Thursday, September 8, 2016

Endbringers and the Failure of Enlightenment Philosophy

The most iconic line to come out of the Enlightenment was Voltaire’s “‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!”[1]

That’s liberalism in a nutshell. We don’t have to agree with what’s being said, so long as we uphold the rights of saying it. We don’t have to like the person, to respect their rights in society. We ignore the substance of something or someone, and focus on formal rules about what sort of behavior is off limits or protected.

  • We don’t judge who you sleep with, as that is your private choice.
  • We don’t make laws about what you do with your money, because private property is protected.
  • It’s the foundation of modern democracy, including your right to vote, to not be tortured, and to receive due process in a trial.
  • We’ve given up trying to get everyone equal results, so we focus instead on giving everyone equal, inviolable rules.
  • The only people who are bad are not selfish or mean people, but people who break the sacrosanct rules.

(Of course different liberals - from the libertarian branch, or the social justice branch - can have disagreements about what those rules and rights should be. And they’ll fight bitterly over them. But they fundamentally agree that what matters is the rules society lives by, and not, say “figuring out what leads to the best outcome on an ad hoc basis.”)

This philosophy isn’t just deontological, but was also given a big boost by John Stuart Mills’ writing on utilitarianism. Mills thought that the best way to increase the overall happiness of society, was having guaranteed rights just like this. Protected diversity would do more to create a fulfilling society than centralized decisions that have responsibility for every aspect for your life, according to him.

The developed world, excepting tragic forays into utopianism, has been ruled by an expanding liberalism for the past two hundred years.

It’s a compelling ideal. It’s the ideal that even if you hate someone’s guts, you can still live in a safe and functional society for them so long as everyone respects others’ rights. And yet… most people in these developed nations are still pretty miserable.

(Capitalism is the material form of this. In order to grow the amount of stuff for everyone, we don’t centrally coordinate what to do with it, but we protect the rights of people to use their stuff as they wish, expecting that this will make even more growth all around.)

The Endbringer arc about Leviathan gives a devastating example of why it doesn’t work even when everyone agrees on the rules, and therefore why tumblr culture is terrible.


“I couldn’t really believe they were going to arrest me.  Like Tattletale had said, there were rules.  Largely unspoken rules, but still more important than anything else in the cape community.  You didn’t profit from an Endbringer attack, you didn’t attack your nemeses or take advantage of undefended areas to steal.  You didn’t arrest a villain that came to help.

Because when people started doing that, the truce broke and things became ten times easier for the Endbringer.”

Worm sets up a really interesting liberalism regarding heroes and villains, that’s often tacit in other comic books but usefully explicit here.

There’s a lot of villains breaking the law with their powers. If you go really far, you get sent to the Birdcage. But otherwise, enforcement against those villains isn’t as strict as you might expect. Alexandria could probably find and arrest all of the Undersiders in an hour. Rivalries could spin out of control. But the official powers don’t really do that.

In trade, every cape is expected to contribute when an Endbringer attacks. These city destroying monsters can only be taken down by every power the good guys can lay their hands on. If you show up for an Endbringer attack, you won’t be arrested, your life won’t be sacrificed, and you’ll receive medical care afterwards. Hell, you’ll be outfitted with high-tech communications gear and if you die your name will go on a memorial. Even if you smuggle women in a crime syndicate or have many murders to your name, you have the same rights at an Endbringer attack as anyone else.

Similarly, if a hero shows up, they know any villains won’t take the opportunity to backstab them, or find out their identity in a weakened state afterwards.

This is the Truce. In order to conquer these threats, capes are expected to put aside their differences and follow certain rules about other capes, even if it may go against their desires. Reading about it is actually the first uplifting thing about cape society in Worm that makes the reader think not everyone at the PRT is a complete idiot.

But what are rights worth when there is no trust?


Because vulnerable capes must be protected, the villain Skitter (Taylor) is handcuffed while she waits for treatment.

(Because villains in the past have sued medical personnel for malpractice, no doctors want to talk to her about her situation. Nice swipe at lawyers and the culture of litigiousness there.)

Because Taylor does not trust the heroes, she does not believe her rights will be respected. So she tries to escape. It only takes a little paranoia to think your Truce has been violated, and that you’re a free target.

Because Taylor breaks free, she sees another cape unmasked.

And now Taylor is the one accused of breaking the Truce. And suddenly we find the authorities and community take the Truce very seriously. The punishment facing Taylor for wandering through the hospital is lifetime imprisonment, because it threatened the Truce.

Taylor’s friends arrive, and they threaten to declaim the PRT for their behavior, as something breaking the Truce. Then every cape in the hospital will believe the PRT is selfish and doesn’t care about the Truce when it can get what it wants.

Everyone in the hospital is now very concerned about the Truce. They’re scared it won’t protect them. And they’re afraid that absolute zeal in enforcing the Truce will be used to brutally punish them for an innocent mistake. They are simultaneously worried that the Truce is both too weak, and too strong.

Guns are drawn, speaker announcements are made, and we basically witness the near collapse of a tiny liberal society.

Fortunately for all involved (he said sarcastically), the original violator of the Truce (Armsmaster) is found, and he is expelled from society. Then everyone can calm down and believe the Truce is good, the Truce is safe, the Truce is strong.

Don’t worry everyone! We found the scapegoat who broke our prelapsarian society!

(Of course Armsmaster grows to become one of the most noble protagonists of the story.)


Seeing how such a good, noble ideal of fair treatment can quickly become a weapon in a culture where no one trusts each other, was nauseating. It also was extremely realistic. You can see the exact same dynamic in say, arguments about free speech.

Paranoid Human A: “Don’t post that racist meme!”
Paranoid Human B: “Don’t tell me what I can’t say! That’s violating my right to free speech!”
PHA: “Well you’re telling me that I can’t criticize you, that’s violating my free speech!”
PHB: “I’m scared you’re going to try to get me fired for my job, just because of what I said!”
PHA: “I’m scared you’re going to send harassers to my house just because I disagree with you!”
PHC: “Does no one care about free speech anymore?”
PHD: “Ugh. The internet is a cesspit and we should all go back to…”

It’s funny. But we’ve all seen it. Most of us have been A, B, C, or D. We should have perfect sympathy for all of them. In both of the above stories, no one was lying (except for Armsmaster about an unrelated matter), no one was trying to find advantage, no one was “evil” or a “troll”. And yet the whole thing collapsed in the blink of an eye.

Because liberalism is a fantasy that we operate in safety without respect for each other as human beings or the results of our actions. That fantasy can only be sustained by finding scapegoats whose original sin was violating the compact. We’re afraid we might be the scapegoat, so we help target other scapegoats. All because when it comes down to it, we can’t really trust other people to follow the rules if we don’t actually trust those people.

(And this all leaving aside that the threat liberalism is uniting against - Endbringers - are a metaphor for dealing with hostile natural forces but are actually the result of an emotionally deprived individual conjuring phantasms to fulfill his desire for purpose. The entire Truce would have been unnecessary if someone could have really helped Eidolon. Really, sometimes Worm couldn’t get more Lacanian if it tried.)

[1]  This is actually apocryphal, we’re not sure where it came from, but it’s stuck around in the public consciousness because it so precisely fits the philosophy of that time.

1 comment:

  1. I've been binging your posts on worm, and I have to say that they're some of the more insightful things I 've read about the series. You're dropping all these philosophies, and ideas and names, half of which I've never heard of and it's awesome because I get to learn fascinating new perspectives both yours and those you draw from.

    Thank you