Reverting to our Barbarian Roots: the true perils of Game of Thrones

Throughout history, there has never been a social group without collective hatred for another social group, with the result of persecution, abuse, and slaughter. No society escapes it, from Ancient Civilizations to modern ones, and each society divides into an “us vs. them” mentality in a new way. Hatred is intrinsic in our humanness, but it is also the very worst human nature has to display.

Widespread hatred has always troubled my soul, because hatred is one step away from depersonalization, which is an easy hop to genocide. If hatred is all we see, the object of our hatred no longer has conscious awareness; their suffering does not touch us, and we feel nothing but gratification in their death. This is the mindset that led to the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Romans eradicating Jerusalem, to slave ownership, to unfair treatment and murder of the Native American tribes, and is what we face with radical Islam. It is the mindset of people in ancient civilizations watching humans ravaged by lions in the arena or dismembered by gladiators; the attitude of people through the Victorian era who attended public executions; and the attitude of modern people watching shaky cams of Saddam Hussein led to his execution.

When that happened, I watched the video because I wanted to know, to get a sense, of the awfulness of seeing someone going to his death. I never forgot it. It hit me on a visceral level, even though I did not see him hang; the awareness of a human being going to his death was awful. Worse, I saw people all over the world, Christians included, celebrate this man’s death. I expected hatred from the masses, but not fellow believers, to whom Jesus urges “love your enemies… pray for those who persecute you…” and gives us a limitless bar to set in terms of “how many times must I forgive?” (Jesus’ response was not to set a number, but to hint that you are asking me the wrong question; the question you should ask is, how can I develop the desire to have a spirit of forgiveness?)

I wondered how this reaction could come from many in “the Church.” Had it failed them? Or had culture and their own natural instincts influenced them?

Last weekend, I saw a similar event unfold that horrified me, in a celebration over the death of a fictional character on a popular HBO series. Now, you might wonder why I manifest concern over a public reaction to a fictional death, but fiction is never just fiction. People argue because it’s pretend, it doesn’t matter. If it isn’t real to us, do we put so much energy, passion, and emotion into it? Why do we argue at the water cooler over Kylo Ren’s redemptive arc? Why do we cry when Han Solo dies, and Leia feels his death through the Force? Because it’s real. To our minds, to our hearts, it’s real. These characters are real people to us.

Why was there such a backlash recently on The Walking Dead, where the graphic dismemberment of a character on-screen aroused visceral disgust in the viewers? It was not purely a reaction to the gore, but because that character felt like a real person… and the audience had a front row seat to his gruesome demise. Fiction is never just fiction, it teaches us, it trains us to think in certain ways, and it biases our opinions through what it chooses to show us, and whose perspective narrates the story. Imagine our opinion of Harry Potter if Snape had narrated the books! That damn, troublemaking, rule-breaking little brat is just like his father.

Which brings me back to hatred and Game of Thrones. A friend asked me how, after I expressed similar dismay over the Stannis Baratheon arc, I could still watch it, and I replied, “Because I want to know where it goes.” Moreover, as the most popular series in the world, I’m curious about the messages it teaches the audience. It has never been mindless absorption for me; I’m aware of the journey it takes its characters on, and it’s not good. Arya Stark has become a murderess. She went from a pampered child to a ruthless murderer without a shred of remorse. In last week’s season finale, she slit a man’s throat as he begged for mercy and watched him bleed out on the floor… and apart from me (and a handful of his “fans”), the entire world cheered. They cheered because they hated him, they “wanted to see him die” (in the most awful way possible), and they praised his execution by the Stark children as “family loyalty.” I saw tweets like, “Watching him choke on his own blood is my life,” “I have waited six seasons for this bastard to die, and it was glorious,” and “I am so proud of Sansa right now for killing that f—!!”

This character is certainly not a noble, moral soul, but in the hours before the episode aired, I felt the same sense of deep spiritual sorrow I did waiting for Saddam Hussein’s execution; and as I watched him grovel and beg for his life with tears in his eyes, all I saw was a human being, with fears, feelings, unrequited love, and a desperate need for acceptance – in short, someone exactly like me, with a heart, a mind, a body, and a soul. And the Starks took it from him, became no better than anyone else in the “game,” and the world cheered… as if his death was a victory, not a horrific event, both for his sake and because of what it makes the Stark children: murderers.

