Jessica Jones Against Leviathan

A subtext of most of the superhero genre of fiction is that government has failed. It doesn’t provide the security people need. Superheros (Batman, Superman, Spiderman, et alia) have to step in. The portrayal of the police and public servants in this genre ranges between benign and malevolent. At its best, the public sector can get out of the way and let the superhero do his or her job.

“Jessica Jones,” the acclaimed new series on Netflix (based on a Marvel Comics character), takes this approach to a new and much deeper level, particularly in its portrayal of the pathological villain Zebediah Kilgrave. Jones, a private investigator, spends the entire series trying to capture him. Kilgrave’s character allows us to think through an extraordinary issue. What if someone’s wish really were his command? What would happen to him and what would be the social effects?

Jones is only a reluctant user of her superpowers, which are highly limited. She can run a 4-minute mile. She is strong enough to break locks with her hands. She can throw a punch that kills. And she can jump what appears to be about 15 feet in the air. Beyond that, she is as human as anyone else. Too much so.

The series adopts a 1940s-style film noir feel. Jessica (played by Krysten Ritter of “Breaking Bad” fame) has troubled personal relationships. She is alone by choice. She keeps a strange schedule and looks disheveled most of the time. She drinks too much. She is crabby, sometimes crude, often impolite, and constantly vexed.

The Problem of Kilgrave

Mostly, she is haunted by a past horror. A murderous villain named Kilgrave once abducted her but not in a physical sense. His extraordinary power is causing people to give up their personal will. With just one word, he brings about total surrender his victim’s wishes to his own. He can ask for someone’s coat and get it. He can tell a dad to abandon his son and he will do it. He can tell a girl to kill her parents and it is done. His control over others is limited by time (perhaps one day) and proximity, but otherwise, he gets his way.

He did this to Jessica. She spent some period of time under his control. During this period, she committed egregious acts. She feels deep guilt for this, continually assuring herself that she was not personally responsible because she was not in control. As she encounters other victims, she assures them they are not responsible either. A main plot device of the show concerns her desire to rescue one victim, who similarly did terrible things, from several life sentences in prison.

The trouble is that there is some ambiguity about the question of personal responsibility. Kilgrave’s victims describe feeling irresistibly drawn to follow his instructions. But they also report having some sense in the back of their minds that what they are doing is wrong. They find it impossible, however, to cause their inner conscience, never entirely blotted out, to rise above the Kilgrave-imposed will.

What If You Could Fully Control Others?

The character of Kilgrave raises some interesting questions. What if you had the ability to get your wish with everyone around, even strangers? Your words cause people to do exactly what you want them to do. You do not have to rely on their consent. You cause a core human trait, individual volition, to recede into the background.

If you had that power, would you use it? It would require a person of extraordinary moral character not to do so. You are at Starbucks and you could say: “add an extra shot at no charge” and it would be done. You could tell your boss: “give me a 10% raise” and there would be no question. On a date, you could say “let’s dispense with the formalities” and there would be no question.

In Kilgrave’s case, this power has had an extraordinarily corrupting effect. He rapes, he kills, he controls, he poisons. He feels no remorse. The social effects are catastrophic, causing all sorts of people to commit terribly anti-social actions that otherwise make no sense. His demand is always the same: people must not resist his orders. Thus do they lose their will and thus do they lose their humanity. As for his own soul, the darkness is boundless.

Who has the power to delete the human will? By tradition, not even gods have this power. They have granted human beings the free will to make choices between good and evil. Gods can manipulate events, give clues, prod circumstances to prompt people, and even punish for wrong choices, but do not typically use their power (even if they have it in theory) to override human volition itself.

Choice Is Baked Into Nature

Such power would certainly be abused, even by gods. Surely it is not something that should even be granted to a fallible human being. Such power is fundamentally contradictory to the mental workings of the human person. Like all animals, we resist the cage. Those who try to override that impulse corrupt their own souls and finally fail.

Any parent who begins parenting with the intent of total control eventually learns that this is impossible. Perhaps as children there is a point at which we can become completely compliant. But the inner life matures, and by the time we become teens, the sense of independent decision takes hold. It might begin as an internal commitment, but, in time, it grows to be a life pattern.

Societies that function well must respect individual autonomy: the right to control our own lives. This is why Kilgrave’s powers are so terribly frightening. The effects are bad enough when such powers rest in one person. But imagine a complete social system in which everyone had the capacity for full control of everyone else. The results would be immediately and irredeemably devastating.

Policing and the Human Will

Watching “Jessica Jones” causes us to reflect on modern policing via the public sector. Look at the Youtube videos with police abuse. Think on what happens when you are stopped on the road for a traffic violation. What is the goal? The police today demand total submission. Any evidence of resistance is itself treated as a crime worthy of punishment.

When you come into their sights, your will means nothing and their will is all that matters. It is not surprising that this is not going well for the public sector. Supplanting human volition is something that even gods have not presumed to do. It is is not a stretch to predict that the attempt will not work out for the public sector generally.

Kilgrave Bureaucrats

We can extend this analysis to the entirety of the public sector. The distinguishing mark of the state is its encroachment on individual volition. Its one weapon, its only method, is the promise of violence. But this is not enough to bring about stable rule, as the history of revolution and political upheaval show us. The longing to blot out human choice is ultimately untenable, and the attempt alone is deeply corrupting of both individuals and institutions. Kilgrave is the paradigmatic case.

In contrast, notice that private security services take a different approach. The goal is to assure order and peace, not to bring about a perfect state of nonresistance. If the problem goes away, or the would-be criminal simply stops doing the bad thing, all is well and the job is complete. Such services know better than to try to reconstruct free will itself.

In “Jessica Jones,” as with modern politics, there is some ambiguity associated with the attempt to erase the decision making of others. In the recesses of our mind, we do see what is right, and that alone makes us feel that we bear some degree of responsibility for egregious acts even when committed under the influence of others. To overcome requires steely determination and resolute desire to live and think independently.

The Right to Decide

Jessica Jones can’t leap buildings, can’t fly, and can’t run faster than a locomotive. But she has a power that is even more impressive. She possesses that determination to defend the right to think for ourselves. It’s not only the most precious human right. It is the right than makes the social order function toward everyone’s benefit.

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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3 comments

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  • The terrifying thing is that there actually exists a drug, created from a common plant that grows in columbia, that has the ability to completely erase the will of human beings. It can and is used to exactly this effect, and it is an inhalant that can be administered as a fine dust you “accidentally” blow in someones face. Look it up some time. Imagine what the world would become if this became more widespread and/or its effects could be used against populations by their governments…

    http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/324779

  • I had thought more of the opposite. Would it be immoral for one to not use this power? What if a central banker woke up on Saturday morning with a burning desire to read Rothbard? What if a politician lost that tingling pleasure from blood-lust and death, even for one day? Or if commoners walked around one day doing what they normally do, but with a sense that politicians were not their friend?

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