January 28, 2009
Ever since the hints in season 1 and the formal christening of the dichotomy at the beginning of season 2 ("Man of Science, Man of Faith") on the show, LOST, I've been wanting to organize my thoughts on the matter. (full episodes are all online here, btw) It cuts to the heart of the themes of the entire show, so I figured I might as well commit it to a post so I could move on to other ideas as we go along in season 5. Basically I'd like to explore from my perspective the philosophical differences (and the effects of those differences) between the two main characters.
Let me say first though that it isn't the show or the writers that particularly offend me. From an anthropological perspective, there could easily be two characters like Jack Shepherd and John Locke who think the way they do. As subjective slices of culture in the grind of the fantasy of the story, it is easy enough to accept as is. It's just the exploration of a thought experiment and not the writers preaching from a pulpit as though they necessarily have to agree with anything any of the characters say. What bugs me most isn't so much the show per se, but perhaps how the show reflects some unfortunate and dysfunctional aspects of our own culture that are held in too high esteem. If I'm offended by anything, it is perhaps the instance of whoever out there might be cheering for Locke and hoping that someday his view of the island will be vindicated. I would like to point out why such a brand of enthusiasm is in error.
In terms of the stereotypical "man of science," Jack appears to be in "denial" of the fluke healing of his ex-wife, how so many people survived such a vicious plane crash, the nature of the hallucinations he has of his father, and the nature of smoke monster, maybe the significance of the numbers, and that the island was teleported away to another time and place. Ben calls him a "believer" in the latest episode, but his motivation still appears to be the safety of the people that he left behind. It is unclear what he "believes" in. Honestly I'm not very sure even as a spectator of fiction who doesn't care one way or the other and who has more information than Jack has that any of these things are "supernatural." I think I've even read that all of it will be "explained" via science (er--pseudo science at least) by the end. People do make unexpected recoveries (did the island have anything to do with his ex-wife?), people do have hallucinations of dead loved ones, the smoke monster demonstrates some rather un-supernatural characteristics (like heeding a sonic fence), and presumably the island was moved with natural (though possibly pseudo-scientific) forces. The only left that is inexplicable from my perspective (and Jack isn't entirely "in" on all the coincidences like Hurley would be) is the numbers. And since Jack doesn't really know anything about it, he doesn't really have a lot to "explain." Perhaps someone can come up with an explicit case for the supernatural that Jack also is privy to (you have to have BOTH factors or Jack isn't guilty), but as it is, at the very most, there are just big mysteries that have yet to reveal themselves and Jack not wanting to be subject to them to some exaggerated degrees.
If we look at the information Jack has from his perspective and ask ourselves what is reasonable to conclude from that basis, I'm not sure we'd come up with much. The producers of the show have admitted (link) that there isn't anything to the numbers and that they are more about how the characters respond to them. I take it that this is in the fatalistic theme of a necessary self-fulfilling time loop theory, that coincidences have to happen in order for the future to properly connect with the past. This would also seem to explain why they would survive the plane crash. I could be wrong and while I find this version of time travel to be entirely bullshit (see my discussions on the Terminator franchise), it appears the producers believe it is a "natural" explanation (and what they say goes). It's just a bad natural explanation. For example, in the Back to the Future movies, I don't think anything supernatural is necessarily involved, but the disappearing limbs in Polaroids factor while "natural" is still absolutely ridiculous. Where is the dividing line between storytelling convenience and magic? Much the same might apply here with the numbers and we are at the mercy of the writers of the show. Regardless of this speculation, getting people off the island is clearly Jack's priority and even if there are things that violate his "myopic" scientific worldview, they don't appear to be very important things. Shall we be the existential detective or should we help people? I think overall Jack has chosen his battles appropriately.
