The World of Warcraft movie flopped in the States. That’s no great injustice. The movie isn’t exactly high fantasy. It compares miserably to “sword and sorcery” classics like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But there is one failing in the Tolkien’s tales that Warcraft avoids.
This flaw was pointed out by Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin. He told Rolling Stone magazine that Tolkien leaves certain important questions unanswered. For example, at the end of the trilogy, how does King Aragorn follow up his victory? “And what about all these orcs?” Martin asked, “By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone — they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”
In World of Warcraft, a little baby orc in a little orc cradle actually features prominently in the storyline. Indeed the very first scene is one of domestic tenderness, as a pregnant orc and her doting husband recline together and gently tease each other.
The movie actually humanizes orcs. Sure, there are evil orcs: the film’s main antagonist is one. And orc culture is quite militaristic. But orcs are not depicted as an inherently evil race, as they are in Lord of the Rings. Some wrestle with moral dilemmas. And the husband orc mentioned above is the movie’s most compelling protagonist. He has hopes and dreams for his family, just like any human husband and father. He is a man of honor who seeks peace and just relations with humans. He strives, not to overrun an “enemy race” but to overthrow the tyrant (a fellow orc) who is pitting his people against the humans.
Back to George R.R. Martin:
“The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that.”
Tolkien fought and suffered in World War I. That calamitous war consumed most of his dearest friends. For all his splendid humaneness and wariness of power, I wonder if Tolkien’s characterization of orcs was subconsciously influenced by British war propaganda, which depicted Germans as the evil and hideous “Hun”. A famous American poster went so far as to picture the German as a ferocious baboon wearing a Prussian helmet, clutching a fair-haired damsel in one hand and a blood-caked club in the other. “DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE,” the poster commanded. “ENLIST.”
Such dehumanization has been essential to war propaganda since time immemorial. David Livingstone Smith, author of the book Less Than Human, has done extensive research on this. As NPR reported:
“In ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature, Smith found repeated references to enemies as subhuman creatures.”
Dehumanization has also played a large role in massacres.
“During the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches.”
Smith explains the importance of such thinking as follows:
“‘We all know, despite what we see in the movies,’ Smith tells NPR’s Neal Conan, ‘that it’s very difficult, psychologically, to kill another human being up close and in cold blood, or to inflict atrocities on them.’ So, when it does happen, it can be helpful to understand what it is that allows human beings ‘to overcome the very deep and natural inhibitions they have against treating other people like game animals or vermin or dangerous predators.’ (…) When people dehumanize others, they actually conceive of them as subhuman creatures,’ says Smith. Only then can the process ‘liberate aggression and exclude the target of aggression from the moral community.’”
This phenomenon is not limited to wars and genocides, but pervades politics. Think of all the times you’ve heard “law and order” conservatives refer to certain populations as savage animals, or leftists call police officers “pigs.”
Dehumanization feeds into the “us against them” philosophies of irreconcilable conflict, which in turn underpin all of the State’s outrages: war, oppression, persecution, etc. It fragments civilization into rival herds and facilitates bestial behavior toward the dehumanized. Dehumanization dehumanizes the dehumanizer.
The ultimate inoculation against dehumanization is what economic philosopher Ludwig von Mises called “the Law of Association”: the realization, however inchoate, that social cooperation is virtually always more advantageous than conflict, and that there is no non-arbitrary demographic limit to this truth. There is no way of narrowly circumscribing the “moral community” that is consistent with enlightened self interest.
Once that truth is successfully defended against the “divide and conquer” lies of power politics, then people naturally see their fellow man, not as prey or a rival mouth in a zero-sum war for sustenance and aggrandizement, but as a potentially helpful creative mind and pair of hands, coupled with a heart full of hopes not entirely unlike their own.
During the height of the Cold War’s nuclear terror, the performing artist Sting pleaded for peace by rhetorically asking, “Do the Russians love their children too?” World of Warcraft goes so far as to extend this question to a fantasy race. It’s a useful question to ask ourselves about any “enemy population” or political faction. Such a question can be a saving reminder of our shared humanity.