“Neither seek nor shun the fight.”
~ Gaelic proverb
Non-violent or pacifist?
Just for clarification: This is not a stance on the death penalty, war, self-defense, or revenge. I’m not even too concerned about the amount of any one of them in fiction (I think I at least touched it in my recurring themes post at some point, anyway). I’m more concerned about approach, I think. There’s a list of topics I think every sane person should revisit periodically, things I just don’t think should be taken lightly, and if we didn’t argue about them I’d be a bit worried. Among them is violent behavior (be it the death penalty, war, enhanced interrogation, beating the snot out of a schoolyard bully, or anything else that might fit here) and our response to it. So, if you’re really curious about my stance on violence in stories, simply put: There’s a time and a place for everything under the sun. I’m admittedly fascinated by the way writers choose to handle tough subjects, violence included. It underscores our frailties and reminds us how precious life really is–and the consequences of an evil that is quite real in the world. Justice is impossible without it. And that’s really about all I’m going to say on that.
That said: Doctor Who sent me down this road, so we’ll pick on the Doctor first. Supposedly, he’s a pacifist, but I’ll go to my grave disagreeing with everybody, including the Doctor, on that one. But you be the judge. The show itself, like I’ve said, is a bit finicky on its own philosophy sometimes. And before you yell at me, please remember I actually like that the Doctor considers violence last resort. On the one hand, you find resolve like this:
Dalek: What’ll it be, Doctor, coward or killer?
The Doctor struggles a minute, then jerks his hands away from the controller: Coward. Always.
Note: For the record, I love this line because he’s neither killer nor coward, and that time he doesn’t care what anyone calls him for his decision. And this scene very quickly generates the idea that heroes are not quick to destroy, shameless when they refuse, and often guilt-riddled when they must.
Doctor [after he and Martha successfully tricked the Master into thinking they had a secret weapon to kill Time Lords]: “Did you really think I would ever tell her to kill for me?”
Wilfred [ offering a pistol to defend himself ]: “Take this.”
The Doctor: “I never, ever would.”
Note two: The season three snippet underscores the idea that revenge is not a viable notion: He won’t use a gun to defend himself, and he won’t ask someone else to do so, either.
Doctor: I have three options: One, I let the starwhale continue in unendurable agony for hundreds of more years. Two, I kill everyone on this ship. Three, I murder a beautiful, innocent creature as painlessly as I can. And then I find a new name because I won’t be the Doctor anymore. [someone interrupts] Nobody talk to me; nobody human has anything to say to me today!
And I think this one speaks for itself. It tells a lot about the Doctor, but on top of all the good things, I think this whole scene also demonstrates that while he wants to do the right thing, he doesn’t always see every option or know what the right thing is. It’s actually Amy who figures it out, much to his relief. And I think to that end, there’s that more subtle indication that heroes don’t always have to know what they’re doing or even know what the right thing is to be decent people.
Donna: They were burning and drowning and you stood there!
[Nevermind they were going to kill everyone, Donna, including you, and he did warn them first.]
[A Character about Martha]: “You made a soldier of her.”
But on the other hand, the Doctor clearly doesn’t have a problem destroying his entire planet (his own people, his own family, his own friends) to get rid of his biggest enemy, had no problem manipulating people into destroying themselves, took revenge on the Family of Blood, destroyed the Racnoss without blinking, time-locked the Time Lords a second time, and goes stark-raving mad every time he looks at a Dalek for more than two seconds.
Ironically enough, for all his fascination with humans and his insistence that his companions are the best humans in the world, the Doctor’s companions are also far more likely to resort to a weapon than he is: Martha carries a gun more than once; Rose turns the Daleks to dust using the Time Vortex and later herself shoots a Dalek; Donna…slaps people. River has no problem shooting people, and the Doctor even jokes about it. That’s a far cry from the Doctor’s almost threatening “Don’t you dare!” toward Jack Harkness in season four, btw. And that’s the primary criticism of one of his enemies: “You take ordinary people and fashion them into weapons.” He terrifies them to the point they run off without a fight, using fear as a weapon despite his hatred of such manipulation and oppression. He’s avoiding a fight. They’re plotting a revolt to destroy him. And so the Doctor lives in this constant danger of becoming the very thing he despises.
