By Kasun Kamaladasa –
My inspiration to write this article arose when I came across a YouTube interview that asked the question “Is the world ready for a black superman?” from its followers. There were a lot of opinions but the most surprising one for me was when a guy furious at the mere suggestion, claimed that Superman is a symbol of America and cannot ever be black. Another man calmly replied. The legend of Superman is a story of an immigrant: he came to this country as an outsider/alien had weird customs like wearing an underwear on top of his pants and went on to become a national symbol of truth, justice and the American Way (While personally I am skeptical about whether America as a whole is actually about truth and justice specially after Trump was chosen as a leader it was a very appealing thought that these fantasy superheroes embodied our perfect selves or what we strive to be).
Introduction to X-men
I’m not quite sure if this is appropriate for a Sri Lankan audience since most us don’t really have time to enjoy these fantasy universes with our busy schedules and engagements with fantasy universes of our own but if you dare to read further have no fear, I will try to make it understandable for non-comic fans as well. (I will use minimal references of comics/names)
So if you are not familiar with the X-men universe, it is an alternate reality (For physics geeks – this is not the same as alternate reality in physics). This reality is similar to our current world but has its own history, present and future, much like our own. Its timeline and narrative changes with according to what society(fans) deems acceptable again much like our own.
The story of X-men begins by dividing its characters into two groups. Humans and Mutants (who are also human but look different or have different abilities) Mutants being weird as they are, living in a human majority struggle to have normal lives. Bullied, misunderstood, isolated and unable to make friends with humans, they form their own groups. This leads humans to misunderstand them even more. Suddenly a crime committed by a mutant is seen as acts against humanity rather than crimes of different humans.
As the story unfolds the humans try to fight back this imaginary threat. First they form protests and throw mutants out of their communities. Naturally mutants form their own communities, some inside sewers while others buy islands and large areas of land. Then the humans form fearmongering political parties that promise to purge the land from mutants driving mutants to form militant groups and refuges. Now claiming mutants have their own land and militant groups, fear increases more and anti-mutant taskforces and unregulated prisons that abduct mutants are formed. Eventually this leads to formation of mutant terrorists and renegade anti-mutant task force.
Introduction to our world(Earth).
I am hoping that everyone who read-up this far already knows a little bit about evolution and how mutations occur in every human and how these mutations in turn define to an extent, who we are. Our color, our gender, our sexuality, our natural body types, our immunity, behaviors and many more qualities are dependent on our genes.
You might have also realized that we too have identified sorts of “mutants” or “unnatural humans” due to our lack of understanding what mutations really are and have formed societies including and excluding mutations as natural, unnatural and abnormal. (just to make it clear there is nothing abnormal with most mutations, it is simply how nature works)
For example, not long ago some people believed being white meant that they are superior than other races and other races were not capable of any intellectual endeavor. Most religions believe that being a man is superior to being a woman. Some communities treat transgender people as abominations while other communities treat them as gods preferred.
Of course, the world has never been simple so genes aren’t the only things that differentiate who we are, the books, Selfish Gene, Darwinizing Culture and The Art of Memetics, all talk about a different type evolution, evolution of culture and religion. These books explain how thoughts/ideas(memes) are also like genes randomly mutating and spreading; defining what culture and religion is, that in turn defines who we are to an extent.
The difference between a modern day Christian and a Buddhist is more of a result of these memes and less of a result of what Jesus or Buddha actually taught us in their original philosophies. The difference between a naturalist (who thinks being nude in public, promotes freedom, builds positive body image and creates less sexual frustrations) and a generic conservative (who thinks nudity will cause the apocalypse) is also due to the evolution of memes.
Environment also defines who we are various ways, for example there is a difference of attitude and behavior towards sex and gender depending on whether you go to an all-girls/boy school or mixed gender school. There is a difference in attitude if you were a person struggling to learn due to some disability and everyone made fun of you every single day as oppose to if people helped you whenever you seem to struggle with work.