The worst thing Jack has done was to have Sayid torture Sawyer to get back Shannon's asthma medication. This was the only thing that came to mind that was morally "off" in my opinion, but LOSTpedia in the Jack trivia section lists several other incidents I would never have thought needed to be "apologized" for. They don't call them immoral or negligent, just "extreme:"
Jack has resorted to some extreme measures to protect the crash survivors [note: not to secure his mystical destiny]. This includes sanctioning the torture of Sawyer (who he believed to have Shannon's asthma medication) [I agree that was crossing the line, but as the only "bust" of the list, I would chalk it up to the extreme stress and pressing circumstances. I'd be surprised if this was the only mark against someone after spending any time on this island], setting up the ambush of Ethan Rom [He had no intention of killing Ethan, but incidentally Charlie did. I don't see how anyone could count this incident against Jack's character at all as though Ethan should have just been allowed to roam loose and terrorize their group indefinitely.] holding Ben hostage to trade for Walt [The intention to negotiate an incidental trade? It's not like they went out of their way to capture Ben. He happened to be in their care and Jack treated his wounds. Even the label "extreme" is a bit extreme and I just don't see what's being gotten at here. The alternative: "We'll hand Ben over unconditionally and you can just keep our kid." WTF?], engaging in a risky attempt to recover Walt [Oh dear, this is only the cardinal virtue of love in action. Throw that man in jail.], holding Ben's life hostage during surgery to allow his friends to escape [In context Jack had been kidnapped by hostile people and was in a pressing situation and played the only card he had to ensure not being double crossed by someone who is the epitome of untrustworthy.], and refusing to bring the phone to Ben which resulted in Jin, Sayid, and Bernard's "deaths" [In context again, there's no telling what Ben would have done with the phone since he'd been unendingly screwed over since the beginning by giving Ben ANY power whatsoever.].
Right, so in summary, this is more a "get grandma's heart pumping" o-meter and not much to shake a stick at in terms of not being able to trust Jack. He's clearly always trying to do the best that he can for the group and does so over and over again in some extreme circumstances he did not bring about himself. Honestly they didn't even come to mind when I was trying to brainstorm my own list, or even strike me as anything when I was reading the entire wiki article to refresh my memory. The "trivia" section at the end brought it to my attention. Even the mark against him I agree with was still an attempt to save the life of Shannon. Perhaps he can be partially blamed for putting Sayid on a darker path, since he goes on to torture Ben, and later even work for Ben as an assassin when they get off the island. That's still one misstep on Jack's part in extreme circumstances and we can at least partially blame Sawyer for being such an unnecessarily difficult dysfunctional attention whore.
Locke on the other hand, assaulted Sayid as he was trying to triangulate a signal which if found could have helped them radio for help (Locke says that he was trying to protect everyone because of what the message said, but an honest discussion would alleviate accusations of trying to stamp out chances of getting off the island) ("The Moth"), assaulted, held Boone captive, and drugged him (leaving him alone in the jungle with the smoke monster possibly at large as though Locke knows all about fixing people's problems) ("Hearts and Minds"), was indirectly responsible for the death of Boone and his lie about the nature of the accident prevented proper medical treatment from taking place soon enough (even the later "hallucination" of Boone seemed to be making fun of him, dubbing himself a "sacrifice the island demanded"...as in, buddy Jesus told you to put your kids in the oven talk) ("Do No Harm"), conspired to torture Ben ("One of Them"), Locke's faith based insecurities led him to prevent Eko from continuing to press the button and therefore destroyed a safe haven filled with supplies for the group (he could have been as apathetic either way as Jack was), attempted to murder Mikhail Bakunin ("Par Avion"), planted a bomb on the Galaga submarine (Locke wants to stay, therefore apparently no one else can leave the island either) ("The Man from Tallahassee"), was an accessory in the murder of Anthony Cooper ("The Brig"), assaulted and murdered Naomi Dorrit with a knife he threw in her back ("Through the Looking Glass"), threatened to shoot Jack ("Through the Looking Glass"), put a hand grenade in Miles' mouth ("Eggtown"), and threatened to shoot Sawyer because he needed Hurley to find the ghost's log cabin in the woods (so again, his destiny is more important than the safety of his friends) ("The Shape of Things to Come"), then when it comes to a serious threat (like the invasion of the island) Locke has done such untrustworthy and harmful things that the division he has created (even when he is trying to help and has good reason to do so) becomes an accumulated mark of his own negligence (they could have been building up collective trust all this time, after all), and finally (so far at least) Locke puts his trust in the mysterious "ghost" leader of the island who may or may not have everyone's best intentions in mind.