I understand hatred; I felt a blind-rage toward the Starks’ lack of compassion, an immediate reaction of “I hope you all die,” an instinctive response that was… not like tender-hearted me, it came from something that is not me, but is so woven into my human nature it shook me to the core. I have read theories of group “evil” that activates when people focus negative energy in the same direction; and I wonder, even though my rage was separate from the world’s collective gratification at a man’s suffering and death, if I got caught up in it, the same as everyone else—but the same hatred they focused toward him, I focused toward his merciless executioners.

When Jesus asked us to love unconditionally, it was the most difficult thing He could have asked us, because deep in our souls, we want the people we hate, who wrong us and those we love, to suffer, to pay for their crimes; deep down, we don’t want Hitler in heaven with us. We take secret comfort there is a hell… but Jesus understood what we do not, that our enemies are humans just like us. Could you forgive your murderers as you hung on the cross? I couldn’t, but Jesus did. What this tells me is, God forgives. Everyone. And asks the impossible: for us to want to do the same.

Sometimes, I think we focus too much on superficiality, and not enough on the true danger. I have read countless reviews cautioning people to avoid this show due to its graphic content; I argue that Game of Thrones is insidious not because of the violence, sexual content, nudity, or profanity (although those things matter) but because it conditions the audience to actively root for revenge without mercy, fosters intense hatred toward certain individuals and “rewards” us with graphic, de-humanizing deaths where we “cheer on” those responsible, as if the other characters becoming hardened murderers is good, rather than horrible. And it works.

Stories have power, and when you choose to watch them, it’s important to understand what they are doing to you.

10 Replies to “Reverting to our Barbarian Roots: the true perils of Game of Thrones”

  1. Dare I say that a part of me felt sorry for Littlefinger. I don’t know why. He made the Stark children suffer so much. Yet a part of me feels sorry for the villains.

    Kinda like I feel sorry for Cersei from time to time (I feel she got to be so evil due to Robert beating on her, wishing she were the girl he truly loved). I had to quit watching GOT, it just got to be too much on me on all levels.

    You’re right though the reason why we watch is the reason why humans in Roman times watched Gladiator shows. Our own human nature is just cruel at times. It makes me sad.

    I still can’t believe Jesus died for us. We can be so horrible. I don’t get why God didn’t wash his whole hands of humanity.

    1. I think it’s justifiable to feel sorry for Littlefinger. Yes, the Stark children suffered because of him and no, we should not excuse his bad behavior due to his own abuse — but book Littlefinger was beaten up / mistreated as a child, he clearly felt inferior and had to ‘claw his way up’ (he even had to create his own Sigil, and people constantly looked down on him for this, especially in the first season where they sneer at it and remind him ‘of his place’); he was essentially, in the books, raped by Catlyn’s sister — and then covered it up with arrogant boasts. Littlefinger, much like most of the other characters, is just severely damaged — but also human.

      So, it’s good to feel compassion for him. Just maybe not good to TRUST him. 😉

      I have felt similarly to you, at times — reading things in history, or seeing how humans behave, I sometimes wonder why God hasn’t wiped us off the face of the planet yet. Humans can be such nasty little things.

      And yet, humans can be wonderful too.

      So, do we throw the good out with the bad? Or do we accept that in a bushel of shiny red apples, there may be a couple of rotten ones?

  2. This was an awesome post. I’ve had similar thoughts recently, because I just watched Jessica Jones for the first time. I was talking about it with my dad, and he reminded me of the (Lewis? Tolkien?) quote that all good stories point back to Christ. So he asked me if Jessica Jones did, and how. Through that conversation, I realized the biggest thing that show emphasized was personal responsibility. No matter what your circumstances, you still can’t blame anyone else if you hurt people. People live messed up lives, but they don’t have an excuse to mess up other lives. So in that way, it’s the opposite message of Game of Thrones.

    I completely agree with your point about worrying about relatively superficial things on a show. Individual scenes are one thing, but I’m also concerned about the overall message. That’s why I’m comfortable watching, say, Jessica Jones, but not ‘cleaner’ shows with more twisted messages.

    Again, I loved this post. Great job!

    1. I believe it was Lewis, yes. He was going off the truth that all truths come from God; that all positive inspirations come from God; that “everything is spiritual,” as Rob Bell would put it.

      I think you can tell an immense amount about a person’s collective worldview, moral beliefs, and what they value through their writing’s overall message. As you point out, “Jessica Jones” may have problematic scenes, but its bottom line is a positive one; it tells you something about the writer.

