, with all the negative implications for everyone else that would imply...


The problem with the "implications of this technology" threads in Dollhouse is that the technology is poorly thought out and poorly explained.

For example, you can't say "this technology would lead to effective immortality for the rich and powerful" while *at the same time* asking questions about identity and self-awareness. If the rich and powerful can become immortal using Dollhouse technology, then Dollhouse personalities are real people (which, to come back to the rape discussion, means they actually are entirely capable of consenting to sex, as well as to all the other things they get asked to do).

You simply can't have a show that's about human trafficking *and* about social role-playing *and* about the theoretical implications of mind-altering technology *and* about questions of identity and free will, all using the same McGuffin as your core metaphor.

"What are the implications of this technology" is only interesting if (a) you have any idea of what the technology does and (b) you have any idea who the people using it are. With Dollhouse you don't. The technology does what the writers want it to do, at the time the writers want it to do it. Similarly the motivations of the Dollhouse, and the people *behind* the Dollhouse seem to change week by week - whether they're after money or power, or something more sinister, they don't consistently act like they want to do anything except put Eliza Dushku in a series of different outfits.

To put it another way, I'm not going to waste time considering the implications of Dollhouse tech when I'm certain that the writers haven't spent any time considering the implications of the Dollhouse tech.
Niall at 15:54 on 2009-05-23
If the rich and powerful can become immortal using Dollhouse technology, then Dollhouse personalities are real people (which, to come back to the rape discussion, means they actually are entirely capable of consenting to sex, as well as to all the other things they get asked to do).


Well, sure. I don't see that as contradictory. The point (if imprints are people) is that they are capable of consenting *once in full possession of the facts of their situation*; and, to date, none of the sexual engagements we've seen have involved imprints who are aware they are imprints (ie they don't know that their starting parameters include a predisposition to want to have sex with the client), so they're still all rape.

I'm not sure, with the McGuffin as presented, that it's possible to *separate* the various themes you list. You end up with a show that articulates some harsh arguments about society, but that's ok by me.

As to your (a), how the dolltech works, clearly we're not dealing with a hard-sf concept here, but here's what I take from the episodes we've had so far:

-- "Wiping" is equivalent to removing the set of instructions that make up a personality from the hardware on which they are running.
-- "Wiping" is an imperfect process, although you can invest more time in the process to make it more successful; still, there is a unique, individual unconscious left behind in most if not all cases
-- Within the dollhouse, in theory, what's left of the original personality is maintained in a docile, childlike state through the use of pacifying drugs, and a very basic set of rules for behaviour/response.
-- While on engagements, the unconscious is suppressed by the installation of a more complex series of instructions. The precise level of complexity of these instructions can vary; it's almost always great enough to pass a turing test, but probably not always as great as naturally developed personalities. This is not a perfect process, either.
-- In creating "imprints" for engagements, Topher primarily works with modules from other personalities, either recorded from actual people or previously created, usually tweaked. He also has some ability to create wholly new sets of instructions. There's definitely room for human error.

What is there in the show that contradicts any of the above? What is there in the above that is not established in the show?

Note: I am of the opinion that those using dolltech don't fully understand it (even, or perhaps particularly, Topher), so any theories as to how it works are best based on what actually happens -- which I find to be coherent -- not on what any characters say -- which I find to not match the observable facts.

It is my hope/supposition that many or most imprints are complex enough that, subjectively, their experience is as valid as yours or mine, but I don't think we have that conclusively established yet.

My theory is pretty mechanistic (blame those Greg Egan stories again). I am comfortable with the idea that we, just as much as imprints, are just sets of rules. But one thing I like about this reading, and that I think so far the show supports, is that it doesn't completely separate mind and body. No matter what Topher thinks, it's impossible to wipe someone completely; some trace of the original instructions, and presumably of any other sufficiently complex instructions that has at any point been run on that brain.
Arthur B at 16:57 on 2009-05-23
The point (if imprints are people) is that they are capable of consenting *once in full possession of the facts of their situation*; and, to date, none of the sexual engagements we've seen have involved imprints who are aware they are imprints (ie they don't know that their starting parameters include a predisposition to want to have sex with the client), so they're still all rape.


Well, OK, but I'm not sure how this fits with:

I am comfortable with the idea that we, just as much as imprints, are just sets of rules.


Follow me on this:

- If people are just sets of rules, imprinted on a physical body through genetics and experience, then potentially anything they do may be not a result of free will but these rules.
- Presumably, this includes sleeping with people; just as the Dollhouse can create an imprint with rules prompting someone to consent to sex with a particular person, so can society imprint real people with a predisposition to consent to sex with people of a particular type.
- If an imprint sleeping with someone because their rules predispose them to is rape because the imprint is not aware of the rules, then equally a real person sleeping with someone because their rules dispose them to is rape because the real people sure as shit aren't aware of the rules. Imprints don't know that they are Dollhouse-manufactured imprints, but real people don't know that they are socially-crafted imprints either.

Essentially, if people are the same as imprints in terms of being sets of rules, that means that free will is impossible. And if free will is impossible, the very concept of "rape" goes out the window, because without free will you can't freely consent to anything.

If imprints are "real" people, the immortality argument makes sense, but the rape argument doesn't - because "real" people can consent to sex, even if it's with a person they may be predisposed to sleeping with due to subconscious factors they are not aware of. If imprints are not "real", then the rape argument makes sense, but the immortality argument doesn't - an imprint of you can only ever be a close simulation, not the real deal.
Niall at 18:21 on 2009-05-23
Essentially, if people are the same as imprints in terms of being sets of rules, that means that free will is impossible.


Well, that rather depends how much you believe in emergent phenomena, doesn't it? Whether you can start with a set of rules and all you ever get is the working out of those rules, or whether at a certain level of complexity you get something more.

As it happens, in real life my understanding is that it's more likely than not that consciousness does happen after the fact, and free will is an illusion. (Is there a neurobiologist in the house? I'm merely a lowly biochemist.) But it feels like we've got it, so we might as well act as though we do, and debate morality accordingly; with luck that will drive selection for rule-sets that will lead to less suffering all around (he said, slightly faseciously).

And within Dollhouse, you're right, I don't think they're going to abandon the notion of free will and choice.

So, if you read the show as leaning towards dolls-are-real-people -- which I do, though it's not confirmed yet -- then the argument is that when you load a sufficiently complex set of rules into a doll, some sort of synthesis occurs in the operation of those rules to produce a person. Under these assumptions, trivially, you're right: a recording of a personality transferred to a new body is not going to be exactly the same as the original. (Nor, by extension, will the same imprint operate identically in two actives -- as we saw in the art-heist episode, although there there's also the issue that the longer an imprint exists and the more experience it gains, the further it will diverge from baseline.) However, it will believe it's the same as the original, and to a first approximation it will be, so frankly -- much as there's no point fretting about the fact that your body is destroyed when you go through a Star Trek transporter -- it'll do.

And as I've said, if the imprints are people with valid subjective experience, I believe that sexual encounters are still rape not because, as a set of rules, they lack free will, but because they lack full awareness of their nature and how that has guided their choices. So to go back to this:

then equally a real person sleeping with someone because their rules dispose them to is rape because the real people sure as shit aren't aware of the rules.

Yeah, you know how I said you end up with a reading that articulates some harsh arguments about society? This is one of them. The crucial difference, of course, is that an active doll has been *deliberately* programmed for certain responses, whereas a naturally-developed person has picked up certain responses over the course of their life -- so I wouldn't say Dollhouse goes so far as to condemn all sex as rape. But would I say it suggests that we are shaped by the society we grow up in, and are encouraged to accept some deeply unhealthy ideas about (among other things) sex and sexuality, to the point where we don't always think about how our assumptions are driving the choices we make? Certainly. Confronting an imprint with the nature of their origin, in this reading, would be a literal act of consciousness-raising.
Rami at 19:10 on 2009-05-23
To weigh in slightly on this discussion:

If we say imprints are constructed with the illusion of free will, but an subconscious 'tweak' that encourages them to sleep with someone, then that's analogous to people (who possess the illusion of free will) being given chemical tweaks (e.g. roofies) that encourage them to sleep with someone.

Since the latter is still undeniably rape, I'd say that by analogy so is the former...
Arthur B at 19:32 on 2009-05-23
If we say imprints are constructed with the illusion of free will, but an subconscious 'tweak' that encourages them to sleep with someone, then that's analogous to people (who possess the illusion of free will) being given chemical tweaks (e.g. roofies) that encourage them to sleep with someone.


Except that analogy doesn't work; in the case of the Dolls the thing that gives them the illusion of free will and the thing that gives them a subconscious tweak is the same thing - the imprinting process itself.
Rami at 19:48 on 2009-05-23
If we are saying that imprints are the same or similar rule-sets to personalities, then Topher tweaking them on his computer before uploading them into a Doll is just the same; it's just doing it before the program is loaded rather than while it's running.

But then, lots of SF has dealt with a whole range of different ways personalities can be copied or simulated or artificially emulated, and I reckon Whedon's just lifted a very vague concept out of that entire mixture and thrown it at the screen -- I don't think it holds up to this level of analysis!
Arthur B at 20:19 on 2009-05-23
Rami:
If we are saying that imprints are the same or similar rule-sets to personalities, then Topher tweaking them on his computer before uploading them into a Doll is just the same; it's just doing it before the program is loaded rather than while it's running.


Ah, but the programs on Topher's computer mean nothing when they are on Topher's computer: they're just information. It's when they are imprinted on a Doll that they actually become personalities. It's the process of imprinting the program on a Doll which is analogous to the social conditioning we receive throughout our lives - at least, that's the only way I can see to make the idea of imprinting as social conditioning work at all.

But then, lots of SF has dealt with a whole range of different ways personalities can be copied or simulated or artificially emulated, and I reckon Whedon's just lifted a very vague concept out of that entire mixture and thrown it at the screen -- I don't think it holds up to this level of analysis!


