In Splice Today, @hoodedu (Noah Berlatsky, for the less twitter-inclined) drew several parallels between the vilification of vampires in the movie Priest and the real-life vilification of native Americans in the American West. Not content to rest there, he made the provocative argument that by encouraging thinking in terms of categorical bias, Priest effectively promotes racism.
This has not sat well with many people.
DarylSurat: Uh yeah, I’m not gonna defend that Priest movie but to call it racist because the vampires and infected are evil is reaching pretty far guys
DarylSurat: OK we like to react to headlines, but this dude’s argument is literally “vampires = the Indians, infected = mixed race, this movie’s racist”
While I readily agree it’s not necessarily intuitive, I don’t think that automatically makes it wrong. The problem with criticism like Daryl’s is the assertion that counter-intuitive criticism, or any criticism that ties together seemingly unrelated things, can’t possibly be valid. It certainly can – it just depends on whether or not it’s well constructed, and appropriate to the movie. Dismissing an entire category of criticism as “too much of a stretch” when it is standard discourse for academic journals only suggests to me that the one objecting may be unfamiliar with this line of criticism.
[Daryl] spent an hour* ranting on the deconstruction of Priest. Is it really that shocking? Stuff happens all the time in academic journals.
[*an hour between those posts and this one; in retrospect, that's not the same as a full hour ranting, though no other topic intervened.]
Noah himself eventually argued a similar point, though he went further:
The best part is I’m pretty sure most of them haven’t seen it. They just knee-jerk defend it on the grounds that calling anything racist is wrong.
On the other hand, Ed Sizemore, who certainly is familiar with academic journals, didn’t see the need to view Priest in terms of the potential implications of its thought patterns:
edsizemore: I saw it and enjoyed it for what it was. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I see it as a Judge Dredd rip-off.
edsizemore: I think you see racism because you want to, not because it’s there.
And that’s a muddy issue: when is something racist? If someone makes a joke, and part of the audience thinks it’s racist, but part of the audience doesn’t, is it truly racist? Does intent matter? Does only the end result matter? We all know that for workplace regulations, anyone feeling offended because of a possible racist interpretation is enough to classify something as racist. But literary and art criticism need not apply legal criteria. Which criteria, then, should apply?
Is it OK to think in ways that parallel racism as long as one isn’t racist in real life? Or should people be on guard against such thought even in fantasy worlds? I rather think this goes into the realm of scientific questions, as it should be possible to demonstrate statistically that repeated exposure to such thinking does or does not lead to racist thought – but who will run that experiment?
This is Priest: a movie, its detractors, the detractors of the detractors – and a problem called racism.
UPDATE: For those interested in the details, @hoodedu has posted the full text of his discussion with Ed Sizemore.