Economics can also play a huge role on who we turn out to be. The quality of education, ability to engage in extra activities, hobbies, amount of free time to think and analyze problems could all depend on a social-economic standing. Different extremes of this standing can easily put anyone in a “mutant” or “human” list.
Just like the X-men universe that was more comprehendible due to its simplicity, we can see that we too, due to various reasons, have started to Isolate and bully those who are different from us, may it be due to their understanding of the world, their skin color, their habits or other qualities.
The story continues X-men
I never really liked any of the X-men movies that much, sure they were filled with CGI and had both Jennifer Lawrence and Hue Jackman doing semi-nude action scenes, but movies never really do justice to books or comics. They have missed the depth of the X-men Universe.
When I said mutants had a hard time and got bullied all the time I was rushing the story and giving a surface account. Interaction in comics are much more twisted and deep. Mutants that looked like humans or had abilities that made them more attractive, actually never got bullied and isolated. Humans who had weird mutant friends rarely saw them as a threat even when politicians tried to convince them otherwise. Both mutant and human groups throughout the story try to make peace and war in various ways.
Once you start reading comics with back stories (past stories of characters) you get to know how each human and mutant develop their love, hatred and compassion towards each other. For example, a mutant who witnessed a loved mutant treated unjust or killed by humans would start hating humans and vice versa and of course, you can find stories of humans who hate humans or mutants who hate mutants, who are somehow convinced that some individuals have betrayed their kind by either being too sympathetic towards others or appearing weak to take out extreme actions.
The story continues Earth
If we read an article by a Sinhala Buddhist Extremist (Terrorist in disguise) or a Tamil Elam Terrorist we fail to see the depth and complexity of a situation. We forget that each person has a back story that influences their love, hate and compassion.
The news in the media, like movies also lacks any depth or investigation, instead it targets our natural triggers of fear and tries to address our insecurities to blind us from searching for a complete story. The journalists, who normally ask questions in media briefings, tend to bring in the same cheap thrills of an action movie to those who watch at home. They try to show the nudity (“Niruwatha”) of politicians by a single slip of the tongue or edited out of context clips so we get a little excitement yet no real understanding of the situation is given through different perspectives.
While very few news columnist tries to explore and investigate stories, most of them can’t really make a X-men comic level quality article. They just write a provoking sentence or two followed by unconfirmed gossip to make an appealing story.
But in reality we see humans of all sizes and shapes with insanely complex histories and circumstances that can never be explained by a single statement, gossip or an event. Sadly even in articles by professionals of Sri Lanka (on topics that are disguised as professional opinion) we normally see statistics that are skewed to support their political party rather than giving an understanding of the situation.
Exploring different dimensions of X-men
One thing I love about most superhero comics is that if you really dive into them, you will find that there are no black and white characters. Even though we call one person a villain and another a hero, they really don’t have much of a difference, as both characters intent is to bring themselves and their followers a better quality in life, free from injustice, free from fear and not having to change, but to accept them as who they are.
As I said earlier, X-men universe is huge. There are moments that shows how heroes and villains sometime unite to fight common enemies. It shows how sometimes heroes turn in to villains and how villains turn into heroes to defend their personal beliefs and loved ones.
Exploring different dimensions of Earth.
Every day we see new memes made by Sri Lankan political enthusiasts that lack depth and dimensions. And are mostly formed according to their political party (I choose the word “party” because mostly these memes lack any actual facts and analysis, but just try to defend the party that they think will rescue them from damnation and give them power over people who they assume are enemies and would become a threat to their existence)
If one could see that humans of our reality, just like the humans of X-men universe are not black and white, these memes would have to change drastically.
We would no longer see good and bad politicians but good and bad actions they do. We would no longer side ourselves with political parties that seem to grant us power rather we would prefer to side with the actions they commit. We could side with one party to provide rights for women and children and another to fight for education and health and we could agree that none of them are able to solve every problem we have.