I agree with that. I also think that seeing the Dollhouse as representing social conditioning is kind of a weak metaphor. There isn't actually an identifiable group behind the social forces which mould us throughout our lives, and there's absolutely no way to conceive of any way we could live free of social conditioning in the first place, unless we all become hermits.
Rami at 21:10 on 2009-05-23
Ah, but the programs on Topher's computer mean nothing when they are on Topher's computer: they're just information.

But that's all programs are! As the true master is aware... code is data, and data is code...
Arthur B at 22:52 on 2009-05-23
But that's all programs are! As the true master is aware... code is data, and data is code...

And both are equally useless until they're installed in compatible hardware (or wetware, in the case of Topher's personalities).

Has Dollhouse done an episode yet where they disclose how they harvest these personas, by the way? It would be interesting to see whether it's by consent (as, in theory, the Doll process is) or whether they ever snatch people off the street to eat their mind.
Dan H at 01:30 on 2009-05-24

What is there in the show that contradicts any of the above? What is there in the above that is not established in the show?


I think you're missing my point. When I say "how does it work" I don't mean "construct a treknobabble explanation for how it works" I mean something more specific and concrete. I mean:

a) What can this technology do and, more importantly, what can it *not* do?
b) Why, exactly, is it able to do what it does?
c) Most importantly, given the things it is able to do, why is it not used to do simple, obvious things that should be possible with the technology?

For example: how *exactly* do they program echo to be "good at being a hostage negotiator"? Did they program that specific way of behaving into her, if so, how did that make her good at doing hostage negotiations - and how did Topher, who isn't a hostage negotiator know? If they can make somebody good at doing hostage negotiations, what else can they make people good at? And how? How does programming somebody with a sequence of kung fu moves bypass the necessity for actual physical training?

Note: I am of the opinion that those using dolltech don't fully understand it


Okay, here's my problem with this. By and large, technology does not work that way. Trite Arthur C Clarke quotes to the contrary, technology is very easy to distinguish from magic. You seem to be asking me to believe that Topher can build, from scratch, the greatest hostage negotiator who ever lived - one who somehow manages to get results despite doing things that no other hostage negotiator does or would think of doing - but somehow had no idea how he did it.

I am comfortable with the idea that we, just as much as imprints, are just sets of rules


My problem with this theory is that it is, functionally, meaningless. What does "we are just sets of rules" actually *mean*?
Niall at 09:38 on 2009-05-24
I'm missing something. How does my previous explanation not answer your (a), (b), and (c), or rather, not establish parameters for them? When it comes to the hostage negotiator, per the episode, Eleanor Penn was constructed from modules of existing personalities with experience in the relevant fields. Topher didn't have to know how to be a hostage negotiator; he had to have access to a library of personalities, which included skill at hostage negotiation. Also per that episode, they can make people good at anything they have an imprint for.

The kung fu moves thing is handwaved as "muscle memory"; which is dumb, but at least they've addressed it. Not hard sf, as I said.

As for technology being distinguishable from magic, that's not my point. Dolltech is clearly figured as technology, rather than magic, in that it has learnable, usable, rules. But we can't yet fully predict, I don't know, side-effects of what are meant to be specifically targeted pharmaceuticals, despite the fact that we know how said pharmaceuticals work, because we don't have complete knowledge of the system we're altering. The same appears to be true in Dollhouse.

And "we are just sets of rules" means just that: that there is no ineffable *extra*; that there is, to use the Buffy terminology, no soul; that our personalities can be treated as sets of instructions to be chopped and changed in exactly the same way that genetic code is a set of instructions that can be chopped and changed.
Dan H at 10:27 on 2009-05-24
I'm missing something. How does my previous explanation not answer your (a), (b), and (c), or rather, not establish parameters for them?


How does it?

To put it another way, how is your explanation functionally different from "the Dollhouse technology just does whatever the writers need it to do".

To stick with Eleanor Penn: okay, so they jam a bunch of hostage negotiators together into a Super Hostage negotiator, but how does Topher isolate "skill at hostage negotiation" from "fondness for cupcakes"? In fact, what even defines what "skill at hostage negotiation" *is*.

A big part of your "explanation" for how the Dollhouse technology works is "human error". The problem is that "human error". If there is so much scope for human error in the Dollhouse technology, it should not be possible to program a Doll to perform a complex function. You can't have human error apply to things like "whether the Dolls turn psycho" but not have it apply to things like "whether she can actually do those martial arts moves properly".

But we can't yet fully predict, I don't know, side-effects of what are meant to be specifically targeted pharmaceuticals


We can't predict the *specific* side effects that will be produced in a *specific* person, but we *can* predict the side effects which a particular pharmaceutical is likely to have on people in general. Real research scientists don't run around saying "no, no, this is impossible this should be impossible" - which Topher seems to do every other episode.

Taking an aspirin might give you a headache or - in extreme cases - make you vomit blood. It won't turn your skin blue, it won't give you superpowers.

And "we are just sets of rules" means just that: that there is no ineffable *extra*


Except, half of the way the Dollhouse *works* is predicated on the existence of the "ineffable extra". You yourself draw a distinction between the "rules" which are removed by the imprinting process and the "subconscious" (which is really just tech-speak for "soul") which is not. One of the basic themes of Dollhouse is that there *is* in fact an "ineffable extra" which is what allows Echo to develop a growing sense of self-awareness, instead of just dissolving into a quivering pile of schizophrenia.

The Dollhouse technology only *fails* when it goes up against what for want of a better term I would call the "human spirit". People's "true" or "original" personalities resurface through the wipes and cause them to behave erratically. That's not a plausible representation of fallible technology with realistic implications, that's a fantasy representation of magical technology the implications of which don't stand up to close scrutiny.

Earlier on in this thread you draw the comparison with the Star Trek transporter - a piece of technology which, were it real - would raise all kinds of questions about the nature and continuity of identity (particularly with things like the Tom Riker incident). It's an absolutely correct analogy, but the key thing is that Star Trek does *not* ask us to consider the implications of transporter technology in any way. The transporter is, in fact, just a McGuffin that was originally designed to save the original series the expense of animating a shuttle landing every episode.

The Dollhouse technology is no better thought through than the replicators or teleporters of Star Trek and this by itself pretty much precludes the show from being a serious exploration of the social consequences of this kind of technology.
Dan H at 10:29 on 2009-05-24
then that's analogous to people (who possess the illusion of free will) being given chemical tweaks (e.g. roofies) that encourage them to sleep with someone


The problem is that it's *also* analogous to people (who possess the illusion of free will) being given chemical tweaks (e.g. hormones and emotions) that encourage them to sleep with someone.

It's worth noting, incidentally, that in episode seven Echo does, in fact choose not to have sex with the client, which for me is actually the final nail in the coffin of the "you're supposed to see it as rape" argument.
Arthur B at 16:12 on 2009-05-24
It's an absolutely correct analogy, but the key thing is that Star Trek does *not* ask us to consider the implications of transporter technology in any way. The transporter is, in fact, just a McGuffin that was originally designed to save the original series the expense of animating a shuttle landing every episode.

In fact, to build on this, the premise of Trek was never "what if we had teleporter technology?" - if that were the case, why would it feature starships at all? - but "what if we could explore the galaxy?" Trek has always been far more interested in the process of exploration itself than the technology behind said explanation; this is why the Enterprise can do pretty much anything so long as its engineers can come up with a suitable technobabble explanation for what they are about to do, whilst the Prime Directive - which is the guiding principle behind the exploration program - never changes (although it does become significantly more developed).

Dollhouse, conversely, more or less explicitly says "What if we had a technology that could do this, and a group willing to use it?" - and the organisation comes a distant second place to the tech. I mean, that answer given by the professor in the beginning of Man On the Street focuses almost exclusively on the technology and its implications, whilst most of the other answers provided would apply equally well if the technology was run by the Dollhouse or the White House or the Samaritans or McDonald's.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 15:02 on 2009-05-30
(Coming in late once again ...)

The Epic Dollhouse Response of Doom:

Another excellent article Dan. You know, when I watched Episode 2, I started getting an inkling of the possibilities for a show where the main character could have a completely different personality each week. I knew Whedon and team had muffed badly, but I couldn't put a finger on why. Maybe it's, as you say, that Echo's personality doesn't really change throughout the series, only her background.

Hmm, you're probably right that Whedon just plain Does Guys Better. On the other hand, I'm not sure Mal “Kicks-Helpless-Prisoners-Into-Engine-Intakes-For-A-Bit-Of-A-Laugh” Reynolds is really your best example in that regard.

Re: Episode 5: ... Wait, so the US government knows about the Dollhouse, and they're okay with that kind of behavior so long as they get their in? ... Figures.

If somebody is offended by something, or considers it racist, or sexist, or literally criminal (in the case of the Dollhouse if it actually existed) then saying 'I understand that you feel that way but you should accept that is only one of several possible interpretations' is actually just a long winded way of telling somebody to shut up and stop trying to stand up for themselves.
Excellent point, and masterfully put, as usual. Reminds me of a discussion the other month ago about the limitations of the philosophy that “all truth is subjective, y'know.” The example given in that case was truth commissions—in which instance, insisting on “respect for differing viewpoints” can only hamper justice.

Put simply, if the Dollhouse really is 'human trafficking' then it cannot be 'beautiful' it cannot be romantic or empowering or cool. It can only be wrong. Unambiguously, entirely, unremittingly wrong, and the people who are involved with it are bad people for being involved with it. Yes that includes Boyd. Yes, that includes Fred from Angel. Yes, that includes the Asian girl with the nose stud.
Ah, now here I can't agree with you. Certainly, if the Dollhouse is human trafficking it's unambiguously bad, and the people involved with it are doing unambiguously bad things BUT, that does not make them, in themselves, bad people. Military organizations—being as they are, in the business of killing people as their raison d'etre—are unambiguously bad, as are the things which people in those organizations do. However, I would argue very strenuously that no soldier is a “bad person” simply because they belong to the military. (Yeah, this is something I've thought about quite a bit.)

The problem is that the attitude to rape displayed in Dollhouse is not that rapists are bad people because they commit rape, but that rapists commit rape because they are bad. To put it another way, it’s the attitude that rape is something that happens in the mind of the attacker, not the mind or body of the victim.
Ooh, another great observation. Basically, what you’re saying is that Dollhouse morality is the morality of every self-serving asshole in history: “It’s only rape if somebody else is doing it.” I've more to say on that subject, I think I'll let it wait for the essay.

