Art & MediaAtheism

Slaughtering the Sacred Cows

I saw the movie Aeon Flux when it came to theatres, approximately forever ago.  Over the years I remembered liking it (because what’s not to like about Charlize Theron being a badass?), but that was pretty much it.  I watched it again recently with my Queer Feminist Media Critique goggles on and was unexpectedly delighted by it – there are problems, because everything has problems (oh please oh please oh please give me a queer protagonist in a major movie whose plot is not centered on their sexual orientation), and it’s a bit cheesy, but by and large it’s head and shoulders above most other films of its kind.  It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, has two named female characters who are black, indulges in only a (relatively) little gratuitous sexualization, and doesn’t involve the incredibly badass, empowered protagonist being ‘fixed’ to make her more traditionally feminine.

There is one thing about the movie, however, that keeps me from unabashedly adoring it, and that is one of the major thematic messages. Since said thematic message is essentially the Big Reveal, if you happen to care about spoilers for an eight-year-old movie, you should probably stop reading here.

Still with me?  Okay, good.

I absolutely despise the ‘death is necessary to give life meaning’ trope.  (Never mind that they were treating preservation of the humans’ exact DNA through an endless progression of clones as living forever and what that does to my inner biologist.  For the purposes of this article, I’m taking their word for it, calling it magic in my head, and moving on.)  It gets trotted out over and over and over again in our narratives, in every form you can think of, but it’s always the same.  ‘True,’ noble immortality can only be gained by the passing on of one’s genes to offspring; everything else is Unnatural and therefore Obviously Bad.

Let’s set aside the actual philosophical question of correctness – my personal position on the matter is moot for the purposes of this post.  The point is that the position ‘Death is Inevitable and Good’ is almost unanimously touted in our narratives that involve the idea of immortality, and usually with only – at best – a cursory attempt to explain why this position is true.  It’s a thematic aphorism and a sacred cow.

Sacred cows are really tasty, by the way.  Even though I don’t overly care for regular cow.

For this particular trope, it’s easy to see why it’s so ubiquitous: the current human condition involves death, and that’s hard to deal with.  But if that justification doesn’t fly for religion’s promises of an afterlife, it certainly shouldn’t fly elsewhere.  And yet, I have had people get offended by me taking the position that maybe death isn’t so great after all, and that if I could keep my consciousness alive (I’m not particularly picky about the form, so long as I’ve got data input/output capabilities), I’d do so.  Not even saying that everyone else should want that, just me.  And lest you think the vitriol’s all from the religious corner, the most dramatic example I’m referring to of was from another atheist.

The reason I dislike sacred cows so very much is that they are an imperative for stagnancy.  ‘Fucketh not with this paradigm, or thou shalt surely regret it.’  The paradigm in question must not be questioned, must not be changed, must not have attempts made to improve it, even when it involves obvious unpleasantness.  Heliocentrism killed a sacred cow.  Modern medicine is killing a sacred cow (‘my suffering is God’s will,’ among others).  Genetic engineering is killing a sacred cow.  Acknowledgment of a continuum of gender and sexuality as opposed to a set of binaries is killing a sacred cow.  Atheism in general is having a regular barbeque with them.

And yet there always seem to be more.

As a scientist (and one who does genetic engineering to boot), I am all for being careful, and for examining the wider implications and ethical challenges brought by new discoveries and technological developments.  However, that so often gets conflated with the idea that we ‘shouldn’t play god,’ whether in those words or more secular ones, and is used as an excuse to board over the doors that make people uncomfortable to consider opening.

Many of our greatest advancements in improving the human condition required someone to kill a sacred cow – propose a paradigm change – and make the previously unthinkable open up into tangible reality.  Accepting the possibility of change is not the same as recklessly charging ahead without watching where we’re going.

Whether or not you share my enthusiasm for the idea of immortality and my deep, abiding love for watching Charlize Theron portray a futuristic assassin… let’s keep prying the boards off the doors, and start looking through the peepholes.

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Dae is a chemical engineering graduate student who aspires to become a mad scientist, but is prepared to settle for being a professor. Her extracurricular academic interests are an ever-shifting list, but currently include temperament psychology, philosophy, transhumanism, and pre-modern literature. She identifies as a bisexual cis-woman, as well as a feminist, humanist, atheist, and roleplaying game enthusiast.

1 Comment

  1. March 9, 2013 at 2:40 am —

    so glad to hear i’m not the only one who finds it maddening when a piece of fiction takes the cow out to the slaughterhouse, sets its grim expression, then throws it an otter fellating surprise party.
    er… otter fellating as an expletive, not adjective.

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