Sunday, 26 April 2015

Assassins Kill Their Parents

I am not a big Superman fan.  Don’t me wrong, I don’t hate him and I will happily watch him in animation or a film, but I am not heavily invested in the character.  I do have a friend who is and he was outraged by the ending of the film Man of Steel where Superman kills Zod to prevent him from killing a group of cornered bystanders.  What made my friend angry was that the writers put Superman in a position where he had to choose between killing Zod and saving the innocents.

When we consume media, it is easy to get caught up in the story and forget that there is a storyteller making these characters say what they say and do as they do.  All stories are contrived.  A good storyteller makes us forget that he is there pulling everyone’s strings.  A good critic asks us to see the storyteller and ask what he is telling us beneath all the distractions of character, setting, and plot.

What the storytellers of Man of Steel seem to be saying is that under the right set of circumstances even the best people will do something terrible.  Superman fans will accept that message from just about any character except Superman, who is meant to be an ideal.

A question that bothered me for years, the kind of question you find yourself pondering now and again while alone, is why the storytellers involved in the Assassin’s Creed series made it so that most of the Assassins killed either their parents or a parental figure.  What is it with killing their parents all the time?

Altair kills Al Mualim, a father figure.  Ezio gets a pass on this one; however in his trilogy we see the animosity between Desmond and his father.  Connor kills his father.  Aveline kills her step-mother and contributes to the events leading her mentor to kill himself.  Edward, Adewale and Arno all get passes as well, however there are family issues with Edward, who is disowned by his  parents for becoming a pirate, and Arno, like Ezio, has the murdered father issues times two as he lost both his father and his foster father to murder.

My first thought was that this was some kind of Freudian thing where a boy does not become a man until he kills his father or his father dies.  This may be the case, but it seems too obvious an answer.  It is also very likely that the storytellers were just telling a story and the parent/child conflict just makes for a good story.   They may not have even noticed the recurring theme of patricide in Assassin’s Creed.  

The solution that I arrived at is quite simple.  You must kill your parents.  No, not literally.  The parents are symbolic of the invisible prison in which you live your life and no one can be truly free until they destroy that prison.  This prison fashioned by your parents is what I often call “the program” and sometimes “the matrix”.

Ever wonder how the snake got into the Garden of Eden?  I think that God put him there.  He gave mankind free will but nothing to choose between.  So what’s the point?  The snake provided Adam and Eve with an option that they had never considered and therefore an opportunity to exercise their free will.  In the end, they chose Enlightenment over God and as a curse were forced to accept adult responsibilities.

As children we only know what our gods, commonly known as Mom and Dad, have taught us and the world they made for us.  The entire framework of our minds, both conscious and unconscious, comes from them. We learn by their lessons, their examples, and the experiences they provide for both good and ill. Our parents created us; our bio-electric computer brain was formed by them.   So if you lash-out because of a chemical imbalance, it’s because of them.  Sometimes our life choices are forced or determined by our gender, that’s because of your father.  So when it comes to freedom, the power to exercise our free will, to what degree was our lifetime of choices predetermined by our parents?  Either through inherited biology or active nurturing.

The Program

I find that the best metaphor for understanding our psycho-emotional make-up, aka “the soul”, is the computer.  A computer can be said to have four parts: the hardware, the operating system software, the factory pre-installed software, and then the personal software downloaded by the user.  Each of these is analogous to the elements of our psycho-emotional make-up.

Hardware:  This is the physical aspect which includes our electro-chemical brain and how the body produces and responds to these chemicals.  For example, changes in serotonin levels can alter how someone perceives and responds to reality.  In terms of study, this is represented by the fields of neurobiology and psychiatry.  When we speak of mind altering drugs, we are talking about affecting the computer’s hardware.

Operating System:  Are you a Mac or a PC?  Each operating system is closely linked to the hardware and determines how the computer functions.  Likewise, humans have evolved certain instinctive modes of behaviour as a species.  This is the field of evolutionary psychology.  For the most part, people are largely unaware of how our operating system affects our behaviour, but it accounts for a great many of our natural drives.

In the age old debate of Nature vs. Nurture, these are the Nature parts of the equation.  The next level represents Nurture.

Factory Software:  in a computer, these are the programs pre-installed by the manufacturer.  The same holds true for the human computer.  The manufacturers in this case are the parents.  The child may have inherited certain hardware and OS aspects, but Factory Software refers mainly to what is called social conditioning and takes place during the first roughly seven years of life.  The agents of this conditioning are primarily parents and siblings but later in the process friends, peers, teachers, and mass media all come to play a role in framing how reality is perceived and understood.

Social conditioning can be divided in two phases.  The first is the unconscious phase.  This is where an infant absorbs things like language, dialect, and even facial expressions from their parents.  Although the child is conscious, they are primarily acting on instinct since they are still developing their cognitive abilities.  The second phase is the conscious phase where the child has the capacity to interpret and process their experiences.  The child may respond either positively or negatively to their conditioning.  For example, if the parent makes the child do chores the child may respond positively and accept a program for a positive work ethic, or the child may respond negatively and accept a program for a negative work ethic.  It all depends on how the child emotionally responds to the experience. 