      It grieves me that often for the best messages, or the hardest questions, I must sometimes watch entertainment that I cannot agree with on a moral level — but it also gives me relief to know that even adult programming such as Jessica Jones is still sending a positive message to an audience who might never hear truth anywhere except in their viewing choices. People are not all the same; many do not read scripture, or listen to sermons, or go to Church… the only ‘sermons’ they hear are through their entertainment. And God does work through entertainment. His truth does appear in secular entertainment. It doesn’t mean you should walk through the pig pen in search of a rose, but it’s there if people want it.

      The true evils in entertainment are the stories which teach bad things, without remorse, and encourage the worst in human nature.

  3. Okay so I’m supposed to be reading about the history of populism, but I have to stop and ask real quick:

    Thoughts on the death penalty? As a general, overarching concept, I mean?

    (In other words, are we ever justified in taking the life of another human, even if he/she guilty of grave crimes? Or should we stop at life imprisonment for our ultimate legal punishment?)

    1. You ask too easy of questions, all with super simple answers, you know that? 😉

      I think the death penalty is much too complex an issue, with too many moving parts, to assess with a simple answer, but since you commented on a post that talks about the moral wrong of revenge, I’ll answer from a Christian-based perspective.

      Scripture shows a progression of thought between peoples; in a sense, it is God giving the Israelites small, advancing steps — what they can “handle” at their point in time. In the 10 Commandments, he gives the ancient civilization a list of simple rules to abide by, which encompasses His desires for them as individuals and as a civilization — one of them is “do not kill.” (Some people, often those who support the death penalty, say the translation is “do not murder,” which indicates premeditated actions or a crime of passion; others argue that it really is just “do not KILL.”) So, he starts them off with that — and thousands of years later, Jesus comes on the scene and takes it ten steps further, into “forgiveness for your enemies,” even those who persecute and abuse you.

      This is significant, because Jesus lived during the Roman occupation. On a daily basis, he would have seen rebellions and dissent, which the Romans would have punished with violence — arrests, beatings, crucifixions. Pilate ruled Judea with an iron fist, determined to stamp out insurrection. So Jesus is literally standing in a war zone, telling the persecuted, abused Jews to stand down… to pray for the Romans who beat, arrest, and kill them. Actions that by our standards deserve punishment and retaliation; actions that demand, in our desire for ‘fairness,’ JUSTICE. Actions that… deserve death.

      Jesus literally was sentenced to death; he died by state-sanctioned murder, the same death penalty our nation wants to impose on others we believe deserve death. How in good conscience can we use an ancient practice, the same one who condemned the person we call our ‘savior,’ and justify it?

      Further, I’ll include a quote from Game of Thrones: “He who pronounces the sentence should swing the sword.” Ned Stark taught that to Jon Snow, and to his children. His meaning is that death should never be taken lightly; that no one should order it who does not understand the cost, who is unwilling to live with themselves, knowing they have ended someone’s life.

      Most people, when confronted with the chance to murder someone, even sanctioned by the state, would hesitate… because life is precious. Anything can steal it from you in an instant. To take someone’s life, to know you are responsible, is a serious thing. It does things to your soul. It torments you, if you are not calloused to it. If you doubt this, find a war veteran and ask him. I doubt most moral people, if you asked them to perform the execution along with pronouncing the sentence, would choose the death penalty — because it means directly being responsible for their death.

      So, we ask others to do it for us instead, to take on that burden for us, so we can sleep at night because we did not ‘swing the sword.’

      And the people who are not bothered by it, who take it in stride… should be nowhere near the sword.

      People have solid, reasonable, even good moral arguments to defend the death penalty, but I personally am against it for this reason (the devaluing of human life, both theirs and the executioner’s). I respect other people’s views, but since I believe God’s intention is to pull us forward, and the death penalty is as old as time… I think it’s time we leave it behind.

      1. YES I AM AWARE OF THIS. All my questions are way too simple–it’s my One Weakness 😛

        So yes. I asked about the death penalty as a general moral issue, because that’s what your post immediately prompted me to think about: when you were talking about Littlefinger and how he may not be moral or noble, but he’s human all the same, it struck me that the exact same is true of ALL criminals–if we’re going to extend mercy to Littlefinger (i.e., refrain from visiting the death penalty on him) solely by reason of his human dignity, we obviously have to extend the same mercy to every other real-life criminal we deal with. Because that’s the only fair way; as a society, we can’t play favorites.

