Friday, January 28, 2011

Vampires, Creative Comparison and Questioning

Over the last couple of days, I have been presenting my vampire argument (for details, see my January 25th post on vampires and abortion) to my students in class and soliciting their feedback on it. Surprising result: Most of my students do not think that vampires are persons. Maybe I'm out of touch with the intuitions of undergrads, but I thought we would have no problem agreeing that vampires are persons. I have always thought that, other than the fact that they have "special" dietary needs and that most of them (except the ones in Twilight) can't go out in sunlight, they pretty much are able to think the same thoughts and have the same conversations as all of us. In my opinion, we can think of them as persons with certain disabilities (cannot be exposed to sunlight) and special dietary needs.

When I asked a student why she didn't think vampires were persons, she hesitated a little, and then said, "Because they don't have heartbeats." And then I asked, "But what about Edward in Twilight? Do you consider him not to be a person just because he's a vampire?" She was stumped for a little bit, and then gave what I thought was a very psychologically interesting answer. 

I'll tell you what this psychologically interesting answer is in a little bit. For now, I'll like to say a few things about what the student has said thus far. I think the response and reaction of this student explains a few things, and also opens up a whole bunch of questions about how people think about things in general. It appears that for many people (for many of the students in my class, at least), in order for a living being to count as a person, it has to be a living human individual. Which means that even if someone seems to think and behave in exactly the ways we would normally expect persons to think and behave, that someone would still not qualify as a person in their eyes if he or she is not a living human being.

But what about Twilight? Would Twilight fans say that Bella was in love with a non-person? I doubt it: How much of a love story can you get out of somebody falling in live with a non-person? Rather, I think most Twilight fans (which includes at least some of my students, I suspect) would say that Bella was in love with a person who happens to be a vampire. 

But now we seem to have a contradiction: Most people think that one needs to be human in order to be a person. At the same time, they seem to be willing to say that somebody like Edward in Twilight is a person, even if he is not human... How does one square the proverbial circle here?

Which brings me to the psychologically interesting answer that my student managed to come up with after being stumped by her teacher (me). She said, "Well, yes, Edward is a person, but that's okay, because Twilight is not real, it's only a story."

Hmm... So people are willing to suspend their usual beliefs about what counts as persons in movies and works of fiction. Which seems perfectly acceptable, on one level. After all, one can argue that the beauty of fiction is that it allows us an opportunity to entertain ourselves by suspending our usual beliefs about things in everyday life.

But here's something to think about: What if the beliefs we hold about things in movies are actually better-justified beliefs than the beliefs we hold in everyday life? This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. After all, when we watch movies, we tend to be in a mental space where we are temporarily free of the mundane worries and cares of daily life. In such a space, we are arguably in a better position to entertain new ideas and ways of seeing reality that might be more congruent with how things actually are in the actual world. If my student's response is any indication of how people in her age group (white, upper mid-western lower-to-middle middle class female in her late teens to early twenties) and cultural milieu think about and see things, it would suggest that many young people today (makes me sound very old when I talk like that...) might be a little too comfortable with drawing a very tight line between what they perceive to be fantasy and what they perceive to be reality.

In many ways, of course, the ability to draw this tight line is a virtue. We are familiar with what happens with people who do not draw such a line at all. But perhaps this line is a double-edged sword, so to speak: Although it can protect people from confusing fantasy with reality (and having delusions of grandeur, or worse), it can also prevent people from creatively comparing certain things that they experience in the fantasy world with certain things in their immediate socio-political environment. This lack of creative comparing and questioning might explain why my student could not go from thinking, "Edward is a person who is a vampire in the Twilight universe", to "If non-humans can be persons in fictional universes, what is there to prevent non-humans from being persons in the actual universe, if they meet certain conditions? Is being human really necessary for being a person? If there are certain universes (such as the Twilight universe) in which being human is not a necessary condition for being a person, why should it be a necessary condition in ours?"

I believe that at least one implication of this lack of the ability for creative comparison and questioning is clear: Somebody who lacks this ability is able to learn about how things are only through direct observation and experience, or through being told by some expert or authority that this is how things are. We live in a world that is increasingly fragmented, where most information comes to us from second- or even third-hand sources. Given this social climate, opportunities for getting knowledge through direct observation and experience are increasingly few and far between. This means that somebody who lacks the ability for creative comparison and questioning is, for the most part, condemned (I did hesitate before deciding to use this word, but I don't think it is too strong a word, given the stakes) to learning from expert knowledge and perceived figures of authority. And we know where this leads.

Hmm... what started out as a random observation about how things are seems to have degenerated into a rather gloomy post, one that has nothing to do with yoga, to boot. Well, let me see if I can turn things up a little. Good news for all of you vampires out there: There is a cure for your condition! For more details, see the movie Daybreakers. Even if you are not a vampire, you should still see it: It's my favorite vampire movie to date. I won't spoil the movie for you by telling you any plot details. And if this is any reason to see the movie, we have a fellow ashtangi as one of the stars of the movie:

Willem Dafoe plays a cured vampire in DayBreakers


  1. Of course it has to do with yoga. That opportunity to look closely and learn from first-hand observation... IS, precisely, yoga practice!!

    Everyone should do yoga, that's where this post wanted to end up :)

  2. Yes, I think you are right about where the post wanted to end up, Susan. Yoga helps us to (1) learn better from first-hand observation, (2) question and think through things for ourselves, and not simply accept "expert opinion."

  3. I think your student represents most people, period. Like you said, we don't have a chance to have first-hand experience to a lot of things, so our mind has a lot of pre-existing boundaries of what can and cannot happen.

    Are you going to give lower grades to people who have trouble imagining vampires as persons and therefore fail to make satisfactory creative comparisons on their exams? (Can you tell I still have a student mentality)

  4. @Yyogini, no, I don't give people poor grades for not having a lot of imagination. In fact, I am actually quite generous when it comes to grading students' work. Which might not be a good thing; I am probably contributing to the grade-inflation problem in American universities in general. Hmm... I shall say no more here; the walls (or, in this case, the blogosphere) have ears :-)