To put it another way, I'm not going to waste time considering the implications of Dollhouse tech when I'm certain that the writers haven't spent any time considering the implications of the Dollhouse tech.
I love this site. It's so quotable.

As for interpretations of the Dollhouse ... I dunno, I kinda think it is supposed to be human trafficking. I think that's the whole point of including Ballard, and that scene at the end of the first episode where Sierra goes in and wastes the kidnappers' hideout, including the two not-so-bad kidnappers.

I think that at some point (like the end of the penultimate season) Echo's going to realize the predicament she's in, possibly with the assistance of Ballard, at which point, the Dollhouse suddenly becomes the enemy. Boyd and all the other sympathetic members of the Dollhouse team will have a change-of-heart and switch sides or die before they get a chance—if they're not dead already. Big confrontation, Dollhouse comes down, somebody dies in a sufficiently angsty way, Echo/Caroline rides off into the sunset, yadda, yadda, yadda. (And Whedon and co. could care less if it's dishonestly stuffing a genie back in the bottle.)

The problem is, as many of you have already pointed out, that instead of having just a mini-series for the storyline, Whedon's created a tv series which is intended to run for seven years if I remember correctly. So he has to give his characters a metric arseload of busywork to mark time before getting around to “Oh wait, what the Dollhouse is doing is actually kinda, y'know, evil.” Well, since the story is about Eliza Dushku, and she's being controlled by the Dollhouse, that means the Dollhouse is de facto the protagonist until Echo comes into her own. Firefly has shown us that even though Whedon is perfectly capable of writing protagonists who are outright villains, he can't bear to make himself acknowledge that they're outright villains, and so the result is an extended filibuster about why “They're the good guys, really, honestly.” Except, since I believe the Dollhouse will indeed turn out to be evil in the end, we're subjected to the Metaphor Whiplash discussed above.

That said, I also think Dollhouse-as-human-trafficking metaphor is pretty stark and heavy-handed. Niall, I really love your analysis of being a Doll = alienated labor and how the system convinces them that they're happy in their exploitation (there's hope for you yet!). And the whole part about how We're All Complicit, even the person who's trying to bring it down (Ballard), because this is so often the case in real life problems such as sexism, racism and militarism etc.

Thing is, while I'm ready to believe that those more sophisticated interpretations are there, I think it's completely unintentional, and furthermore, that to a certain extent, you have to be deliberately looking at it in that way in order for it to work. To put that another way, you have to want to see that interpretation and have some idea that it might be there for it to hold up. Otherwise, it's just a half-formed, half-coherent ur-theme at best.

Also, while this has been a great discussion, I think both it and the article have missed a few crucial points.

For one thing, I think there's a flaw in your Rape Watch Meter, Dan: You have a “Straw Rapists” byline but no “Straw Misogynists” tally. I mean, I thought the guy in episode 1 was pretty cliché after Firefly, but I didn't have a huge problem with him.

Then came episode 2, and the guy who hunts women in the woods like animals. You may not have more to say about that, Dan, but I do. After finishing that episode, I e-mailed my sister saying something along the lines of “I wonder what the world will look like when that man [meaning Whedon, obviously] rediscovers subtlety.”

I know we've discussed Whedon's habit of relying on Straw Misogynist villains before, especially in his more recent series, but this was what really clinched it for me. In Whedonland apparently, sexism has devolved into “Straw Misogynists who go around abusing women (though not necessarily raping them per se) because they're capital E Eeeevil, and need to be heroically killed off by a Strong Woman or suitably worthy Nice Guy.”

You also seem to be touching on but not really addressing an issue which was a big one in Episodes 1 and 2, and which I strongly suspect holds for the rest of the series: to whit, that it's incredibly dull.

I've already imparted my reaction to Episode 2. To Episode 1, my response was: “Well that was ... okay.” The acting was decent, the premise was bland, the sets were pretty good, the dialogue was uninspired (as my sister pointed out, this is the one thing Whedon genuinely is really good at—normally), the plot was passable ... oh, and the characters were all two-dimensional.

I mean, I've had my issues with Joss Whedon when it comes to characterization, particularly in Firefly, but I can't remember the last major Whedon character who inspired only indifference in me—in Dollhouse, I can't find any characters who inspire anything but indifference.

Take our mate Ballard. In the first two episodes, at least, he's a walking cliché: the loner cop who knows (or strongly suspects) the truth, even though nobody else believes him, and is seeking justice regardless; a cop who's edgy enough to do some legally and morally questionable things (like threatening a lead), but is still basically on the side of right. That's it, I just summarized Ballard's whole character. Oh, and he has a totally unoriginal and uninteresting romantic subplot with a woman who apparently turns out to be a Doll.

I liked Boyd slightly more than everyone else on the show, but only because I felt like I caught a few brief flashes of actual personality in him in Episode 2. Beyond that, bland, bland, bland, bland.

I liked Buffy and Angel, and have a love/hate relationship with Firefly, but Dollhouse is the first Whedon effort I've come across that was genuinely uninteresting.

(Ye gods but I'm long-winded)
Arthur B at 15:53 on 2009-05-30
Ah, now here I can't agree with you. Certainly, if the Dollhouse is human trafficking it's unambiguously bad, and the people involved with it are doing unambiguously bad things BUT, that does not make them, in themselves, bad people.

I think it depends on what you mean by "bad people". I don't think Dan means "bad people" in the sense of "people who are innately evil inside, and therefore do bad things" - that would contradict his comments about rapists that you pick up on a bit later. I think Dan is using "bad people" to mean "people who do bad things". If the Dollhouse is a monstrosity - and it does certainly look that way - then by this definition the people who run it are bad people. The possibility of reform does exist, but that would require those people to cease their involvement with the Dollhouse, because if you don't stop deliberately doing bad things you can't stop being a bad person.

In other words, evil's what you do, not what you are.
Jamie Johnston at 16:31 on 2009-05-30
The problem is, as many of you have already pointed out, that instead of having just a mini-series for the storyline, Whedon's created a tv series which is intended to run for seven years if I remember correctly.
- Arkan

I heard on the radio a year or two ago that, for reasons wrapped up in the economics of the U.S. television industry, a reasonably high-budget American drama series has to run for at least four or five seasons in order to make significant money for the commissioner. This, apparently, is why we get so many series running for years on end when it's brain-meltingly obvious to any creative person that the core concept can't support more than one complete plot cycle (the prime example being Lost, but also Heroes, Damages, 24); others do lend themselves more to being longer-running but still either drag on beyond the natural end-point implied by the premise (e.g. Grey's Anatomy after the interns stop being interns or Buffy after the high-school students leave high-school) or simply postpone indefinitely the resolution of the over-arching plot (e.g. The X-Files).

(Disclaimer: I haven't watched every season of every one of the above-mentioned series, so to some extent I'm going on the basis of plot summaries &c.)

In comparison, commissioners of high-budget British drama seem to be quite content to let things end when they ought properly to end (e.g. Life On Mars, Queer As Folk, The State Within), but on the other hand we don't seem to produce serials that could and should sustain an over-arching plot for more than a couple of seasons.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 20:02 on 2009-05-30
In other words, evil's what you do, not what you are.
I think that's what I was trying to say.

On the other hand, given the webs of power, corruption and oppression, I think the vast majority of the planet's population are "bad people" by those standards. Which I think is part of Niall's point. *shrugs*

Jamie, I haven't watched even one episode of most of the above-mentioned series.

I'm a little curious as to your definition of "over-arching plot": the overarching plot of the first three seasons of Buffy, as best I can tell, was "teenage girl beats up super-powered monsters in modern, suburban US town while dealing with life in high school." (For seasons 4-7, you can replace "life in high school" with "life in college/young adulthood," substituting "young woman" for "teenage girl" when appropriate.

As it is, it doesn't strike me as particularly "over-arching." Certainly not more than, say, Doctor Who, though maybe you consider that the exception.
Arthur B at 21:16 on 2009-05-30
On the other hand, given the webs of power, corruption and oppression, I think the vast majority of the planet's population are "bad people" by those standards.

That's an awfully big claim to make. Would you care to explain how you are a "bad person"? (Or if you wouldn't consider yourself by this definition, how you might have been a bad person if you made different decisions in the past?)

You cited military organisations as being inherently bad by this measure. Does this include the military of, say, Switzerland, which specifically never gets involved in any international adventures and exists solely to defend Switzerland from attack?
Jamie Johnston at 12:13 on 2009-05-31
Arkan, you're right, on reflection I see I should have distinguished between two different things that can naturally limit a series' lifespan: one is over-arching plot, the other is premise.

A series' premise limits its lifespan simply by creating a natural ending at the point where it ceases to be true / possible. For example The West Wing's premise was 'it's about the senior staff of President Bartlett': the series therefore naturally ended when Bartlett stopped being president. In theory I'd say this applies even to series that have absolutely no over-arching plot and seem able to run forever: House, for example, is about Greg House the diagnostician (if that's a word) and would have to come to an end if that character died or gave up medicine, or if all human disease and injury suddenly came to an end.

By 'over-arching plot', on the other hand, I mean something fairly vague but still, I think, real, though it's hard to define. Perhaps you could call it an element in the premise that demands resolution. I used the example of The X-Files, in which the premise is something like 'Mulder and Scully are FBI agents investigating supernatural happenings against the background of shadowy machinations by unknown officials'. The first part of the premise creates an off-beat police procedural that could run forever (barring changes equivalent to those I just mentioned for House), but the bit about the shadowy machinations promises and demands eventual resolution in the form of our heroes discovering what the machinations are and (assuming they turn out to be sinister) foiling them. A clearer example would be The Wire ('a special team of narcotics and homicide detectives assembles to investigate and break the Barksdale drug gang of West Baltimore'): the 'heroes' have a specific long-term goal, and if they ever achieve that goal (NB I've only watched season one so far, so please nobody tell me what happens after that!) it'll be a natural end to the series.

