All right, I admit I picked this episode of Black Mirror because I wanted to know how the film will portray the public’s reaction to live, unsimulated bestiality by the prime minister. And although this is a pretty lame reason, I wasn’t disappointed. But I’m not here to talk about how Charlie Brooker succeeded in making drama out of such an insane theme become so real and entertaining. Rather, I’m going to tie this TV episode with one of the most fundamental philosophical questions of all time: Are we free?
National Anthem commends itself to this never-ending topic because of its focus on, well, choices duh, as compared with the other episodes in the series which deal mostly with augmented reality. It also uses dialogue to tell how the actors think, showing the impacts of their choices.
This film provides a context for my stance that people are free, although how I arrived at that conclusion is more a product of deep thought. I will take various characters from the film to prove my point. Let’s take the protagonist and the crisis in this film — the prime minister confronted with a hostage situation and the hostage-taker’s demands. Before leaping to the logical conclusion that there are two choices — concede or not — let us first consider who lays the decisions on the table? Where did the concede-or-not options come from? Brilliant! Absolutely correct! It is us, our brains who tell us that among the INFINITE options: 1) ignoring the kidnapper 2) saying yes to the kidnapper 3) spreading the news on social media that the video is a hoax 4) saying no while conducting search-and-rescue 5) holding nationwide beauty pageants to search for an interim princess 6) abolish the royalty… 2 & 4 are the most viable.
Who judges the viability of the options, then? Presto, it is us, our brains who tell us that the best way of saving the princess alive are the two mentioned above. By what standard do we judge our options? What makes saving the princess the standard? After all, a leftist or a communist might be delighted at this opportunity to choose 6). Merriam-Webster defines “viable” as “capable of working, functioning, or developing adequately…having a reasonable chance of succeeding.” Therefore, we define viability in the same way we define adequacy and success. This is where the problem comes in. Our freedom in terms of our ability to act, is restricted by how we are shaped to define success and adequacy. The prime minister chooses 2 & 4 while the anarchist says 1 & 6, because the one’s upbringing teaches him to respect law and order while the other’s is the opposite. Is it their fault; can they choose what upbringing they receive?
Or so says those against the existence of freewill. Thinking deeper, however, I realise that there is one point this argument misses. Humans have the capacity to control themselves, not just in terms of discipline and behaviour, but also in terms of attitudes and beliefs. How it’s done varies depending on culture, such as praying, fasting, &c. However, the point is people can want to change, and succeed. The chainsmoker who resolves to ditch the addiction is an example. His standard of adequacy used to rest on nicotine. He now wants to change it to a happy healthy lifestyle. That he received help from an organisation doesn’t matter, as long as he himself chooses to make that change. The other side can say that this is not a valid example since he is making a change for the better, which is only logical and therefore proves nothing. Uh-uh. A smoker to give up his way of life and a source of pleasure? Does this not prove freewill, in that the prime minister in the film could also in the same way rest his standard of success in preserving his physical and marital dignity? Even if he was brought up to live for position and positive rankings, he has the power to say no to them in this scenario. Every choice, even if lower than one’s main standard of success, still has a positive side.
The other side of the seesaw might say that although one has the power to change one’s own standards or position, what actually inspires him to make that change is still out of his hands, taking freewill out of the equation. For example, if the prime minister didn’t have such a persuasive Home Secretary, he wouldn’t have chosen the pig intercourse. To this, the answer is the person still has the power to say no to that inspiration, no matter how profound it may be. Even St. Paul himself says that “I am not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” The chainsmoker from above can still reject the graphic pictures on the cigarette pack, or he can choose to be influenced by them into ditching his addiction. Likewise, people all over the world have the power to reject their past, their upbringing, and ultimately their own core beliefs. In fact, isn’t this what inspirational movies are all about? Unless you’re a Calvinist, lol. But God is out of the bounds of this discussion, where only the human psyche is being deliberated.
It should be noted that one’s freedom is directly related with the amount of self-control (which gives him power) or the degree of self-awareness (which lets him see that he has power) he has. A baby, having doubtful self-awareness, is not expected to be able to consider denying the milk offered to it when it is hungry, even though it can. On the other hand, the suicidal person who says there’s no choice left has his self-awareness smothered by emotions, so he cannot see that 1) running away, 2) hiding, 3) movie marathon 4) waiting for it to blow over are safer choices which actually help in times of darkest distress. The student, however, who says that getting a grade below 95 is not an option, is actually affirming otherwise. So is the spoilt brat who begins every sentence with “I don’t want…”
One parting shot from the other side might be that self-control and self-awareness are products of upbringing, culture, religion, circumstance, &c. which effectively attributes everything produced by these qualities to chance. The reply to that is that these are products of exercise, and even in the purest, strictest, most orthodox community, the sluggard who refuses to accept what’s around him will not develop these characteristics. What if he was forced? Again, you can’t force a person to do what he doesn’t like. If under threat of pain, he will outwardly abide but won’t internalise it. What if he encountered something by chance which aroused a desire to learn? Again, he has the power to reject it, like St. Paul. What if he grew up in a dystopian world where self-control is non-existent and self-awareness is drowned in self-gratification? No matter what world it is, he will learn that every cause has an effect. This will lead him to the minimum amount of self-control conducive to survival, and awaken his self-awareness so he can know when he’ll do something fatal and be able to stop it.
What are your thoughts, guys? Post your questions/reactions in the comments section below!