It is helpful to put all of this before me because it is muddled in "good intentions" and it is easy to forget just how much crap has gone down as a result of Locke's attempts to fulfill his destiny. It's not like Locke actually wants bad things to happen to the group. But helping them too often takes a back seat to being led around by the nose of his own existential insecurities. Case in point, Locke has basically left the group to join the hostile people who were the "bad guys" of the first few seasons (and still are), he has Sawyer murder his father (rather than do it himself), and then after he's done collecting his proverbial 30 pieces of silver (link), he then throws his former group a bone by telling Sawyer that Juliet is a mole (episode, "The Brig"). Yay! A mole for the evil group you're trying to join! What a douche. "Thanks."
If a divine hand of some sort is helping Locke out at key times, one would have to argue it is so that more such disasters could continue. What evil supernatural force wants the fun to stop prematurely? And as long as Locke interprets this occasional and invisible helping hand as "good" the dysfunctional loop is closed and the faith based bullshit continues. Locke thinks he's seen the true nature of the island in the smoke monster (calling it "beautiful") and so apparently all of the people the smoke monster has brutally murdered are of no consequence to the extent he doesn't even mind being dragged through the jungle and down into the ground by it and wants Jack to let him go. Locke's still operating on the vain existential premise that any such high teleological forces necessarily have his best intentions in mind (despite all the evidence to the contrary) if only he remains in a state of perpetual credulity (and desperation for the fulfillment that is scamtastically never in the "bank"). And that goes even if such forces actually exist! It even goes if those forces have misunderstood "good intentions" in mind! Nothing stops the hammer from coming down on Locke for not being responsible with his own ignorance one way or the other. It doesn't matter! He's still doing the wrong thing in any event (if the frame of reference is doing the best you can to help the people around you based on what you know)! The details of the mysteries at work don't matter one bit (although I take it that whatever is at the metaphorical heart of the island must be dysfunctional in some way).
One wonders on balance how much the negligence outweighs the handful of happy accidents that resulted from Locke's faith quest. He does have some very straight forward skills that have helped out that are in the plus column and they required no mysterious connection to the island to accomplish. Whereas Jack seems to be dedicated to helping all the survivors get home, Locke seems only dedicated to the island itself! WTF? We could just as easily have been left with a different set of unfortunate events that wouldn't have been Locke's fault (like we can say about Jack). It's not like there is a way to avoid all of them or any variation on the theme. Shit happens. I would argue that the "Jar Jar Binks" theory of responsibility is morally corrupt. One cannot retroactively justify bad decisions via the occasional positive outcome. In decision theory there is such a thing as doing the right thing with the wrong consequences. And there's doing the wrong thing with the right consequences. However, one does not maximize the probability of good consequences by continuing to do the wrong thing as Locke has persistently done. If sending the island into the past actually fulfills a fatalistic loop that entails ALL of the ill consequences of the passengers of flight 815 going through all this crap, that makes Locke responsible for ALL of it. As season 5 rolls out, we learn that Locke leaves the island in an attempt to bring the Oceanic 6 back to the island. Apparently he's just not done sacrificing everyone on the alter of his own existential vanity. "But the island isn't done psychologically abusing you yet!" It will be entirely incidental if it turns out this blind hit actually does entail saving the world from some space/time disaster.