My comment about Buffy was really about premise, and even then it's not a very strong example because the 'high school' element is arguably not part of the premise. I suspect it was originally part of the premise when the show was being pitched and developed, but perhaps ultimately it's more accurate to say that the crucial setting is Sunnydale rather than the school. So yes, Buffy wasn't a good example on that point, even if I had made it clear that I was talking abuut premise and not plot.

I suppose my comments about British series were more about plot than about premise: Doctor Who is certainly an example of a long-running British series, but probably without a long-term plot that implies an inevitable conclusion (I confess I haven't really followed the series: I have the impression that since David Tennant started there has been a tendency towards longer-term plot, but I don't know whether this amounts to an over-all plot whose conclusion would require the whole series to end). But Doctor Who is in many ways an extremely unusual television programme.

Incidentally, I'm not arguing that any series that goes beyond the natural end implied by its premise or its long-term plot suddenly becomes irredeemably bad. I would tend to assume that a series that continues after the resolution of its long-term plot is likely to be bad because it's hard to see how that would happen except as a result of creative failure, but there may be counter-examples. A series' premise is in some ways more flexible, and can to some extent be changed after the series is under way, and if high school was indeed an original element of Buffy's premise then the series certainly survived abandoning it without suffering much. The prime example of a 'successful' change of premise is Taggart, which has managed to carry on for years after the title character actually died - I never particularly liked the series to start with, but people still watch it so I assume that it retains much of whatever original quality it had.
Shim at 13:28 on 2009-05-31
I suppose my comments about British series were more about plot than about premise: Doctor Who is certainly an example of a long-running British series, but probably without a long-term plot that implies an inevitable conclusion (I confess I haven't really followed the series: I have the impression that since David Tennant started there has been a tendency towards longer-term plot, but I don't know whether this amounts to an over-all plot whose conclusion would require the whole series to end). But Doctor Who is in many ways an extremely unusual television programme.


Actually, there has been something like this. For quite a long time in the early years, the Tardis was broken and the Doctor couldn't leave, which is where all the UNIT stuff came from - he was a special advisor and got repair supplies in return. You could have ended the series then - plot resolved, Doctor has a whole universe to explore and no special reason to spend all his time on Earth. But they've adapted the series to cope with it.

Speaking personally, I'd rather like to see a version that wasn't mostly about Earth and humans, but I still like it.

In the old days, there was also a limit to the number of regenerations Time Lords could have, which put a long-term cap on the series, although I think that's been retroconned away now, or at least lured down a dark alleyway and quietly disposed of.
Arthur B at 14:04 on 2009-05-31
In the old days, there was also a limit to the number of regenerations Time Lords could have, which put a long-term cap on the series, although I think that's been retroconned away now, or at least lured down a dark alleyway and quietly disposed of.

I believe it has, in fact, been retconned away since at least the Tom Baker era: the Master doesn't regenerate in quite the usual manner, and it's known that the Time Lords had some means of granting people extra regenerations.

Of course, that's all Old Canon, but it's a well-established axiom of the new series that the writers can use Old Canon as and when they find it convenient. :)
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 18:00 on 2009-06-01
That's an awfully big claim to make. Would you care to explain how you are a "bad person"?
Glad to Arthur, although I warn you, there is a distinct possibility that we're about to embark upon a political debate that would make the Prince of Nothing discussion look like a bit of small talk.

Okay, anyway, how am I a bad person, where “bad person” carries the meaning of “someone who does things which are unambiguously evil”? Well, here's a partial list:

I live in the United States, making me a citizen of a government which has been described as “the world's leading purveyor of violence” and “the most powerful terrorist organization in the world.” A government which has caused the deaths of thousands (perhaps millions) of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who-knows-how-many in Pakistan, and that's just within the last couple years. A government which subsidizes at least one brutal occupation in the Middle East, and I-don't-know-how-many-dictatorships. A government which continues to steal land from and otherwise disenfranchise American Indians, who have been persecuted by people of European descent since long before the United States ever existed. A government which is even now in the process of spending billions of dollars in welfare for the moneyed elite who were responsible for the current financial meltdown which is destroying the lives of millions of people just here in the United States. Rewarding the people who have caused untold suffering while leaving the victims without help and often without hope.

As a consumer, I give my money to those elites who caused that suffering. To corporations which exploit sweatshop labor and child labor in in South America, Africa, an Asia. Corporations which pollute air, water and soil all over the world, causing who-knows-how-many deaths from cancer and a host of other diseases. Corporations which produce the weapons with which my government and its minions and allies kill its enemies—and anyone in their vicinity—and with which other people kill each other all over the world. Corporations which often take over public utilities such as communication, transportation, education, and even health care and water services, and then proceed to burden their costumers with unbearable prices (unbearable for the economically disadvantaged, that is—the ones who are in the most need).

And as we've agreed in several discussions, no one can entirely escape their cultural context. That means that in my words and in my deeds, the way I dress, the way I move, the way I interact with other human beings, in subtle ways I am reproducing a culture of rape, a culture of misogyny and misandry, a culture of racism, heterosexist, ageism, classism, ableism, imperialism, militarism, and heaven-knows-what-all.

In these was and in many others, I perpetuate systems which oppress and dehumanizes myself and my fellow human beings. For these reasons I am (by the definition explained above) a “bad person.”

As for Switzerland: Again, this is going to be highly contentious. My personal outlook is that yes, it's military is bad—the reason being that even if it is only self-defensive, it's still organized around the idea of killing other people to get what you want. Its reason for existing is still to kill other people—just under more palatable circumstances than most other militaries.

We can argue whether a defensive military is necessary for a society (as a pacifist, I would argue that it isn't, but realize that I'm in the minority on this issue) but I think people who believe defensive violence is sometimes necessary, it's still bad.

I believe it has, in fact, been retconned away since at least the Tom Baker era: the Master doesn't regenerate in quite the usual manner, and it's known that the Time Lords had some means of granting people extra regenerations.
Yeah, there are special exceptions to the rule. In general, I believe, the 12-regeneration limit holds. (Since the Doctor isn't about to stoop to the underhanded tactics employed by the Master, and the Time Lords can't exactly grant him extra regenerations what with them all being vitally challenged, the producers are going to be in a bit of a tight situation a couple regenerations down the road.)
Dan H at 18:16 on 2009-06-01
Sorry it's taken so long to reply, got distracted.

Military organizations—being as they are, in the business of killing people as their raison d'etre—are unambiguously bad


I'm not going to engage with that point, if you don't mind, because I don't think that's a totally accurate summary of the nature of military organisations, but I'd like to respond to the general point.

Obviously when I said "bad people" I was deliberately oversimplifying. The more complex way of putting it is that whatever a person does for a living, they have to be the *sort of person* who does that sort of thing for a living. Sure, the Krays were nice to their mother, but they were brutal in their business dealings.

The problem with the Dollhouse is that it presents as human traffickers people who do not act like they work in human trafficking. It's like Damian's Iron Man Article. The problem is not that Tony Stark is an arms dealer, the problem is that the film raises the moral issues surrounding the arms trade and then doesn't address them.

To go briefly back to your military analogy, it's like the way that trad fantasy novels frequently have Armies of Good and Armies of Evil, and the Armies of Evil basically behave like actual armies - wrecking the landscape, pillaging and looting and generally doing the things that an army actually has to do if it's going to remain mobile behind enemy lines, while the Armies of Good mysteriously never need to.

I don't mind that the characters in Dollhouse are sympathetic. The problem is that they're *made* sympathetic by the simple expedient of glossing over what they actually do (even Topher is sanitized to an extent). Again I'd draw the comparison with the Sopranos. The characters are all sympathetic, and many of them possess admirable qualities, but the show never flinches from the fact that they are ultimately bad people. It never hesitates to show them brutalizing, torturing and exploiting people. By comparison, the Dollhouse staff are presented as no more morally dubious than the Scooby gang.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 20:00 on 2009-06-01
Okay, now that makes sense, and I don't really have anything to add to it.
Arthur B at 21:40 on 2009-06-01
We can argue whether a defensive military is necessary for a society (as a pacifist, I would argue that it isn't, but realize that I'm in the minority on this issue) but I think people who believe defensive violence is sometimes necessary, it's still bad.


Surely the fact that you're in the minority on this is the best argument against pacifism being a workable system? ;)

On the wider point, I don't really think it stands. Disagreements about the morality of American policy and culture aside (and your country, whilst being a hegemon and therefore acting accordingly, is still the most benign hegemon the world has ever seen), I don't think "participating in a society which uses your capital and labour to bad ends a long way down the chain" really entails the same sort of personal responsibility that being an active member of the Dollhouse staff. You're not waterboarding POWs or personally genociding anyone right now, after all. For the analogy to work, you'd basically have to say that not only are the people personally running the Dollhouse "bad people", but also the guy who delivers their mail is a "bad person", as responsible for the mindwiping as the people strapping down the Dolls and zapping them with the funny tech.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 00:02 on 2009-06-02
Surely the fact that you're in the minority on this is the best argument against pacifism being a workable system?
Maybe so, but it's still not an ironclad argument. It depends if you think people can actually learn better, which I obviously do.

(I'm prepared to accept that my government is the most benign hegemon the world has ever seen--or to put it another way, the least oppressive. However least reprehensible =/= morally good.)

Maybe not as responsible, but if the Dollhouse didn't get its mail delivered, or its windows cleaned, or its phones and power connected, or its zoning approved, it wouldn't be able to run. Therefore, the persons who provide these services are complicit (even if unknowingly) in the human trafficking involved. So again, strictly from the definition of "people who do things which are unambiguously evil" (aiding and abetting in human trafficking) they are "bad people."

There's also the argument from intentionality: The Dollhouse staff know what they're doing, while their service providers probably don't.

I agree that awareness is part of the story, but it's not sufficient. If it were, then we get questions of "what is awareness"? Sure, I slave owner who kills their slave knows what they are doing, but do they know that it's morally wrong? Well, some may, but all of them? (Plus, while it's conceivable not to know what the Dollhouse is up to, you'd have to be willfully ignorant not to know what kind of atrocities my government and the corporations are up to.)

