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June 6, 2017 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Go Watch TV: Rick and Morty and Secular Humanism

Writers and critics have praised Rick and Morty for its sharp character writing and absurdist take on sci-fi tropes, and I count myself in that number. But there is a mounting backlash against it that I can’t help but pick a bone with.

On one of the many, many pop culture podcasts I listen to, two of the hosts talked about their reasons why they couldn’t watch Rick and Morty. One couldn’t stand the sound of Rick’s alcohol-tinged burps without feeling physically ill, the other claiming it was anti-humanist and had a “spitefulness.” An article on The Federalist titled “‘Rick And Morty’ Is Incredibly Depressing And Doesn’t Deserve Its Popularity” argued that its inclusion of parallel universes made their stories shallow, consequenceless, and pessimistic. The writer ended on this note: “I can’t help but think that the stunning popularity of a show proclaiming the insignificance of all our lives and choices says something troubling about pop culture. But what exactly it says, I’m not sure.”

Well, I think I know, and it has something to do with questioning some deeply held beliefs we have about science fiction and its underlying ideology — secular humanism.

Humanism is the belief that humans are special in and of ourselves, not because we were divinely made; that because of our brains/self-awareness/endurance, humans have value, measured on our terms instead of God’s. Humanism proposes that we can use science to fix the parts of ourselves, such as prejudice, violence, or the fact that we die, and progress beyond them. Then we create narratives to explore them. We make science fiction. We create myths of progress.

Every sci-fi trope comes back to the love of human progress. You have Star Trek’s vision of a world where war and conflict was put aside to expand human knowledge by exploring the stars. We blow up aliens for invading our planet and daring to remind us of colonialism. Superheroes are Enlightenment-flavoured fetishism for a perfect human that can save everyone by bringing them to their greater perspective.

Philosopher John Gray in his book Straw Dogs writes that humanism is founded on the idea that truth adds to progress and makes us “free.” But of what, exactly? Be it a belief in God, our own irrationality, or something else we believe is keeping us from reaching a potential, Gray argues that we actually live and die on our capacity for self-deception and inventing narratives to justify our existence. We want to rationally progress beyond those imperfections, but will ignore anything that tells us we can’t get to that point.

This is something I think Rick and Morty comments on really well. Rick himself is a great demonstration of this. Seemingly a great inventor and scientist having perfectly adapted to surviving trips across the multiverse, he still simply declares “don’t think about it!” when he meets something even remotely existentially threatening to him, and numbs himself with drugs and alcohol to avoid confronting the fact that it affects him. In Season Two we finally see this catch up with him, as his belief that he can’t care for anyone begins to crumble (seriously, anyone who thinks Rick is uncaring should remember that Beth exists. Also: Unity). We even see him genuinely concerned for Morty when he tries to emulate Rick’s casual immorality.

If the show didn’t legitimately care about its characters and the consequences of their actions, then it would be nihilistic. However, I think it plays in that liminal space between our perceived limitations and our actual ones. Morty believes in putting the value of other life forms above his own, but that view hits a wall when he ends up aiding a sentient gas cloud whose survival depends on cleansing the universe of all carbon-based life. Summer’s attempt to “free” people from Unity leads to a planet-wide war, forcing her to realise that total freedom doesn’t mean you just get to choose your own phone carrier. Humanism isn’t one-size-fits-all, especially in a multiverse with more than just humans.

Even the more domestic plots show that we tend to accept and habituate to our own circumstances rather than move past them. Jerry and Beth are in a toxically co-dependent marriage both are too afraid to leave, and when told through space marriage counselling that they should break up, the pair defend one another because their contempt was bred in familiarity. At the end of the Purge episode, after their oppressive aristocrats are killed, the aliens try to rebuild their society. After debating every economic structure from communism to socialism to capitalism, they revert right back to establishing the Purge again to release all their aggression at trying to make a better society. That’s just what humans do. They are given freedom and end up building a new cage.

I don’t think it’s spiteful of humans; it’s sympathetic to how humans react when faced with these realisations. Our scientific and technological advances have served not only to improve our lives but to highlight our limitations and the extent of the illusions we had about ourselves. Advances in modern medicine should free us from having to worry about health, but we withhold those advances through a system that asks who should deserve healthcare. Social media should free us from selfishness and a close-minded worldview, but has only served to tax our limited empathy by caring about things beyond our capacity to control or influence, amplifying our tribalism further. Humans are an impressive lot, but the world changes faster than we can handle, and we often end up returning to a comfortable idea when something questions our assumptions.

The worst judgement you can make of a piece of art is mistaking the surface of a thing for the thing itself. The show’s critics are of a mind that science fiction should only offer myths of progress, or if a criticism of those myths, should at least flatter humans for trying to live up to them. In Rick and Morty, critics see a condemnation, instead of questioning these deeply held assumptions we have about the way the world should be and the narratives we create that serve to uphold those assumptions. The show offers a catharsis for our anxieties about how we’re failing to live up to our science fiction standards. We’re not gods, we’re the butter-passing robot, gazing hopelessly at our meager appendages and realising our limitations.

You pass butter. You make narratives. You construct illusions. You’re only human. Welcome to the *uuurp* club. Go watch TV.


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