Adam Wednesdays on The Rejection of Guilt and Lelouch

Original Post: Acknowledging Our Guilt for Our Choice of Heroes: Code Geass’ Lelouch Lamperouge

 

Adam Wednesdays says:

June 17, 2012 at 8:11 pm

I realize I’m coming late to the party, seeing as this article is about two years old now, but I’ve just recently discovered your site.

It’s funny, I really didn’t like “Code Geass.” But it’s not the type of show that I didn’t like, put aside, and then forget about. It’s a show that stayed in my thoughts more than I’d like to admit, often because it made me so angry. My dislike had nothing to do with the main characters or the idea behind the show; I found those fascinating. But I just found the telling of the story and much of the plotting to be unbearable and a gigantic let-down, more so because I wanted it to live up to the premise. I’m not usually the type who gets very heated or intense about a show I dislike. Even if I’m annoyed or angry with something I watch, I get it out of me quickly and then move on with my life. Code Geass, however? That show pissed me off. As in, on-the-verge-of-throwing-the-remote-at-the-TV pissed off.

And yet… I still like to read about it. And talk about it. And this type of article, that avoids the judgements or examinations of the show’s quality and instead talks about the ideas and the characters and how we engage with them, is the type that’s worth discussing. The “this show RAWKS” vs “this show SUX” arguments are usually pointless: one person says it’s good, on person disagrees; words get heated, caps-lock keys are pounded, and by the end no one has changed anyone’s mind and there’s been no actual discussion, just shouting in the general direction of another person. There’s no accounting for taste, your own or anyone else’s. As you say, “subjectivity, taste, and all that.” Much more worthwhile to discuss what the show’s about, I’d say.

And on that note, I apologize for making one of my first comments on your blog such a rambling doozy:

About this passage from your article:

What about the people who ‘don’t get’ these characters, and yet wildly support them? I imagine these people have a very limited view of these. Limited perhaps by self-delusions including but not limited to personal hopes pinned on the inherent goodness of humans. In political rallies, these are the people who are quick to call critics of their candidate libelous liars, and slanderers. They shout these things with tears in their eyes… righteous rage, and pity for their besieged hero.

While I think that sometimes this is the case, especially when it comes to fictional characters, there can be another side to it as well. Especially when it comes to shows with political elements like “Code Geass,” for some their refusal to acknowledge the “anti” in the anti-hero has less to do with the hope being placed in the inherent goodness of people, as it is in the faith in the inherent goodness of their own beliefs. For those types of people, the whitewashing comes from the fact that their like and support of the character begins and ends with the character’s cause, and the accompanying antipathy for the people who stand against that character comes from those characters being on the wrong side. There’s a very simplistic but attractive mindset that a lot of people fall into, where the cause a person advocates is the best way to judge their worth and morality. The cause is just, ergo the people who fight for it are good people; and on the flip side, if a cause in unjust, then the people who believe in it are unjust, and therefore are evil people. Personal behavior is subsumed by the grand narrative of Good vs Evil. If you’re on the right side, you cannot do bad because you are fighting for the right. If you’re on the wrong side, then you can never be good because your cause is evil.

Of course, the world is a bit more complicated than that. A person’s political beliefs are often completely unrelated to how moral a person they are, and being on the right side of history does not make every action you take excusable. And yet when it comes to judging the actions of public figures and characters alike, some people often forget that. The indignation you see over attacks made on people advocating for their beliefs, and therefore represent their beliefs in the public space, starts with their beliefs and works its way down to the person.
Lelouch is bound to attract this type of following, because his opponent, in the form of the Empire and his father both, is so obviously evil and wrong. It’s easy to see why a racist, war-like, and incredibly oppressive regime like the Britannian Empire should be opposed. Even if you sympathize with the reformist mindset of Suzaku and Euphemia that hopes that the existing infrastructure can be reformed and used to make everyone equal, it’s not hard to see them as being dangerously naive. The show is made for an audience living in modern day democracies; words like “empire,” “colonization,” and “racial superiority” are pretty much automatically going to raise the hackles of the people watching it so much that we automatically feel the Empire to be an entity so rotten and wrongheaded that it is irredeemable. Most people know automatically that empires aren’t in the business of extending the benefits enjoyed by those living in the homeland to the lands they conquer, but to extract resources and gain influence; anything else that comes with it is a side-effect. It’s why Kippling’s “White Man’s Burden” or Rhode’s belief in a Colonialism that would lead to all the lands held by the British Crown being elevated to equal stature with the homeland seem so naive today; we all know that equality for the conquered and colonized was never on the agenda. In fact, it was counter to the Empire’s purpose colonizing those places to begin with. If greater rights and privileges ever do manage to be gained, they are gained only through long, arduous, and often painful steps that are nowhere near as emotionally satisfying to root for as taking up arms for the romantic fight against the grand evil. And so from a political standpoint, Lelouch is automatically ahead. And for some people, the matter is closed right then and there. The Empire is evil, the sooner it comes down the better, and anyone who stands in the way of that is on the side of injustice. And who wants to support the injust?

But there’s another level to morality, the personal one. Does someone behave honorably and kindly to the people around them? Do they lie, cheat, and steal? Do they show empathy for others? Do they honor the trust given to them by the people around them, or do they abuse it? When looked at as a human being, it becomes much harder to argue that Lelouch is a better person than Suzaku or Euphemia. Hell, he’s not even a better person than Cornelia or Jeremiah.