But anyway, I think Dan has satisfied my objection, and that his point is entirely valid, so I don't know that there's any particular need to further the discussion. (Of course, if you feel differently, I'm willing to oblige.)
Arthur B at 00:35 on 2009-06-02
Maybe so, but it's still not an ironclad argument. It depends if you think people can actually learn better, which I obviously do.

Except that's still untenable; pacifism requires everyone to a) learn the arguments why pacifism is necessary and b) accept them. As soon as you get a situation where a) fails (a situation where not everyone has the case for pacifism put to them) or b) fails (a situation where some people outright reject pacifism) the entire system fails.

Re: the Dollhouse - I think intentionality and knowledge are key here. I don't think there's anything "unambiguously evil" about delivering mail to a house that happens to be a centre for human trafficking, unless you're prepared to accept a situation where Royal Mail interrogates you every morning to make sure you haven't been brainwashing Dolls in secret: not only is the mailman entirely ignorant of what goes on in the Dollhouse, he has no legitimate reason to intrude, unless he actually runs across a Doll running screaming from the Dollhouse whilst on his rounds. Not only is it really not his problem (that's the FBI agent's job), it would imply really disturbing things about him if he made it his problem - he'd be a creepy voyeur who spies on the people on his mail route for no good reason.

I don't think you can denounce the actions of people who are acting out of ignorance if they had no legitimate reason to try and gain further knowledge of the situation. It's all very well to say that people have a moral obligation to make sure they are not aiding and abetting coercive prostitution, but requiring public utilities to investigate us before they provide us with heat and light is probably going too far.
Shim at 06:24 on 2009-06-02

There's also the argument from intentionality: The Dollhouse staff know what they're doing, while their service providers probably don't.


This one is a bit more acceptable to me. Otherwise you seem to end up, not only with virtually everyone being bad (because some of their products and services eventually will be used by bad people) but also the Earth, the Sun and the laws of physics that let them exist.

Okay, enough from me, I try to steer clear of philosophy.
Rami at 09:36 on 2009-06-02
Okay, enough from me, I try to steer clear of philosophy.

No need to worry, so far it's been a pretty good rehashing of Moral Philosophy 101, just with fewer definitions.

raises the moral issues surrounding the arms trade and then doesn't address them

I think that's the real kicker here -- I have, since this article was posted, watched several more episodes of Dollhouse and it really does just throw issues up, zoom into them for about two minutes so you know that it's a Major Dilemma, and then ignore them completely in favor of Eliza Dushku / Tahmoh Penikett kicking ass.
Arthur B at 10:02 on 2009-06-02
I think that's the real kicker here -- I have, since this article was posted, watched several more episodes of Dollhouse and it really does just throw issues up, zoom into them for about two minutes so you know that it's a Major Dilemma, and then ignore them completely in favor of Eliza Dushku / Tahmoh Penikett kicking ass.

This sounds like yet another symptom of the show refusing to actually have an opinion (which seems to be a recurring theme in this discussion). You can't really explore an issue beyond saying "Wow, this is a problem isn't it?" without asserting some sort of conclusion, even if it's only on the level of choosing to accept or reject a particular perspective.

Tangent time: the Dollhouse has cells in every capital city and can program people with pretty much any behaviour you could care to mention. Why are they even for hire in the first place? Why don't they rule the world yet? When you have easy access to what's effectively highly skilled slave labour you don't need to worry about funding, you just send your sex kittens out to lure in a few billionaires and reprogram them to give you all the money you could possibly want.
Rami at 11:15 on 2009-06-02
choosing to accept or reject a particular perspective

You could argue that the show is raising awareness of these issues, and so the Minority Warrior is doing his job... but I think that by sidestepping any actual exploration the show could imply that they're not worth exploration, and that awareness is enough -- which it isn't. And that brings it back down to standard TV, really, where issues are worth little more than two minutes of the public's attention because they're just so darn complicated!
Arthur B at 11:22 on 2009-06-02
This is true, but there's a part of me that doesn't trust that sort of awareness-raising for the sake of it. I mean, if you care about a subject enough to encourage people to think about it, you must have some kind of opinion about it - nobody raises awareness about issues they're apathetic towards - but if you keep your own views to yourself then you end up inviting discussion whilst refusing to actually participate in the discussion. It's feigning a position of neutrality over an issue which you're actually not at all neutral towards, which strikes me as mildly deceitful.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 15:30 on 2009-06-02
You're assuming, Arthur, that the only way to deal with violence (the failure of a pacifist system) is by dealing violence in return. In fact it is possible to deal with people who reject pacifism in ways which are in line with pacifist ideology (i.e. nonviolent direct action).

Re: Dollhouse - now you're just arguing my earlier point (which Dan has since addressed to my satisfaction). Yes, you can't use the term bad person to refer just anybody whose actions lead to evil.

At the same time though, I'm not sure that someone who participates in evil unwittingly or against their will is entirely free of guilt. I, for instance, live on land that was stolen from the American Indians (killing millions of them in the process) and given to my ancestors. I live in houses which were built with machines that were probably built by other machines running on coal that was mined in the 1800s and early 1900s before safety regulations.

I was born with the blood of those American Indians and those miners and millions of others on my hands. Like the mail carrier and the power company for the Dollhouse there's no reasonable way I could have avoided it. I certainly didn't ask for it or want it - any more than the Native Americans asked to have genocide committed against them or the miners asked to be forced to work in extremely unsafe conditions for low wages and no real prospects for the future.

It's nothing you can take before a judge of course, nor should it be. I'm not saying the unwitting mail carrier should be punished for complicity in the Dollhouse's crimes. I'm just saying the complicity is still there, as is the blood on my hands, and a lack of evil intentionality (whatever that may be) doesn't wash the blood away.

Why are they even for hire in the first place? Why don't they rule the world yet?
Oh, that's easy. Because Joss Whedon needed the Dollhouse to have that much power but to behave in a certain way for the story had in mind to work out, and never mind if any organization would act that way in real life. (I'm not sure if an organization like the Dollhouse would necessarily want to displace the Illuminati, but I agree they probably wouldn't limit themselves to an exotic brothel with a side order of hostage negotiation, private security, private espionage, and all the rest.)

I mean, if you care about a subject enough to encourage people to think about it, you must have some kind of opinion about it - nobody raises awareness about issues they're apathetic towards - but if you keep your own views to yourself then you end up inviting discussion whilst refusing to actually participate in the discussion.
I'm not so sure about that, Arthur. I mean, yes, it's good to put your own views out there, but maybe it's also good to include other people's views. Make your own arguments, but also bring up the counterarguments. (I can't count the number of times I've read an argument against some political stance I hold and that 'Pfft, that's totally inapplicable, and here's why ...')

If you just include your own view, then you're spouting propaganda. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. If your intention is to make people question an issue (which it may not be), then I think you spoil the effect by imposing your own views upon it, instead of leaving the ultimate decision up to your audience.

(I maintain that Michael Crichton's State of Fear would've been much better if he'd kept the moral to "we don't know enough about the planet to tell whether climate change is a danger or isn't" instead of letting it degenerate to "no, there is absolutely no possibility whatsoever that climate change is a real threat.")
Arthur B at 16:42 on 2009-06-02
In fact it is possible to deal with people who reject pacifism in ways which are in line with pacifist ideology (i.e. nonviolent direct action).

This works only when the people threatening violence aren't actually psychotic enough to go all the way with it. Take Burma for an example: the military junta over there have nobody with the authority to call them off (and if there were a civilian government asking them to lay off would probably just shoot them), don't care who they have to shoot to keep control, and do not give a fuck what the rest of the world thinks. They are doing quite well for themselves.

Nonviolent protest works best against forces which respect the rule enough to listen to their civilian governments when asked to calm down, and when the forces/governments/people electing the government in question are either squeamish about using violence in the first place or are worried about public opinion. Mass pacifism might work well against the corrupt-but-rational, but it's absolutely hopeless against actual psychopaths.

A world of pacifists could be conquered by one sociopath with a gun, a box of ammo, and a willingness to keep shooting people until someone actually decides to break their pacifist stance and wrestle the gun out of the killer's hand.

As far as "complicity" goes, I really don't think it's the right word for a situation which you couldn't have avoided, can't change, and can't be held responsible for by anyone else. Complicity implies some sort of personal moral failing, some kind of responsibility; if there's no way you could have acted to avoid being associated with the wrong in question, I can't see how you'd be complicit.

I mean, yes, it's good to put your own views out there, but maybe it's also good to include other people's views. Make your own arguments, but also bring up the counterarguments.

Why?

I mean, this is obviously a valuable approach if it isn't actually something you feel strongly about, and you're genuinely able to see both sides of the argument. And I can see how, if you have strong feelings on an issue, it can be helpful to raise the points your opponents have made in the discussion and criticise them. But in my experience if an author actually genuinely feels strongly about a subject, it's a really bad idea to try and pitch the other side's arguments for them; because in in the author's heart of hearts they think their opponent's arguments are flawed, inaccurate, or just plain wrong, it's nigh-impossible to pitch said arguments convincingly. At worst, you end up throwing up strawmen, and will be rightly criticised for doing so; at best, you smother the argument you wanted to make in the first place.

What's more, if an author genuinely feels a particular way about a subject they are writing about, I would much rather they felt free to actually express their opinion and get on with it rather than diluting their passion by having to argue for the other side. I mean, by all means acknowledge that other opinions exist, but presumably if you don't share their position it must be because you disagree with that position - so tell us why rather than bringing them on for the sake of balance and then leaving it at that. (That is, if you must clutter stories with your thoughts about Issues in the first place; if you're just writing pulpy adventure fiction quit with the talking and get on with the fighting.)

Michael Crichton's State of Fear is a good point: he clearly did believe that climate change isn't a real threat at all, and clearly felt strongly enough about the subject to write a book about it, and if he'd pretended otherwise for the sake of being nice he would have swapped writing a crappy-but-spirited book based on a scientifically unsound opinion of his for writing an inclusive-but-soulless book that his heart wasn't actually in. I don't see that that's a positive step.

