I saw Disney’s new rendition of Beauty and the Beast the other day in a crowded theater with smelly seats. Despite the undesirable ambiance, I was enchanted. I laughed, I gasped, I cried. And for about a week now after seeing the moving, I have been pondering good and evil, trying to grapple with this dichotomy and its implications about who we are as humans. All the while I’ve been hoping that some revelation would also help me understand what irked me about a book talk I saw earlier this term by Benjamin Hale on his new book The Wild and the Wicked. I think I’m beginning to understand.
So first, let’s start with Disney…
Throughout most of the movie, I felt as though each main character had been created in order to fit into a polarized ideal of either virtuous or vengeful – altruistic, or a narcissist to the core. Belle, of course, is saintly. She is smart, fearless, and empathetic. She sees the beauty in a beast who does not see it in himself. Gaston – the broad-chested buffoon who makes the townswomen swoon – is the stereotypical brute and ultimately the embodiment of evil. Besides his boastfulness and penchant for drawing swords and firing his musket, Gaston also commits unforgiveable acts such as punching an old man (Belle’s father), tying him to a tree and leaving him for the wolves, and shooting the Beast multiple times in the back after the duel was supposed to be over. (What a jerk!)
So, Belle and Gaston are moral polar opposites, and the Beast is pretty awful too. In his earlier years (pre horns, claws, and lion/buffalo head), he threw extravagant parties for his own pleasure and arrogantly strutted about the dance floor, examining and judging the pretty women. When an old woman shows up at his door in the middle of one of these gaudy parties, asking for food and shelter, the prince turns her away. Unfortunately for him, she’s actually a witch, and she damns him to a life of self-loathing and pariah status until he can learn unconditional love. (Spoiler alert: he succeeds.)Yet I realized that the Beast is actually not evil. He’s also not as virtuous as Belle. In fact, he is probably the most morally realistic character in the movie precisely because he is flawed (as humans are flawed), and because he embodies the true complexities of humanity that are less easily grouped into Team Good and Team Evil.
What does this have to do with Ben Hale?
In a way, Ben Hale pushes against similar dichotomies of good and bad as they are applied to nature. He argues that humans should not have to love nature in order to respect and protect it. He also argues that it’s alright not to love nature – not only because not everyone enjoys camping and hiking, but also because, let’s face it, nature can be cruel… Right?
Well I’ve realized, as I pondered Beauty and the Beast, that it’s this last part of Hale’s argument that irks me. As humans, we have written a moral code for our species that helps us identify if an act is good or bad. As problematic as this dichotomy can be (evidence: the Beast is good and bad, so which one is he?!), it seems to be how we understand ourselves, and it’s the way we teach our children not to steal or punch or worse. But I am a firm believer that human-made moral constructs should remain within the realm by which they were constructed. In other words, “nature” never asked to be called good or wicked, so who are we to impose these human notions onto anything nonhuman?
Perhaps Hale would argue that, regardless of whether or not we should impose moral standards on nature, we do. His book is written for a broader audience than ethicists and philosophers, so in some ways I think he’s just trying to operate within the framework his readers will most likely understand. I’m all for making theories accessible to the general public, but I have to say that I’m still bothered by Hale’s argument. I can’t let it go.
So, here’s one last thought on what I think is bugging me so much about Hale’s talk…
He began the afternoon by showing a series of photos. At one point, he showed pictures that were supposed to illustrate the many “bad” things nature has done. As a group, we cringed at the sight of dead bodies washed up from Tsunamis, dead bodies washed up from Hurricane Katrina, and more dead bodies from other “natural disasters.” The understanding, as Hale showed these images, was that nature was sometimes cruel, and nature was sometimes wicked.
Yet, I think about Hurricane Katrina. I think about a paper I read recently in my EAH Perspectives class written by Ashley Dawson. One section in the paper is titled: “There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster.” Dawson writes specifically about Hurricane Katrina, calling out then-President George W. Bush for referring to Katrina as an “act of God.” Here, Bush places the blame on fate. Hale, it seems, places the blame on Nature. Yet Dawson points out that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was in fact a human problem, with humans to blame.
New Orleans was not prepared for the storm and the flooding, because, as Dawson points out, “repeated calls to stem wetlands erosion and to fix the failing levee system that protects the city were met with blank indifference by a federal administration more interested in tax cuts for the wealthy and imperial escapades in Iraq than in the South’s sole blue state.” As a consequence, New Orleans flooded. Those who suffered the most, on the whole, were poor and Black. They lived in the cheapest, most flood-prone parts of the area, because systemic racism and oppression had made it so. (Read Dawson’s paper if you’re interested in learning more.)
To blame fate or Nature is to remove responsibility from the abhorrent (evil?) collective and individual actions and inactions that led to so many deaths and displacements during and in the years following the storm.
Perhaps, then, evil and wickedness lurk amongst the seams of the complicated patchwork that is humanity. Perhaps good, too, is woven into our collective fabric. We are humans, so I suppose we can decide to use the terms “good,” “evil,” and “wicked” to describe ourselves. However, I would not extend those human moral constructs to nature, Nature, or “nature,”* and I suggest caution to those people who may feel inclined to do so.
*Along with my grappling with morality, I grapple too, more and more, with the concepts of “nature” and the “environment.” My inconsistency throughout this post in how I present the word “nature” is intentionally fluid to mimic the fluidity of a human-constructed concept.