**SPOILER ALERT – I am going to discuss the film “Circle”. I don’t plan on discussing major plot points but there might be some spoilers in it. If you hate spoilers then maybe don’t read this, you should watch the movie on Netflix though. If you are like me and actually find spoilers to make the viewing experience even better than feel free to read on (I’m not alone), or if you don’t plan on seeing the film but are curious what the premise said about society keep reading. Really, do whatever the hell you want, I just wanted to give a warning so that people don’t screech at me.
Two nights ago my partner and I watched the movie “Circle” on Netflix. I really enjoyed the film and I highly recommend it, particularly if you enjoyed “Last Man on Earth”. The two have a similar method of getting you to think and analyze the way we live our lives. Anyway, the whole story takes place in a single room. In this room there are about 50 people who have no idea how they got into the room. I thought at first this was going to be some sort of Saw rip-off. That is kind of why I picked the film, I love the Saw movies and the underlying philosophical questions they can raise, but this was a bit different.
In the center of the room is a machine that kills a person if they try to move away from the platform they woke up on or touch someone else. Every few minutes a countdown begins and at the end of the countdown the machine kills a seemingly random person. It turns out that each person has an implant in their hand and can anonymously vote for who will be killed next, the person with the most votes get killed at the end of the countdown.
Basically, all the people in the room must choose to vote for the death of other people in order to survive and as the participants start talking to each other we start to see some insight into how people value other humans. The participants are all a bit stereotypical, which generally wouldn’t make a great film but it works in this situation. You aren’t supposed to really feel attached to complex characters, it is more of a reflection of how we operate in the real world. We always group people together based on preconceived notions and stereotypes. This is a battle between which archetypes our society values the most.
Some of the group members include a Gordon Gecko style Republican businessman, a lesbian woman who is married and has a daughter, a pregnant woman, a Marine in uniform, a Latino male who can’t speak English, an elderly African-American man, an overweight white police officers, a pastor, a 16-year old frumpy nerdy guy, a young Asian male, and a 10-year old girl. Some of the racial and economic stereotypes seem over the top at first (and they would definitely be over the top in a standard film) but it works in this case. I think those stereotypes are necessary in this case, and in some ways are the point of the film.
So, as the characters get a grasp on the situation they are in they start trying to decide who to vote for to buy time. The plan is to kill of people who “deserve it” the most and hopefully they can escape. Do you kill off older people first because they have lived the longest? How about criminals or people who are “bad”? Do parent’s count more than people without kids? Does a 10-year old count more than a pregnant woman? Does the pregnant woman count as less because she is unmarried? Do certain people have an obligation to sacrifice themselves for others because of their gender or job? Does someone who is living a “sinful” life like the lesbian woman count as less? Is a banker worth more than someone who works at a non-profit? Should Americans count as more than non-Americans? How would you vote if your life was on the line? Or would you vote at all? How would you make that decision when others are pressuring? How does the pack affect individuals?
While the situation is sensational I don’t think the ethical questions it raises are that far-fetched. When we support a specific policy, whether it be war, immigration restrictions, or welfare expansion, we are making a statement on the value of one person’s life over another based on very little information about that individual. When we make economic decisions based on whether a product was made in America we are prioritizing the prosperity and life of one group of people over another.
These decisions are inevitable, and in some ways every decision we make in life has at least a small effect on someone else. I don’t think many people give much thought to this, though as an economist I have thought about some sides of this (which is why I support free markets). Humans are not islands and our decisions effect real people who have families and passions and dreams, and too often I think we make decisions with only the stereotypes in mind. We prioritize those like us, we see them as having more value because of some “us vs them” tribalism… they have the same race as me, the same nationality, the same religion, the same politics, the same lifestyle, etc. We dehumanize people just a little bit if they are different than us. It isn’t conscious for most people, but it happens all the time. We go on auto-pilot without analyzing our choices or views, particularly when politics are involved. Maybe, just maybe we should give more thought to our actions and recognize the humanity in us all.
The worst, of course, is when we participate in politics. Each person, usually based on Republican or Democratic, sees the other side as the enemy; stupid and/or evil. We forget that each side is filled with people who are doing their best in this world and haven’t had the same experiences that we have. They haven’t read the same books, had the same types of mentors, seen the same things, but that doesn’t make them the enemy. We are all a team on this planet and maybe if we remembered the humanity instead of reducing each other to stereotypes we would get out of this all alive.
Sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.