Give me spirit and passion over fairness through gritted teeth, at least when it comes to writing.
Jamie Johnston at 20:04 on 2009-06-02
On presenting both sides of the argument:

I think I largely agree with Arthur on this one, except that I'm not sure it's quite true that if one feels strongly about a question one necessarily has a strong view about what the right answer is. It seems to me that "ye gods this is a complex and urgent problem and it upsets the hell out of me but I simply can't see the solution" counts as a strong feeling. But I don't go so far as to say that it's a strong feeling capable of being expressed powerfully in a work of fiction because I can't at the moment think of an example.
Dan H at 22:24 on 2009-06-02
If you just include your own view, then you're spouting propaganda

It depends very much on the kind of questions you're addressing.

Even handedness is a luxury that comes with power. It's easy to present the other guy's viewpoint when you know that when push comes to shove, the other guy is never going to win.

When you're writing about the abuse of women, you need to be *crystal fucking clear* when things are not okay, particularly if you're going to keep patting yourself on the back and awarding yourself giant feminist cookies, because saying "aah, but *is* it rape" is just as bad as saying "it's not rape".

At the risk of invoking Godwin's law, it's like making a film about the Holocaust and then "exploring the idea" that it's just something the Jews made up after the fact.
Arthur B at 23:26 on 2009-06-02
I think I largely agree with Arthur on this one, except that I'm not sure it's quite true that if one feels strongly about a question one necessarily has a strong view about what the right answer is.

This is of course true; passionate and deeply-held uncertainty is of course an interesting take on things. (I think some of Milan Kundera's stuff might fall into this category.) I should have said "a strong attachment to a particular side of the argument" rather than just "strong feelings".
Andy G at 15:54 on 2009-06-03
I like how the front-page feed reads:

Arthur B says: I think I largely agree with Arthur on this one.
Jamie Johnston at 17:07 on 2009-06-03
Which is appropriate, since failure to agree with oneself is essentially what he's criticizing. :)
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 22:36 on 2009-06-03
Re: Nonviolence

You make some good points, Arthur, but you forget that a dictator is only as powerful as their followers make them. That military junta in Burma wouldn't be controlling anybody if a large number of soldiers weren't following their orders.

Now a dictator may be crazy, but the bulk of their followers are not. They follow the dictator because the dictator has some illusion of legitimacy, at least for them. There are very nonviolent methods of demonstrating to followers that the dictator's legitimacy is indeed false. It's hard, it's time-consuming, and it's costly, but then, so is violent resistance.

Once you've broken a dictator's power base, said dictator is reduced to your "one sociopath with a gun."

Here it really depends if you think some people are genuinely incapable of developing a moral compass. I don't believe it but I admit the possibility. If so (and if there isn't some other nonviolent method to resolve the situation that neither of us has thought of) then yes, some limited violence might indeed be necessary, but hardly anything on the order of a full-scale military. (Of course, in a world of pacifists, one wonders where said sociopath found said gun.)

As far as "complicity" goes, I really don't think it's the right word for a situation which you couldn't have avoided, can't change, and can't be held responsible for by anyone else.
I think "complicit" works just fine, but I'll agree to disagree.

It depends very much on the kind of questions you're addressing ... When you're writing about the abuse of women, you need to be *crystal fucking clear* when things are not okay
Okay, Dan, you're right, it very much depends on the issue. One some, like violence against women or domestic violence in general or the Holocaust being "fair" and "balanced" means giving equal voice to arguments which are rational, intelligent, well-thought-out, and have mountain ranges of evidence to back them up and arguments which are batshit stupidity.

I guess, though, that I'm trying to avoid the strawman effect (and there certainly was a lot of it in State of Fear).

Here's my reading on that book. It seems to me that Crichton wrote in an attempt to get those members of his audience who were convinced of the danger of climate change to question that belief and ideally to conclude that climate change is not a danger after all.

Now, I've always believed in the danger of climate change, but I also try to be open to other people's arguments.

I thought Crichton's initial argument that "We Don't Know Enough About Climatology to Tell One Way or Another" was a strong one. Personally, I don't even know how much climatology the climatologists know and how much they don't.

So I could go along with Crichton that far. But then he went into an extended filibuster that not only undermined his earlier point (apparently, we do know enough to say with assurity that climate change is not a danger), but also completely failed to be convincing--partially because of his over-reliance on straw men.

So if you accept my assessment of Crichton's motive for writing a novel about climate change, then it would have, I think, to be deemed a near-total failure. Maybe you're right, Arthur, that it was the only book Crichton could've written, but I don't know how much of a comfort that would be for him.

And for myself, if I were ever to write a book with, say, militarism as a major theme, I don't think I'd try to convince my readers that militarism is inherently evil and completely unnecessary. Because I don't think I could do it. But I might be able to get them to question with militarism is good or necessary, and then let them decide for themselves. It seems to me that would best be served by leaving the book's moral that "this is a question yet to be answered" or, at least, "this is my answer, but it's up to you to find yours."
Arthur B at 23:11 on 2009-06-03
You make some good points, Arthur, but you forget that a dictator is only as powerful as their followers make them. That military junta in Burma wouldn't be controlling anybody if a large number of soldiers weren't following their orders.

Now a dictator may be crazy, but the bulk of their followers are not. They follow the dictator because the dictator has some illusion of legitimacy, at least for them.

I think that a great number of soldiers in North Korea and Burma follow those nations' respective juntas for a very simple reason: it puts them on top of the heap, socially speaking, and they just plain like the power, prestige, money and sex they get as a result of their position. Look at North Korea's Military First policy, which basically says "the soldiers get first dibs on food, services, and everything; the civilians get the scraps", for example. And, of course, the totalitarian regime idolises the military, so everyone understands that the way to get ahead in life is to sign up and serve. There's always going be a certain proportion of people who say to themselves "Hmm, now do I make a principled stand and confront the illegitimacy of the regime I am presented with, or do I do what the man with the gun says and get a share of the loot?" And the tragedy is that they don't even need to be a majority; there just needs to be enough of them to get some good old-fashioned groupthink going. Very often in this sort of regime you find that the military/police end up operating much like some sort of organised crime outfit: if you want protection, you do what they say, you pay tribute when it's demanded, and you don't break ranks.

Actually, organised crime is a damn good example of the problem of pacifism: the Mafia and their ilk are basically organisations that use violence for no higher end than the enrichment of their members. You can cry that this enrichment is not a legitimate or proper path all you like, but that isn't going to stop them if their attitude is "fuck morality, I'm in it to make me and my mates rich".

So I could go along with Crichton that far. But then he went into an extended filibuster that not only undermined his earlier point (apparently, we do know enough to say with assurity that climate change is not a danger), but also completely failed to be convincing--partially because of his over-reliance on straw men.

Surely now you are making my point for me - Crichton attempted to present the other side's argument, but because he had absolutely no sympathy for it all he had was straw men.
Dan H at 12:54 on 2009-06-04
You make some good points, Arthur, but you forget that a dictator is only as powerful as their followers make them. That military junta in Burma wouldn't be controlling anybody if a large number of soldiers weren't following their orders


This is true, but only by a kind of circular logic. If they didn't have soldiers following their orders, they wouldn't be a military Junta in the first place. Having soldiers following their orders is kind of how military Juntas work.

Which comes back to Arthur's original point, which is that pacifism only works if everybody is a pacifist.

There are very nonviolent methods of demonstrating to followers that the dictator's legitimacy is indeed false


At the risk of sounding glib: name six.

At the risk of sounding even more glib, explain why none of those methods have yet been used, successfully, by the people of Burma.

Ultimately it's very easy to be a pacifist if you're living in a peaceful society protected by a large and powerful military. It's easy to promote nonviolent methods of solving problems when you have the *option* of resorting to violent methods.

Arguing that it is wrong for people to take up arms *specifically in order to defend themselves* is actually very hard to justify morally. It's effectively saying that *other people* have to die because *you* don't like the idea of them fighting.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 22:00 on 2009-06-04
Okay, let me lay it out for you this way: most people (more than 95%) have a functioning moral compass. It may not be exactly the same as yours or mine, but there are common threads that we can pretty much all agree on. (If they were exactly the same, morality would not be contentious, if there were no common threads, it would be a hopeless exercise.)

Oppressive systems like a junta or the mafia or patriarchy or racism for that matter are just sophisticated excuses for overriding those essential moral precepts. "Yes, of course, Though Shalt Not Kill, but under these particular circumstances ..."

Nonviolent action on a group level, as I see it, is such an overwhelming withdrawal of support from oppressive regimes that the die-hards of that regime do no have power to continue ruling because no one is listening to them. In order to turn people against the regime (its legitimacy in the eyes of its supporters must be undermined). I'm not going to name six specific strategies for doing this, Dan, but the basic principle is to expose the inherent contradictions between people's moral positions and their actions. Putting the lie to the "but under these particular circumstances" argument.

So the job is to call attention to these moral contradictions. At this point, I'm hampered by the fact that (as in all other struggles) tactics tend to be specialised, and I simply don't know enough about either Burma or the Mafia to suggest an effective tactic to use against them (nor am I a master strategist by any stretch). A general rule, though, is to push the regime farther than it's willing to go, however far that may be. This usually means calling a ton of repression and violence down on your head, but then, so does all struggle against oppression.

Tiananmen Square is an excellent example of such a tactic failing to work. Lots of repression (more than the protesters bargained for, I believe), but no crisis of legitimacy--or not enough of one, at least.

I never claimed, however, that nonviolent action is some sort of magic bullet. Like all other tactics of social struggle, sometimes a specific nonviolent strategy will work, sometimes it won't.

At the risk of sounding even more glib, explain why none of those methods have yet been used, successfully, by the people of Burma.

I could say "You might just as easily ask why no violent methods have yet been used, successfully, by the people of Burma." In fact, I kinda just did say that, but it's not my answer.

My answer is that I don't know. As I said, I haven't studied the Burmese case in any detail--but even if I had, I couldn't tell you.

I don't know why nonviolent tactics worked in Serbia but failed (so far) in China. Or why they took so much longer in Chile than in Argentina.