Lelouch is, to put it bluntly, a cold-hearted bastard. And it goes beyond just his tactics, which include terrorism that leads to civilian death, betrayal of allies, murder, and casual manipulation of all the people who care about him and follow him. It’s also obvious that Lelouch enjoys being a bastard. Recall that devilish grin on his face when he first uses his Geass power and orders an entire unit of Britannian soldiers to commit mass suicide; that’s the smile of a man who realizes he literally has the power to command people to unquestioningly end their own lives, and absolutely loves the idea. And this isn’t the only scene where he’s like that. He egotistically gloats and laughs maniacally when his betrayals and schemes come together, even as people, even his allies, are suffering, tricked, or dying because of them.

It’s even apparent in the scene when he kills Clovis. While most people will hardly ever say that murder is a good thing, most of the audience is perfectly willing to enjoy seeing Clovis be killed by the time it happens. Not because we want to justify murder, but because we want to see evil people be punished. Evil people meeting evil ends makes the world seem right; we want to believe that they’ll reap what they sow. Clovis, who had just ordered the massacre of civilians before his death, is obviously a wretched human being (his character only exists to be a wretched human being for Lelouch to dispatch, after all). There really isn’t any punishment other than death that would seem like any type of justice for him. Even those who find murder abhorrent are hardly going to shed a tear for him if someone puts him down, and so we are more accepting of what we know is going to happen to him because his murder is a lesser evil done to avenge his much more numerous and heinous crimes, and stop other atrocities that he was likely to commit throughout his life. But… look at Lelouch’s face when he confronts his brother. The situation becomes much less morally acceptable when you see the protagonist’s expression and realize that Lelouch is enjoying the scenario far too much to simply be concerned with justice being done. He’s obviously taking sadistic pleasure in the thought of terrorizing and killing a man; and not just any man, but his brother.

And that is another one of the ways that Lelouch is morally compromised on a personal level: it’s all about personal gratification. His cause isn’t really the liberation of the Japanese and the defeat of an unjust empire, it’s getting personal revenge on his family. The liberation movement was just the most convenient way to achieve these goals. He’s a man with no real convictions outside of his own personal wants. He may sometimes justify his actions by tying them to a political struggle, or by saying it’s about making a better world for Nunally, but that often just seems to be the excuses he uses to make himself seem righteous. Even in the case of Nunally, it’s not really about what she wants so much as what he has decided she should want him to give her; he almost certainly never asked her or considered whether or not she would want the things he does committed in her name.

And so we get back to the question: WHY do we root for Lelouch, who when examined as a person hardly seems worthy of our support. To get back to your statement about those who DO “get” anti-heroes:

I suggested earlier that some of us who went this far with Lelouch may have an appreciation for evil. Maybe some of us do, but I find this less interesting compared to those of us who tell ourselves that we don’t, and suffer guilt for indulging ourselves in it.

With a narrative like “Code Geass,” it’s very easy for people who don’t usually fall into the simplistic mindset I talked about above to start to indulge in it. It’s just fiction, after all, and one of the benefits of fiction is that it gives us much cleaner and clearer narratives than the messiness of real life and realpolitik. We may want to see evil punished, but we know that in the real world if we take that responsibility on ourselves we may end up doing evil things. Most of us want to be good people, and many of those who are willing to accept that sometimes you must morally compromise yourself if you want to achieve justice don’t want to personally face the consequences that doing so would bring, whether it be the law, the disappointment of peers and loved ones, or the hurt that our actions may cause to the people who don’t deserve it.

Anti-heroes give us a vicarious thrill. They are the type of people who have it in them to do the dirty deeds that demand doing, in spite of it all. Yes, they may violate some laws and some ethics, but if their actions punish greater injustices then it’s all for the better. Part of us knows it’s wrong, but part of us thrills at watching it unfold. We the viewer may not support murder or terrorism, but we certainly won’t be sorry for a mad dog like Clovis. Whatever happens to him is surely deserved, he brought it on himself. And the Empire has committed so many crimes, we can hardly be expected to hate someone who actually seems like he could bring it down.

But a character like Lelouch compromises all that. He’s so driven by his own petty desire for revenge and the closure he thinks it will bring him, it becomes harder to just sit back and vicariously enjoy justice being done through him. Because a lot of his actions aren’t justice, but vengeance. And that’s much less glamourous, especially over fifty or so episodes.

And so we get back to guilt. Not just our own over still wanting to Lelouch to win (because given his enemy, who doesn’t want the Empire to lose?), but the guilt of the protagonist as well. His hands are very bloody by the end, too bloody for it to simply be written off as necessary evil with a shrug and a wink. And we gain some solace in our guilt from knowing that he suffers from his own. If we don’t want to see him punished for it, we at least want him to attempt to atone. Orchestrating his own death is a concise way to absolve himself, and us, at least a little. It says he at least had the self-awareness by the end to give up seeing the benefits of all his work in an attempt for absolution. That’s why the theory that he has faked his own death seem so wrongheaded and distasteful to me. It would mean that after everything, he’d learned nothing and felt no remorse, and was even to the end doing everything for himself. That much guilt, I can do without.

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