        I think your moral arguments against the death penalty are excellent ones. I myself haven’t yet decided how I feel on the issue–whether it should be abolished, or not–although I admit I lean toward favoring its abolition. (Now, I used to support the death penalty, no questions asked, but that was a long time ago and I don’t support a LOT of the stuff I believed back then, so . . . yeah.) I am concerned, however, with certain individuals in my own church who support the abolition of capital punishment, but seem to believe this will solve ALL the problems of our criminal justice system on its own–and it won’t. The death penalty is only one piece of it; we also have racial bias and uneven sentencing and false conviction and a whole mess of other issues that we need to address. But that’s not really related to what you were saying; that’s more something for me and my church to hash out among ourselves 😉

        My only other concern, I think, would be the need to avoid demonizing societies and individuals in the past (either historical or fictional) who DID make use of the death penalty; especially since we ourselves, in modern America, are still using capital punishment even after two thousand years of Christianity. True, we’re not as public about it, or as brutal, or as personal–but does that really make us “better”? I don’t think so; especially since, as you pointed out, all our modern system of capital punishment really does is shift the true burden of ending human life onto others (the poor soul whose responsibility it is to press the button, or administer the lethal injection, or what have you). And although it probably goes against the true essence of Christianity–“love your enemies, do good to them that hate you”–even the most devout medieval monarchs believed they had a moral duty to publicly (and brutally) execute criminals and traitors as part of their God-given responsibility to keep their kingdom safe. Were they wrong about that, in an objective moral sense? I don’t know. They might well have been. But did they KNOW it if they were wrong? No . . . they didn’t. So even once we move past them, I don’t think we have the right to judge them.

        Long, rambly thoughts here. As per usual. 😛

        1. I love talking to you, since it means I have to open up a Word document to respond, since this could get so long. Haha.

          In a perfect world, without a flawed system, the death penalty would serve its purpose both as a deterrent to criminals who want to avoid it, and because it would only “terminate” those “morally reprehensible souls” whose actions have “earned” them the right to “no longer live.” But we do not live in a perfect society, and the system is flawed; our social construct sets up opportunities for some people to become criminals (as Sir Thomas More says, first you “make criminals, then punish them”). That does not justify their decision, but it is not theirs alone, when they have no choice BUT bad behavior in order to survive.

          For example, some poor inner city kid born into gang territory, who feels pressure to join a gang so his family can be protected from another gang (but who is then endangered by being IN that gang, and must go along with the gang activities, or they will kill him). Then this kid gets tangled up in something he didn’t want to be involved in (let’s say drug trafficking) and people get killed. Maybe he even shoots someone. The courts decide he’s a candidate for the death penalty, both because of his crimes and to “send a message” about gang violence. Is that fair?

          I think if you do use the death penalty, you must use it sparingly — logically, someone like Hannibal Lecter is a menace to society and it’s safer to kill him, rather than risk his escape; but logic also tells us that prison escapes are rare. Logic would say killing someone costs us less than a lifetime imprisonment; that is true, but he will also spend a fortune on appeals to avoid the death sentence.

          Then too, is the matter of mental health issues. Many violent criminals who wind up on death row, accused of awful things, are mentally imbalanced; being a psychopath is a mental imbalance, where you are incapable of empathy. It is a terrifying thing, but if we accept that people are born gay, and born with depressive or melancholic tendencies, etc., that we cannot accept that people are born pedophiles or psychopaths. This does not excuse their behavior or their choices, but if we become a system that kills people based on mental illnesses, we are no better than… well, our ancestors.

          There is no easy answer. =P

          The choice to kill Littlefinger was not only brutal, and based on weak evidence, it was short-sighted, since killing off any potential allies when an army of undead White Walkers is about to descend upon the north is… stupid. Good job, Starks.

          I used to be for the death penalty, but I no longer am. I do not know that banning it is the right choice, but I personally cannot support it, given my sensitive and compassionate nature, and am glad I do not have to make those decisions. I do think, however, that any situation which arouses people’s collective desire to see someone “die” feeds their baser, ungodly instincts. But you are right, abolishing it will not solve “all” the judicial system problems; it may not even solve ANY of them. If you want a “quick fix” to the problems of the world… one doesn’t exist!

          The modern tendency to judge past behaviors by modern standards troubles me; yes, our ancestors had flaws, they were short sighted, they made mistakes… so do we, and in 500 years, how will people look back on our justice system, our treatment of others, our race riots? Will they, as we do now, look back and go, “What a bunch of morons!”?

          Sometimes, monarchs had to execute traitors… but I do think some of them had qualms about it. That’s one thing I want to depict in my Tudor-era novels: that it was not “cut off his head!” as usual, but for a believer / monarch, a serious matter that troubled their soul.