But then, from what I've learned of revolutions, nobody has really been able to explain satisfactorily why they do or do not take place in a given situation. People can point out factors that contributed to or helped prevent a revolution, but they can not say definitively "This is the reason."

Ultimately it's very easy to be a pacifist if you're living in a peaceful society protected by a large and powerful military. It's easy to promote nonviolent methods of solving problems when you have the *option* of resorting to violent methods.

Arguing that it is wrong for people to take up arms *specifically in order to defend themselves* is actually very hard to justify morally. It's effectively saying that *other people* have to die because *you* don't like the idea of them fighting.

Now who's propping up straw men? (And cliche straw men, at that.)

If you look at the comment which started this whole argument, you will find that I said "We can argue whether a defensive military is necessary for a society (as a pacifist, I would argue that it isn't)."

This is a simple statement of opinion. I believe that killing people to get them to stop killing you is a) evil in turn (though sometimes less evil) and b) not really necessary because I believe there are always better options available.

Arthur was the first one to bring up the junta in Burma, asking what my pacifist ideology dictated in the Burmese struggle for justice. Since he asked my opinion, I gave it.

Not once in this conversation have a presumed to dictate to people struggling for their livelihood and wellbeing what tactics they should and should not employ, nor would I do so. (This is, in fact, one of my criticisms of President Obama's policy towards the crisis in Israel and Palestine.) Yes, I hold beliefs about what other people should do to fight injustice (doesn't everyone?) but stating my opinion on the topic =/= attempting to dictate their behavior.

Surely now you are making my point for me - Crichton attempted to present the other side's argument, but because he had absolutely no sympathy for it all he had was straw men.
Maybe so. And I suppose if Crichton had set out to write a triumphalist story "nya, nya, I'm right, you're wrong" that would be well enough, although for my part, I cordially detest triumphalist fiction.

On the other hand, if we think Crichton was genuinely trying to write a convincing argument for questioning and even disbelieving in climate change, then it must be either because a) he was not sufficiently skilled as an author to portray the opposition at all accurately or b) that did possess such skills but couldn't be bothered to apply them.

I think our argument may come down to which interpretation we go by. If we accept proposition b, then one wonders if it was worth Crichton even trying to convince anyone and if he wouldn't've done better just to write a triumphalist novel.
Arthur B at 22:23 on 2009-06-04
Nonviolent action on a group level, as I see it, is such an overwhelming withdrawal of support from oppressive regimes that the die-hards of that regime do no have power to continue ruling because no one is listening to them.

This is a fine idea until people start getting shot. 95% of people might have an operative moral compass, but almost everyone has a survival instinct, and I would argue that for a sizeable proportion of people their survival instinct heavily outweighs their moral compass. It is easy to say "Yeah! We'll sit in the street and wave our signs and not go to work until the junta collapses!", but when the tear gas is flying and people to the left of you and the right of you are getting shot dead it's awfully hard to actually stick to that principle.

On the other hand, if we think Crichton was genuinely trying to write a convincing argument for questioning and even disbelieving in climate change, then it must be either because a) he was not sufficiently skilled as an author to portray the opposition at all accurately or b) that did possess such skills but couldn't be bothered to apply them.

Or c): Crichton was a crank whose conspiracy theory about climate change was just plain irrational, and therefore wouldn't make sense to any reader that was rational...
Dan H at 00:43 on 2009-06-05
Not once in this conversation have a presumed to dictate to people struggling for their livelihood and wellbeing what tactics they should and should not employ, nor would I do so


Perhaps I've misread you, then, because what you've said so far strongly implies (to me at least) that you believe that the use of violence should not ever be an option for anybody under any circumstances. You quite specifically said that nations should not have armies, even for the purpose of defending themselves.

That, to me, is a quite categorical statement about what tactics people struggling for their wellbeing should and should not employ. Indeed, you outline quite clearly what tactics you think people should employ: "push the regime farther than it's willing to go, however far that may be".

If you don't want to dictate what tactics people can use to fight for what they believe in, you have to accept that violent tactics are as legitimate as nonviolent ones. Otherwise, well, you're dictating.

Either people have the right to kill in self defence, or they don't. If they do, then you accept that killing is sometimes justified. If they do not, then you have just dictated to other people what tactics they should employ to protect themselves.
Dafydd at 02:32 on 2009-06-05
I could say "You might just as easily ask why no violent methods have yet been used, successfully, by the people of Burma." In fact, I kinda just did say that, but it's not my answer.

Because the Burmese government has more rifles than the Burmes Peasants. The whole point of tyranny is that the government has better weapons than the Peasants.

Likewise, when the government preaches the Ideology that it is immoral for Peasants to bear arms, they win without a shot being fired. that's logical, Captain. They would say that wouldn't they?
Dan H at 13:15 on 2009-06-05
Because the Burmese government has more rifles than the Burmes Peasants. The whole point of tyranny is that the government has better weapons than the Peasants.

Daffyd has the right of it here.

Non-violent resistance is a great way of dealing with dictatorships if you have absolutely no other options, but it frequently simply fails to work, and when it does work it's frequently because of a variety of complex reasons (some of which, frequently, involve the threat of military action).

The British got out of India because we were overextended after the war. Milosevic was overthrown in Serbia partly because of non-violent protests, but partly because NATO had already shown that they were willing to take military action against him. Put simply, dictatorships do not fall for moral reasons, they fall for pragmatic reasons.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 18:00 on 2009-06-05
Two things, Arthur: First, that withdrawal of support from the regime would include military support. You can't oppress the people if nobody is willing to operate guns and tanks on your behalf.

Militaries (even those controlled by juntas) are still composed of human beings: human beings who can be persuaded not to attack fellow human beings. (It helps when the fellow human beings are specifically not attacking them or anyone else.) There are times in history when the military itself has rebelled (as in the Philippines) which shows that it can be done. It's not easy, I'll grant you, but it can happen.

Second: It is easy to say "Yeah! We'll sit in the street and wave our signs and not go to work until the junta collapses!", but when the tear gas is flying and people to the left of you and the right of you are getting shot dead it's awfully hard to actually stick to that principle.
Yeah, that's what I thought for the longest time, too, until I started studying accounts of actual resistance. Sometimes the military backs down before it comes to that (see above), but often the police or military do attack, with tear gas and sometimes even with live ammunition. And sometimes, people break. But just as often, they don't. People are brutally attacked, and sometimes they knuckle under--and just as often, they don't.

For some reason in that moment of terror--and for significantly more than 5% of people--their resolve is greater than their urge to survive. (Partially, I think it's due to the fact that a lot of the people who go so far as to defy the ruling authority know and accept what the consequences may well be.)

Perhaps I've misread you, then
Partially. My belief is a) that violence is never a moral option and b) that violence is never a necessary option, i.e. I believe there are always other tools available to people. And I have tried to list some of the reasons (though I'm by no means an expert in this field, yet) why I believe proposition "b" is valid, some of the alternatives methods people have for resisting violence.

If you don't want to dictate what tactics people can use to fight for what they believe in, you have to accept that violent tactics are as legitimate as nonviolent ones. Otherwise, well, you're dictating.
I disagree. As I've pointed out, all this is my opinion, which people are free to accept or disregard as they choose. I accept that (for the moment, at least) some people are going to utilize violent methods in their their struggles against injustice. If I believe their cause is just, I will not denounce or attempt to hamper them unless they do something truly unconscionable. Which does not in any way preclude me from believing--and in some cases, opining--that they had better, more moral options available to them.

I could say "You might just as easily ask why no violent methods have yet been used, successfully, by the people of Burma."
This, of course, tying back to my point that nonviolence is not a magic bullet (and I just now realized the irony of that analogy) any more than violence is.

Likewise, when the government preaches the Ideology that it is immoral for Peasants to bear arms, they win without a shot being fired.
Only if you accept the assumption that the only way for the peasants to resist the government's oppression is through force of arms ... which is the very proposition I am currently attacking.

I'll grant you India, Dan. (At least, I'll grant that the war certainly helped the Indian cause. Whether they could've won nonviolently even without the war--well, we'll never know.)

As for Serbia ... that's certainly one interpretation. There's another which states that the NATO bombings actually helped Milosevic's cause, because NATO and the U.S. then became a scapegoat for Milosevic to blame everybody's problems on. Milosevic knew the bombings weren't going to hurt him, and what did he care how many other people died in the bombings? They didn't do him any harm.

Put simply, dictatorships do not fall for moral reasons, they fall for pragmatic reasons.
Precisely my point. Specifically, they fail because they are forced into failure. The primary force that topples can be external or internal.

I grant that sometimes, regimes topple because of violence or threat of violence from the outside. But in other cases, the regime topples because nonviolent action (which goes beyond protests) from the inside makes the country literally impossible to govern. Whatever the dictator does, no one else (including the military and police, by the end) is going to do what they want. It doesn't get much more pragmatic than that.
Arthur B at 18:30 on 2009-06-05
OK, this conversation's probably derailed Dan's article's comments for long enough, so it's time to sum up.

In my view, successful non-violent revolutions - when they are in fact popular revolutions against an undemocratic regime, rather than one set of rulers ousting a different set of rulers - are very much a modern phenomenon. One could argue, in fact, that they only became possible once you had enough powerful democratic/liberal societies in the world to strongly disapprove of other nations purging their people, and responding with sanctions or the threat of military force.

In my country I am pretty sure we would never have had many of the freedoms we enjoy today without a certain amount of violence (for example, had the Civil War gone the other way the pendulum would have swung towards absolute monarchy as opposed to parliamentary rule), and I suspect the same is true in a lot of other modern liberal democracies. These days, of course, we absolutely shouldn't resort to violence to get our way - but that's because we have alternate means of winning the day, and the only reason those means are open to us is because people killed and were killed in the past.

I think rejecting violence is admirable as an ideal, but like all ideals can only work so far; violence should never be the first recourse, but if it's a choice between fighting for survival and dying in the dirt, I'd never condemn anyone for choosing the former.
Dan H at 19:02 on 2009-06-05
My belief is a) that violence is never a moral option and b) that violence is never a necessary option, i.e. I believe there are always other tools available to people


I think the problem here is the term "necessary". You're right that there are always alternatives to violence, but sometimes those alternatives involve allowing other people to kill you.