Schooling – Xaviers Mansion (X-men)
One of the most frequently visited places in the X-men universe is the Xavier Mansion. It is a safe haven and school for mutants, a place where they are not judged, but accepted for who they are. A place where they can practice to use their abilities for the benefit of society and/or themselves.
Xavier (The owner of the Mansion) is a unique mutant with the ability to read and control minds making him the ideal teacher. He is able to identify each person’s insecurity and fear, thereby allowing him to make custom made training programs for each mutants personal growth. Although he himself has an Ideology that all people can be saved and he should serve for the betterment of both humans and mutants. He never expects his students to follow his footsteps rather he tries to show them his perspective by allowing them to safely explore their ideas (Remember this is a mutant with an ability to control minds so he could as easily control everyone to do his bidding)
Like I said characters are not black and white while he gives his students freedom to think he tries hard to convince his best friend to believe in his Ideology and that does not work out well.
Schooling – Earth
Even though our teachers in schools and universities might not have the same level of mindreading capability as Xavier, with years of experience and research, teachers can read their students to some degree. They have the capability of influencing and even controlling the minds of students. Some schools are evolving to accepting the differences and they try to build safe places for children to explore and learn. Universities too, seem to be making safer places for adults to explore and understand life (like with increased efforts to reduce ragging and creating more possibilities to debate and argue safely without political interference).
Of course, this isn’t perfect yet. As we see in our schools while humiliation and corporal punishment has reduced, increasingly in past few decades, based on wordings in news headlines, religion and gender base misunderstandings seem to have increased significantly. Uniforms have restricted self-expression and examinations like grade 5 scholarship and A/L, have made several generations of Sri Lankans into thinking that exam results of a person in school will determine their worth to society and ability to learn in the future.
There are many things we can actually add to our schools with Xavier Mansion as a benchmark (until we build a better one). Like outdoor classes of varying time periods instead of 40 min blocks, individualized development goals for students and introducing a more interactive and dynamic understanding of ethics and morals and how/why they changed throughout history rather than presenting them as absolute truths of “right” and “wrong”.
Evolution of Morals and Ethics X-men and Earth
The first ever X-men was released in September 1963 and since then a lot has changed. Stan Lee one of the creators of X-men acknowledged that he was heavily influenced by the American civil rights movement at that time and some of X-men most iconic heroes Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto was inspired by real life heroes Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Like Martin Luther King and Malcom X, X-men tries to discuss issues like understanding differences and tolerance. The importance of being comfortable with who we are and treating people fairly and equally no matter what level of society they come from. (All these ethics are relatively new to humanity)
As X-men universe expanded it added more moral and ethical dilemmas. One such dilemma was mutants frustrated by society searching for a cure for being a mutant at any cost their health or humans trying to purge mutants by forcefully removing the mutated genes. In real life we can see people spending millions to get fair skin, a flat belly, a Cleopatra like nose. We see societies and institutes/groups forcing people to dress uniformly, or even to think and act in certain ways. We see intolerance towards personal quirks such as addictions, obsessions, compulsions simply because we do not understand them.
There are many more morals questioned and explored in the X-men Universe and the best thing is that they are more understandable to people without a sophisticated education (and sometimes even for people with such education).
One final message
There are multiple studies that suggest comic books maybe a great medium to pass knowledge of scientific understandings and ethical/moral conflicts to non-academics. I think X-men and countless other comics have proven this with their fan base. Of course X-men is a highly simplified decryption of today’s world but sometimes we need simple analogies to understand complex situations.
I would like to part with a statement Vox Writer Alex Abad-Santos wrote in his article “How the X-Men changed my life”,
Every day, the X-Men show up to fight for a world that would rather they not exist. Their story is about survival, not only as an act of living from one day to the next but also as a form of love or even defiance; a hope that there’s something better than the world they’ve been given, and that they can achieve it by existing.