(Image courtesy of NBC's "The Good Place")


Opinion: Fictional characters have more human rights than us

I, like many others, am thoroughly invested in my favorite books and TV shows. My Harry Potter house is a fraction of my identity. I count down the days until Friday every week: I’m always ready when an episode of “The Good Place” drops on Hulu. In other words, I am amongst the majority of…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/briannapham/" target="_self">Brianna Pham</a>

Brianna Pham

January 21, 2019

I, like many others, am thoroughly invested in my favorite books and TV shows. My Harry Potter house is a fraction of my identity. I count down the days until Friday every week: I’m always ready when an episode of “The Good Place” drops on Hulu.

In other words, I am amongst the majority of the population who will unswervingly stand by their favorite pop culture niches.

At the end of the day, no matter how different these niches can be, they attract us in the same way. Harry Potter or Sherlock, anime or K-dramas, Broadway or Hollywood — they all have some sort of intrinsic realness to them. Someone may be as bad at love as William Darcy, as melodramatic as Kylo Ren. Because of this, we show mercy to our favorite characters and love them endlessly.

We relate to them.

The falsehood of a niche can range widely between a high school drama and Narnia, but their common relatability is what makes these stories seem so tangible. Perhaps more tangible than the unfortunate reality of the United States.

Put simply: if we can say that Draco Malfoy is a misunderstood yet lovable character who is a victim of his circumstances, then why did America spray tear gas at refugees? At the world’s real misunderstood victims of their circumstances?


What this article is actually about

Why do we forget our understanding of fictional characters in the real world and constrain our beliefs to two flawed political parties? Why are we so bad at understanding someone besides ourselves? Why does verisimilitude exist in the unreal, but not in the lives of others?

In some ways, this question is why the United States is hitting the month-long mark of its government shutdown. Because we cannot decide when, how, and to whom human rights should be given.

I put myself through the excruciating headache that was reading the news every day this month; I could probably rattle off every liberal and conservative argument regarding the Land of the Free’s Walmart Great Wall of China. However, this essay is not one that’s supposed to correlate with either the “liberal agenda” or the “close-minded conservative lens.” I’m simply trying to avoid the fatal mistake of casting aside real lives for fictional ones.

That is why I must say this: Mexican immigrants are real people. One can be your doctor, and another could make you a superb sandwich at Subway. They can be your friends or foes, your coworkers or bosses. Some get luckier than others, but they are all courageous people who sought a better life. They’re getting jobs, not taking them from the Supreme And Entitled White Man. In America, they are finally getting the chance to grasp the fruits of success, opportunity, and stability.

They are individuals, not a coalition of less-than-humans. And they can teach you a lot about life outside the States, perhaps more than that mustached guy from “Narcos” (although that’s a great show).

So, I urge you: welcome the learning experience.


A brief philosophical rundown

A philosophical concept relevant to our current political climate (and, appropriately, was mentioned in The Good Place) is contractualism. This theory of an implicit social contract is a cornerstone to determining the morality of Mexican-American wall.

Contractualism at its basis implies that all man acts on reason, and the value in life lies in our ability to recognize these reasons. By considering these motives, we fulfill the basic debt that we all owe to each other. Emphasis is placed on the wills of the people, pluralism, or, in other words, consideration of other perspectives  —  contractualism edges close to the Kantian necessity of treating people as ends in themselves.

The theory is grounded on the equal moral status of all persons, or in other words, mutual respect. However, the contractual lens does not aim at aggregation of persons (as opposed to utilitarianism), but rather, an understanding. This understanding allows us to relate to sitcom characters, even if we happen to differ from them. We form a basic understanding of them through the relatability factor.

A political viewpoint: whether you’re conservative, liberal, or an offshoot of both, you must admit that understanding is the first constituent of determining what is right, of cracking the imminent disagreement that is the government shutdown.


Contractualism vs. The Wall

“Yeah, man. We’re refugees. What kind of messed up place would turn away refugees?”