Again, I know it's a cliche, but I think it's very easy to say "there are always alternatives to violence" when you live in the world's only remaining superpower. When the alternative to violence is "have your country invaded and your family killed" I don't think choosing violence is particularly immoral.

If I believe their cause is just, I will not denounce or attempt to hamper them unless they do something truly unconscionable


Thing is, you can't say "it's immoral, but it's okay". You can't say "I won't denounce them" because you just have. By saying that violence is always immoral, and there are always better ways to do things, you are denouncing and dismissing the decisions of everybody who has ever decided to take up arms for any reason.

It's the equivalent of saying that you think being gay is unnatural, then insisting that this doesn't make you homophobic, because you haven't said you think it's wrong.

Milosevic knew the bombings weren't going to hurt him, and what did he care how many other people died in the bombings? They didn't do him any harm


Not personally, but they damaged the infrastructure of the country, and they did kill a reasonably large number of soldiers, which isn't something the military usually looks kindly on.

Ultimately Milosevic went down because the police and the military stopped supporting him. Since the police and military had proven themselves quite willing to kill civilians, it seems extremely likely to me that they were more worried about the risk of international reprisals (soldiers being the group of people who have the most to lose in the event of war).

Whatever the dictator does, no one else (including the military and police, by the end) is going to do what they want. It doesn't get much more pragmatic than that.


I still can't quite get my head around your argument here.

You seem to be arguing that an organized military is not necessary in order to maintain control of a stable society, and you cite as evidence for this the fact that some dictators have been removed from power by non-violent action once the army has turned against them.

This, in fact, is why non-violent action hasn't worked in China and Burma. You can only overthrow a despotic regime by getting the army on your side. When the army *is* the regime, you don't have that option, and no amount of martyring yourself will change that.
Rami at 21:46 on 2009-06-05
OK. For the sake of not carrying this on beyond the ability of the database to support, let's agree to disagree on the non-violence issue. I think we've hit a significant philosophical dissonance which is going to prevent your point of view coming across to those of us who are a bit too cynical for our own good.

You know what I'd like to think is possible? I'd like to think it's possible to create a good TV show, that does actually address an issue or two, without getting sententious or dramatically offensive or Just Plain Wrong. Anyone with me here?
Arthur B at 22:51 on 2009-06-05
You know what I'd like to think is possible? I'd like to think it's possible to create a good TV show, that does actually address an issue or two, without getting sententious or dramatically offensive or Just Plain Wrong. Anyone with me here?

I think it's possible, but it hinges on having the right sort of format for the show. Edge of Darkness is brilliant, and does precisely what you ask for with the issues it addresses, but it's a 6-part series which was expressly designed to end where it ended. The Wire, by all accounts, seems to have managed it for 5 full length-seasons, which is quite a feat.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:45 on 2009-06-06
Anyone with me here?

Me!
(As long as we can keep the odd bit of trashy TV too.)
Viorica at 02:10 on 2009-06-06
Anyone with me here?

Me! I used to think Joss could do that, but . . . apparently not.
Dafydd at 03:12 on 2009-06-06
You seem to be arguing that an organized military is not necessary in order to maintain control of a stable society, and you cite as evidence for this the fact that some dictators have been removed from power by non-violent action once the army has turned against them.


That is the doctrine of Macchiavelli's "Arte of War". A professional Army is a danger to any Reublic because Armies need War, that is what they are there for. That's what it says on the Can.

Macchiavelli's solution was conscripting a patriotic Peasant militia = people who want to finish the War quickly and go home. Peasant Militia are not as efficient soldiers as full-time Professionals; but sheer weight on numbers would give Militia the edge, in any state that does not forbid Peasants to bear arms.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 20:00 on 2009-06-06
You're right that there are always alternatives to violence, but sometimes those alternatives involve allowing other people to kill you.
I suppose this is what I deserve for being such a nitpicker over details myself. Yes, obviously I meant "alternative forms of resistance to oppression" and not just lying down and taking it. You've all made it quite clear that you don't believe there are viable nonviolent means of resisting oppression in all circumstances, but give me the credit of acknowledging I wouldn't be so uptight and stuffy about pacifism if I didn't believe there were.

You can't say "I won't denounce them" because you just have.
I believe that all violence is morally wrong and avoidable. I believe it, but I can't know for sure. And I know that while I believe there's always a nonviolent option of fighting for justice, for the moment at least, and for a variety of complicated reasons, many people the world over are not going to take that option.

In other words, they're not going to live up to what I consider the human ideal. So what? People fail to live up to ideals all the time, and I don't fault them for it. Heaven knows I do it myself often enough. I would have to be a really uptight, hard-nosed, overly-demanding jerk to expect everybody to take the best possible option (especially since I don't know for sure that it's possible, I just believe it) every single time, and denounce them every single time they fail to take it.

The above two points concern my personal moral integrity, and I feel bound to address them. Out of respect for Rami and Arthur's wishes (I may not agree with you Arthur, but the way you put that was very conciliatory, and I appreciate it) I will address any of the other counterarguments raised. Nor will I attempt to defend myself on this issue any further in this forum.

Since it's rather arrogant of someone to attempt both to end a line of conversation and try to have the last word, I invite Dan and anyone else who disagrees to have one more go at my integrity if they feel so inclined. I will not argue further.

(Why yes, I can be incredibly pretentious at times.)

I'd like to think it's possible to create a good TV show, that does actually address an issue or two, without getting sententious or dramatically offensive or Just Plain Wrong. Anyone with me here?
Possible, yes, but fiendishly difficult. A mini-series might have a chance at it, but it seems to me that it would be practically impossible for a long-running tv show not to make one of those mistakes somewhere along the line.

(I've never seen The Wire, Arthur. Is it really that good?)
Arthur B at 20:41 on 2009-06-06
(I've never seen The Wire, Arthur. Is it really that good?)

I've only seen the first season so far, but everyone who's watched the rest assures me it maintains its standards throughout.

As far as the season I've seen goes, it's one of the few shows I've seen lately where the hype has been genuinely justified. You know how sometimes there's TV shows or films or books where everyone will say you need to watch and then you watch them and you can't understand what the fuss is about? The Wire is the reverse: it's the one that everyone recommends, and then you watch it, and then you get pissed off that people didn't recommend it to you even more than they already did. It's that good.
Jamie Johnston at 11:22 on 2009-06-07
As to violence &c.:

You've all made it quite clear...


I haven't been participating in this bit of the discussion, and don't propose to, simply because my views on the point aren't sufficiently considered or coherent; but in view of the above I feel I should just say that I incline to Arkan's view (at least on rightness if not on effectiveness).

As to The Wire: very very what Arthur said.
Andy G at 19:41 on 2009-06-07
I never miss the chance for a bit of Wire evangelising - it really is very good, and crucially it's also something addictively watchable rather than just being something you want to have watched, to paraphrase Mark Twain.
Dan H at 09:04 on 2009-06-08
would have to be a really uptight, hard-nosed, overly-demanding jerk to expect everybody to take the best possible option ... every single time, and denounce them every single time they fail to take it


Okay, in that case I think this is basically an argument about semantics. You seem to be using language like "morally wrong" and "unambiguously evil" where I'd use "undesirable".

My chief objection to your argument was that if you describe a course of action as morally wrong, then I understand you to be declaring yourself to be morally superior to the people who take it, but that doesn't seem to be the way you're using the term so ... fair enough I guess.
http://arkan2.livejournal.com/ at 10:02 on 2009-06-08
Sorry to generalize, Jamie, I guess by "all" I meant "everyone else who's contributed to this part of the discussion."

Well with that many recommendations, I suppose I shall have to check it out ...
Jamie Johnston at 22:55 on 2009-06-11
No need to apologize, Arkan - I wasn't complaining! I just didn't want you to have the impression that you'd been speaking to a unanimously unpersuadable audience.
Bookwyrm at 01:54 on 2013-02-03
I've got a question, why would Dollhouse use their amazing mindwiping technology for mundane purposes like creating personal bodyguards? I mean bodyguards, prostitutes, and hostage negotiators are not that uncommon. And the Dollhouse is probably really expensive. Why would people go to the Dollhouse when there are cheaper, less shady places to find those people?
Dan H at 10:43 on 2013-02-03
I know! It just makes no sense whatsoever.

I *think* there's a notion that the Dolls can be programmed to be *superhumanly* good at whatever they do - the hostage negotiator is this composite super-negotiator, for example. But that doesn't really come across in the actual show, so you just wind up with this absurd situation where people spend a shit-ton of money in order to have somebody custom designed to do a job that somebody else could have done just as well for a fraction of the cost.

If I was in the mood to be very, very generous to Joss Whedon I might suggest that this is part of the point, or part of the cruel irony or something. Perhaps going to the Dollhouse is mostly a status symbol, the point isn't that the Dolls do their jobs better but that for the hyper-rich the ultimate luxury is custom-built humans.

The problem is that most of the time the Dolls *aren't* being hired by the decadent super-rich as an idle curiosity, they're being hired to do actual jobs by people who think those jobs are crucially important.
http://jmkmagnum.blogspot.com/ at 16:46 on 2013-02-03
There's a notion I've seen cropping up that a fancier way of doing something, or a more technologically involved way of doing something, is NECESSARILY better. Like, it requires much more advanced technology and effort to create an Active, so clearly people would try to use it over just finding a hostage negotiator. It's extremely technology-intensive to replace our hair with photosynthesizing material, so even though its use doesn't seem to actually solve any problems for anyone it becomes universal. Over on another forum, I've seen people unable to let go of the idea that wizards in fantasy settings wouldn't disrupt all economic activity forever, despite the fact that the actual ratios of time and materials to output are nothing by modern standards and often not hugely impressive by what we think of as roughly cod-medieval standards. The magical way is just intrinsically better, even if it doesn't really seem to perform that much better.

I think there's this general notion that all sufficiently difficult technological improvements will become massively widespread and disruptive.
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