Despite the child being conscious and cognitive, this period of life becomes largely forgotten. So as an adult a person may have a set of pre-programmed responses to certain stimuli, but have no idea how that program came into existence.  As a child, this person may have seen the colour orange just as he was startled by a car backfiring.  The result is distaste for the colour orange lasting the remainder of his life even if that event has been completely forgotten.

When you first get a computer or laptop and first turn it on this is what you have: hardware, an operating system, and factory software.  You did not design it and you have very little control of how it does what it does.  Likewise, your soul is as it is. You had no say in how the electro-chemical brain of yours was designed and wired and you had no control over how that brain was first programmed by the agents of your social conditioning.  What you can control is how you choose to use the computer given what you have.

The final level is the Personal Programs.  These are largely determined by personal experiences and repeated patterns of behaviour.  We are what we repeatedly do.  The problem is that Nature and Nurture have already predetermined how we process our new experiences, how we perceive reality, and the beliefs and values that drive our actions.  When a person says, “follow your heart”, “trust your instincts”, “let your conscience be your guide”, or “remain true to yourself” what they are really saying is to follow your programming.

What haven’t you noticed today? 

Well, you don’t know because you didn’t notice it.  When Al Mualim asked Altair if he regretted his life as an Assassin, Altair answered that he cannot judge because he has known no other life.  He was raised to be an Assassin from infancy.  This is a recurring theme throughout the Assassin’s Creed series.  Yes, we do see adults join the Assassins, but there is a strong element of Assassin parents raising their children to be Assassins.  As a result they know no other life except for the one chosen for them.

It is unclear to what degree Ezio's father prepared him for life as an Assassin.  Edward Kenway simply arranged for young Haytham to receive combat training and encouraged independent thought to prepare his son (much to the frustration of Haytham's jealous half-sister, Jennifer) without ever revealing its true purpose.  In the modern day, the Assassins went so far as to send their children to a commune called "the farm", which seems rather ominous, to indoctrinate them.  But is it indoctrination or simply child rearing?

I once met a girl, who was nineteen at the time, who had no idea what the religious significance of Easter was.  One of her parents was a Christian and the other was an Atheist.  They decided not to force either belief on her and allow her to decide when she was old enough.  There are a few problems with this tactic.  First, if a parent believes that a stove is hot, then they will prevent their child from touching it and thus protect them from harm.  If a parent truly believes Christian doctrine, then they will raise their child accordingly and thus save them from eternal hellfire.  Second, if a child is not socially conditioned (programed) to believe in the supernatural, then they never will.  Their brains will not possess the wiring to allow it.  By not choosing to raise the daughter as a Christian they inadvertently chose to raise her as an Atheist.  The contrary is also true, its is very difficult for someone who was raised religious to ever truly abandon it. They may swap religions easily enough, but few become Atheists without deep down feelings that they made a mistake.  No matter how much our parents try to be unbiased they cannot help but make us.

The word kindergarten means “garden of children”.  It stems from a theory of child rearing that believed that every child’s soul was like a seed that only needed to be cared for and it would just grow into whatever it was meant to be.  It is from this concept that we get the expression “bad seed” to described someone just born bad. This theory runs contrary to what had been the norm for most of human history.  It was believed that a child’s mind came into the world as a blank slate to be filled.  Parents and social institution were not so much raising children as taking  a pro-active role in programing them according to whatever they believed to be right or best for the child.  Today we see this as wrong so instead we allow the child’s programming to occur by accident rather than on purpose as if that relieves parents and institutions from any responsibility for the outcome.

Just as Altair could not judge between his life and one he had never known, neither can we conceive a life, lifestyle, or state of being that we never experienced.  All we know is the life produced and fixed by our parents or parental figures.  Since all of our choices only exist within this predetermined context, then we can never be truly free from them.  This psychological foundation will always be there.

Imagine two girls.  One girl was raised (socially conditioned) by her parents to have a very free and liberal view of sex.  The other girl was raised in an environment where open sexuality was frowned upon.  She decided to rebel and eventually got a job in the sex industry.   On the surface, she was sexually free and open, but deep in her unconscious was a sense of shame and guilt.  Eventually she burned-out and left the industry seeing it as a bad experience.  The other girl did the same, but felt no such guilt and when she left the industry it was on a positive note.  The difference between these two girls is one acted consistently with her program and the other did not.

This story illustrates that it is not so easy to “kill your parents”.  Simply rebelling against the program will not do the job.  Feelings like fear, guilt and shame are the part of the anti-virus software designed to keep you in-line with the program. The programming will be a part of you until your learn to change it.

Sure, the theme of patricide in Assassin’s Creed could be an accident.  However, if we look at the series as Existentialist mythology, then the clear message is that we will never be truly free until we overcome our  programming and its associate worldview and learn to see what we haven’t noticed.

So how do we change the program?  Well, it could be argued that all religion, psycho-therapy, hypno-therapy, and self-help is devoted to that purpose and as a result there are countless points of view from thousands of self-proclaimed experts.  We all want that magic pill to set us free to be who we choose to be or whoever we think that we want to be or should be and there are plenty of salesmen ready to make a living by selling it to us.

I do not know the answers, but the lesson I take from Assassin’s Creed in this regard is that we are who we were programmed to be and we know no other way to be.  The idea of killing your parents is a metaphor for challenging our preconceived notions concerning ourselves and the world as we experience it.  We may not be able to “kill” the program, but by recognising it we can begin the process of transcending it.

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