An uncritical count of crimes listed ("Crimes of the Islanders") on LOSTpedia between Jack and Locke results in 10 marks for Jack and 18 marks for Locke. In my opinion, a critical count of the lists provided results in 1 mark for Jack and 12 for Locke (and you'll note my list above actually adds a few more). Either way, Locke loses. You'd have to at the very least acquit Locke of half his crimes listed and hold Jack to every single crime listed to turn that around. Good luck with that. I don't know if there are "people of faith" who are much more sympathetic to Locke's journey (and would make excuses for his behavior) since many mystics do have a firm enough grip on reality and their faith isn't other people's problem. I'm sure there are plenty of religious people who would hold Locke's actions in low enough regard and would profess that they wouldn't do the same thing in his shoes. Granted, this is fiction, and the crimes are whatever they have been written for them to be. Perhaps the tables might be turned with a real Jack and a real Locke. We'll never know. But as is, Locke is a total douche and the poster boy of faith-based negligence on the show (despite how the writers try to obscure the fact occasionally). And Jack is the heroic victim of the gross extremes of the show (despite how the writers attempt to punish him for his rigidly anti-supernatural perspective). I don't see how anyone can successfully argue otherwise, but I would like to see someone try to defend both the island and Locke's faith based actions. Perhaps I'm missing something.
There are certainly worse people on the island and by and large I feel sorry for Locke. He has a long history of being taken advantage of (long before the island) and I'm sure the ignorance of the nature of psychosomatic healing (that I've even seen on xanga!) as well as all the mysterious and extraordinary things that have happened have led him to believe it is "okay" to go with what he thinks his destiny is. To an extent I can appreciate the subjective vantage point based on certain dubious givens. I'm pretty sure I would come to the wrong conclusions if I were stranded on the island without LOSTpedia. But then there are just some WTF extremes (like blowing up the submarine) that pushes the line way beyond sympathy to gross negligence. Granted, the writers wish to stir the pot and I have to say they are successful in that regard. Pot stirred. However, verdict also pronounced. Though I would agree they have done possibly the best job one could expect of keeping shades of gray in the equation, the moral ends of the characters do not always justify the means (I'd like to get into this more on particular examples in future posts) and the appraisal can come down on the methodology of the journey rather than wherever the show happens to take us by the end of the sixth season. My opinion of Locke would not change even if his beliefs were validated in the end. If it takes six seasons for him to find out he's done the right thing, that's six seasons too long of acting in almost total ignorance and denial of the hostile forces at work on the island.
The mundane lesson here is be a full person and then (if there isn't something more important to tend to, like the welfare of the people around you) investigate the extraordinary responsibly. Denial of the obvious or co-dependent credulity and negligence are both extremes that are worth avoiding. This is a tough order though for many people apparently. Do you need too neat of a little box? Or do you need all of reality to have a very special plan just for you in order to thrive and you'll accept just about any standard of evidence in order to make those unsubstantiated cosmic ends meet? Aren't there any mofos out there that can manage something in between? "I'm a complete enough person with question marks on the horizon that will remain question marks until (or regardless of whether) things become more clear to me. Meanwhile, I'll work with what I do know and try to do the right thing based on that."
Clearly, despite Jack's failings, he is much more in line and this ideal is the only way to go about living that makes the most sense to me. So even on fictitious and somewhat sympathetic terms (Locke is validated by the show occasionally), the method of faith is still that well intentioned moral wild card where mundane rational thinking based on the limited information you happen to have probably ought to take precedence. Some mystics (people whose focus in life is primarily the perpetual and supposedly personal unknown) might have us invert those priorities and excuse the negligence with the misdirection to the happy accidents (crediting them to the mystical forces as though they know this to be the case), but it suffices for me to say that I would much rather be responsible for Jack's sins than Locke's.
What fun would it be though if they had perfect people on the show? At least there do seem to be plausible enough consequences to go around. Although I think a rather dark future is ahead for Jack even though he doesn't deserve it for perhaps being a little too denialistic.