Thursday, August 13, 2009

True Blood and Personhood

Ben at the 'Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technology' ( not kidding) has written before about True Blood ( read past articles here )

[Contains spoilers.] How far does personhood and the rights associated with it reach across species? True Blood gives us an intelligent exploration of some aspects of this issue, specifically when that other species is perceived as dangerous, cruel, unnatural, and unholy. Unfortunately though, too often even those who support vampire rights refer to them as not being persons, instead emphasizing that they are essentially human or that vampires are a second species deserving of rights. A much more adaptable framework of rights could be built based on emphasizing the characteristics of personhood, such as intelligence and capacity to feel.

The most blatant example of this poor framing is an American Vampire League poster that reads “Vampires were people too.” While it may be reading too much into a humorous promotional poster from HBO to take this as representative of the American Vampire League’s arguments, as elsewhere the AVL site mentions “guaranteeing a basic set of rights for all sentient beings,” there is little emphasis on nonhumans being persons throughout the show. There is much more discussion, for instance, of the extent to which Bill Compton has the characteristics of a human, than the extent to which he has the characteristics of a person. Sookie Stackhouse and Bill joke about the extent to which he has mastered the line between vampire and human, not abomination and person. At least the vampire-hating Fellowship of the Sun understands the importance of personhood when they deny vampires it.

The Darker Side of Personhood

When Sarah Newlin tells Jason Stackhouse that the vampire he watched die wasn’t a person because a person wouldn’t do things such as feed on a human, Jason responds that “my gran and my girlfriend were killed by my best friend, just because he hated vampires, and he was a person.” Jason is correct that his human friend was a person, and the uncomfortable reality is regardless of whether a system of rights is based on species or personhood, some of the people and some of the humans will engage in deplorable acts. Perhaps virtuous individuals are “more” of a person or have more “humanity” than wicked individuals, but they are still people deserving of basic rights. It may be that there are vampires whom we haven’t seen on the series who have grown so twisted in their nests that we would not recognize their warped minds as thinking, but we should be hesitant to make that judgment. The flashbacks of the brutality that Bill was once capable of compared to his current relationship with Sookie serve as a powerful illustration of just how much one can change when given the opportunity of agelessness.

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