So is he a warmonger or a pacifist; a violent man or a man of peace? Good or evil? Somewhere in the middle, really. Just…don’t attack his friends.
So there you have it: I don’t think the Doctor’s a pacifist, but I also don’t think pacifists really exist, either. Push hard enough, someone’s coming out swinging.
The Charm of Restraint
All that said, in all fairness, there’s something particularly charming about a hero who doesn’t carry a weapon. Doctor Who is neither the first nor the last to work through when violence is appropriate and when it isn’t. Another contemporary favorite of mine is Eliot Spencer, in the show Leverage. He hates guns and usually doesn’t carry more than a knife, but even then tends to use only his hands and feet. To quote:
Nathan Ford: [Nate sees Sterling walk in behind Eliot] Eliot, I’m going to ask you not to do anything violent.
Eliot Spencer: What? What are you talking about? I only use violence as an appropriate response.
Jim Sterling: Hello, Nate.
[Eliot’s eyes widen and he whirls around and punches Sterling in the face]
(Season 3: Zanzibar Market Place episode)
Part of Eliot’s development is that he steps quickly out of his role as hitman/thug and into his role as team protector. I think part of why he stays with Nate is that Nate doesn’t make him act that way. As a result, part of Eliot’s redemption arc is taking the thing he despises about himself, a very dark thing, and using it to save instead of destroy.
Most of the stories I read or watch involve, on a one to ten scale, anywhere from a level five to ten on violence. The dominant theme of all of them tends to be what separates murder from justice, the avenger from the killer, the oppressor from the protector. What, exactly, makes a good man: The one who never fights, or the one who fights one way over another?
- The Patriot – Benjamin Martin is not a violent man, nor a particularly rebellious one, either. He tries the middle ground as long as he can, offering safe haven to anyone on both sides who comes through. But when one son is captured and another murdered before his eyes, he’s driven first to revenge, then to the American Revolution.
- Gladiator – Maximus was a bit overly trusting in the beginning , which is what got him in trouble, but despite the utter hell he goes through maintains his principles, even in a gladiator ring. Again, he’s not violent and has no concept of violence as entertainment.
- Braveheart – William Wallace hits the revenge theme, a revenge that only afterward expands to rebellion against England.
- Human Target – This show was canceled, but basically it was about an ex-assassin who as a means of penance offers his service as personal bodyguard. His teammates are a former cop, a professional thief, and an apparently still-active hitman and sniper. It focused more on the consequences of taking human life, both physical and psychological.
Book-wise, I could list plenty, but when you’re reading mostly fantasy, mystery, suspense, and psychological thrillers, some measure of violence is inevitable. I’ve been catching up on my Tim Downs, so I’ll just cite him. Downs (mentioned affectionately) has, at least for me, shown a wide range of using violence in different methods. He has a knack for making his protagonist look at gruesome images of dead (and usually rotting) bodies, but since the Bug Man is a forensic entomologist with glasses that make Coke bottle bottoms look thin, he doesn’t engage in much of the active, physical violence (although he gets himself in plenty of trouble either way). In Plague Maker, though, Nathan the FBI agent deals with far more violence in what turns out to be this beautiful story about forgiveness. Head Game is more psychological, and in some ways more chilling as a result: the head game isn’t in killing you; it’s in getting you to kill yourself through a chain of psychological attacks that, at least to me, created this morbidly fascinating depiction of spiritual warfare (I’ve also been thinking on that topic awhile; that was part of it).
And overall that’s what I find: Ideally the strong man isn’t a bully, but he can be pushed to his limits. He may or may not be aggressive by nature, but he’s not going to sit back passively, either. So there is a particular charm to the strongest character being simultaneously strong and gentle (Eliot isn’t really gentle, but he does have a gentler side that we get to see occasionally), to a character who clearly can defend himself and won’t on some overriding principle (that usually endangers him). And there’s a charm to the most powerful player preferring restraint over dominance. And that’s the charm of the Doctor’s only “weapons” being a sonic screwdriver, the TARDIS (which is more of a getaway vehicle than anything) , and his brain.
“Good men have too many rules.”
“Good men don’t need rules. And today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”
~Eyepatch Lady & The Doctor, A Good Man Goes to War
Edit: And I think I know my next topic: Psychological violence. Also, I apologize this isn’t as polished as I’d have liked. I could have gone so many directions with it.