          1. Well, and I love talking with you, too. It feeds my brain 🙂

            “First you make criminals, then punish them.” YES. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT. Whether we’re talking just about the death penalty or about the criminal justice system as a whole–we absolutely have to be aware of the fact that it is our laws, our social norms, our cultural prejudices which help determine who’s even considered a criminal in the first place. Too often, we assume that our traditional notions of criminality simply “are,” rather than questioning where they came from and whether they have any real basis in objective justice and morality. If you’re going to take upon yourself the responsibility of punishing other human beings (by means of death, prison sentences, or anything else), you have the obligation to first think, and think hard, about who you’re punishing, how, and why.

            I read a fascinating, and frankly horrifying, book last semester about the Attica prison riot in 1971. Now, Attica, of course, was a maximum-security prison with markedly brutal conditions, so you’d naturally assume that all the prisoners there were “serious criminals,” right? Wrong. At that point in time (late 60s/early 70s), increases in the prison population of New York State caused severe overcrowding; and rather than attempt to lower incarceration rates in any way, the New York prison authorities dealt with the issue by sending the overflow of minor offenders to Attica. In other words, if you lived in NY in 1971, you could end up in a maximum-security prison for something like drunk driving or parole violations. And what happens when you introduce massive overcrowding into an already harsh and brutal environment like Attica? Oh . . . I don’t know . . . MAYBE A RIOT??

            But when it eventually happened, as any sane observer knew it would, the prison authorities shifted all the blame onto the prisoners, because how dare those monsters rebel against us, and used it as justification for an incredibly bloody takeover in which both prisoners and guards were killed. (Torture, too, not just shooting. It was really, really bad.)

            So . . . yeah. Just as you said–that’s the kind of thing that happens when we refuse to recognize that criminals are human beings, and to acknowledge our own part (society’s part) in shaping said criminals. And that’s why I believe we can’t focus solely on the death penalty as our only issue–it’s important, but it doesn’t stand alone. Those prisoners (and guards) who were killed in the Attica riot, for example, weren’t under any “official” death sentence, but they still died anyway, precisely because the authorities of the criminal justice system showed such complete disregard for the value of their lives.

            Okay, but I have to tell you–the gang scenario you just outlined is very, very similar to the kind of situations I’m trying to explore in my Snow White story. (Which I will send you this weekend . . . I promise.) We think alike.

            And I’ve often thought the same, too, about mental illness: our current criminal justice system simply does not take it into account, except in those rare cases where the person is literally delusional and hallucinating all over the place, etc–which, as we now know, represents a VERY outdated understanding of what mental illness really is. No, there isn’t any easy answer out there . . . but I think we could do a lot better than we do right now.

            “Will they, as we do now, look back and go ‘what a bunch of morons!'”? Probably. 😛 Very probably. Which is a humbling thought, and therefore one that’s important to keep in mind.

          2. I’m all for brain food. 😉

            You are completely right; we only consider things to be right or wrong, based on a social consensus of what we believe (in this time) is right or wrong. And what is seen as ‘right or wrong’ is going to shift further as time goes by; what we consider right and wrong now, may not be right and wrong in a hundred years… or there may be even more right and wrong beliefs in 500 years. One can hope that civilization advances in more tolerant ways moving forward (tolerant of differences, not of cruelties).

            The problem of the judicial system is even though there are levels for crimes, it’s stil based in “one sentence fits most,” with the weight of judicial decisions and leniency based in the DA’s opinion of the crime (“what they did was wrong, but I don’t believe it was intentional, so I’ll reduce their sentence if they come to a plea agreement). So, you have harsh justice — and a human element (the DA) to balance it out. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s the only one we have (for the present… and it’s a hell of a lot better than other and older systems).

            Your example puts me in mind of the May Day Riots in the 1500s when Londoners rioted because of what they saw as ‘preferential treatment’ to immigrants (Spain, Florence, Portugal) who were taking a monopoly of the official court contracts, and forcing them ‘out’ as a result. To keep order, and prevent further dissent (and to protect foreign ambassadors), the king had to impose martial law — and execute a dozen of the ringleaders as traitors. But the queen and the cardinal got him to pardon 500 prisoners — most of them young men (as young as 13) who “knew no better.”

            So, there are those who know better, and those who do not; those who make a deliberate choice, and those who have no choice; everyone does make a choice, but sometimes it is no choice at all. Sigh.

            I’m not sure what the penalties should be for criminals with mental illnesses; but a high level of psychopaths wind up in prison BECAUSE they have no empathy, which enables them to commit violent crimes in the first place.

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