— Jason Mendoza, “The Good Place”

First and foremost, the worst thing about Trump’s arguments isn’t that they go against the social contract. It’s that most of them are patently false.

Ninety percent of heroin comes from across the border? The real statistic is 39 percent. Incoming immigrants are taking jobs? No, there are just too many that are overstaying on their visas. I could go on and on, and you have heard it all before.

The first moral problem with this border situation is an interesting paradox: spreading pro-border arguments isn’t helping anyone understand it. It’s just confusing people into believing things they shouldn’t. People who aren’t into politics but want to minimize their taxes are inevitably going to support Trump and his endeavors.

Thus, here’s my first contractual argument: Dear liberals, don’t judge conservatives just because Trump is the face of the party. Understand that his false doctrines can fool many, and that, to some extent, there is some truth to them. There is still some heroin crossing the border, and there are some immigrants causing problems for us. This is why these statistics are believable.

On the other side of the coin, we owe our immigrants more than spreading falsehoods about how dangerous they really are. We owe them a few minutes of our time to do some research about the statistics against them, the very ones coming from the president’s mouth.

Here is a contractual perspective on reasonable rejection, paraphrased slightly for brevity.

“Consider a principle that allocates benefits and burdens on the basis of race. I cannot reject the racist principle simply because of the burden it imposes on me  —  after all, the random principle imposes an identical burden on someone else. Rather, I reject the racist principle because it constitutes a failure to respect my status as a person.” –Stanford Encyclopedia

To simplify: accepting Trump’s campaign claim that Mexican refugees are “rapists” is equivalent to thinking my sister’s Muslim boyfriend is apart of the Taliban. We are compelled to reject racist principles because they condemn a group for their race just as, in a different scenario, they could dehumanize us for our own. Alongside his false statistics, Trump forms generalities based on the origins of these immigrants; hence, racism.

My second contractual argument: Dear border-supporting conservatives, don’t cast aside your responsibilities as a citizen. By forgetting the humanness of refugees, we fail to understand them (especially if racism is in the ballpark). It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to understand, because you must. It will be the first step to ending the shutdown and taking steps to a solution.

And, dear everyone: I don’t care if you disregard morality as an argument. We have reached a point in politics where morality is the argument.

How pop culture brings out contractual hypocrisy

Pop culture fandoms, contractualism, and current politics are all, in some ways, intertwined.

“How To Get Away With Murder” fans got angry at Connor for believing Annalise was responsible for various murders when she had actually tried to prevent them. Connor hadn’t investigated the circumstances and blamed her, who, in reality, led a saddening and difficult life. This made a lot of fans angry at his character, as he failed to truly understand who Annalise was and deemed her a monster.

We all were mad at the students of Harvard Law School in “Legally Blonde.” They underestimated what Elle Woods could do in court because she appeared different from them. She came to law school to, ultimately, better her life. Elle was more “glitz and glam” than the norm, though, so people laughed at her based on generalities they deduced from her outward appearance.

To us, a rude character is a “poor cinnamon roll,” a brokenhearted one the century’s worst tragedy, a traitor the most despicable creature on the planet. And yet, to large portions of America, Mexican refugees are nothing more than a cold statistic.

How can we be so hypocritical to remember what we owe to fictional characters but not to real people? How can we cast aside actual, tangible, existent lives; how can we shrug at the stories of refugees at Tijuana but cry when someone dies a fake tragic death on the silver screen?

I would bet my life on it: if people were as open-minded of each other like they are to their favorite characters, life would be exponentially easier to understand. Life would be, in fact, better.

Knowing this, I implore you to bridge the gap between the fictional and real worlds inside your mindset. With their own tough lives, our beloved TV characters awaken the humanness we lack so verily in politics; they, like me, are screaming, crying, begging for America’s wake up call.

I urge you to do the same  —  we owe it to each other.

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