Othering in Science-Fiction

Processes of Dehumanization in Black Mirror's “Men Against Fire”

Term Paper, 2020

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. The Importance of Group Identity
2.1 In-Group Favoritism and Out-Group Homogeneity
2.2 Othering
2.3 Dehumanization

3. Men Against Fire

4. Dehumanization and Othering in Men Against Fire
4.1. Projection of Negative Images
4.2. Institutionalized Othering
4.3. Moral Disengagement through Dehumanization
4.4. Language as a Marker of Humanness
4.5. Names as a Marker of Human Identity

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

What makes humans human? Since the homo sapiens has dared to put himself in a distinct category, humanity has tried to come up with an answer to this question. Considering that many generations of philosophers have failed to find a consensus on this issue, this paper will not even try to contribute to the solving of this profound question. Instead, the next few pages will be dedicated to a different albeit closely related problem: What happens if a per­son is denied the human-defining attributes and thus the label of being human? A process that can be described as dehumanization. By considering it from the perspective of the sci­ence-fiction genre and putting it in a dystopian setting, the writers of the Netflix anthology series Black Mirror have tried to tackle this theme in their fifth episode of the third season Men Against Fire. The genre of science-fiction seems to be the ideal tool for exploring con­temporary controversial themes. A futuristic setting, as opposed to a fantastical one for ex­ample, where socio-economic and political conditions have been altered by technological advances, makes for a much more immediate impact. The parallels to the present time are much more evident as the differences are not caused by magic or supernatural phenomena but rather by technological advances which are deliberately set within the realm of reality and therefore also the realm of possibility. In other words, science-fiction plays on the idea that the concepts contemplated within the genre are only disconnected from our present re­ality by the dimension of time (Hermann 2018: 213). The genre of science-fiction is closely connected to postcolonial theory, which grounds its main claims on the deconstruction of hierarchy systems that are remnants of colonial patriarchal power structures. Postcolonialism challenges these conditions and tries to break up Eurocentric perspectives and Western world views, characterizing them as oppressive and marginalizing. These ideas have continuously found their way into science-fiction literature, film, and television and are also found in Men Against Fire.

As Isabella Hermann observes, the imagining and the depiction of the future in fic­tion has taken a darker turn since the beginning of the millennium. The 9/11 terror attacks shook up the political landscape of western society. In the world of science-fiction this is manifested by a shift towards a more critical and dystopian outlook on the future (Hermann 2018: 214-215). But the development of dystopian science-fiction began, of course, earlier in the 20th century and established itself further through the many atrocities and catastrophes of the century as Eckart Voigts (cf. 2015: 2) points out. Relatively new developments like social media and recent advances in artificial intelligence have brought about new dystopian perspectives like fear of the surveillance state and collective intelligence as well as skepti­cism towards technology in general. Men Against Fire fits right into this bleaker perspective, touching upon themes such as technologically enhanced warfare, violence, mass propa- ganda1, the question of humanness, cyborg identity, body politics, virtual reality, and the importance of memories. This paper narrows its focus to examine how Men Against Fire makes use of the postcolonial concepts of othering and dehumanization. To establish a base for how these concepts are applied in the episode, the paper will first give a general outline of the concepts of in- and out-group identity formation, and othering and dehumanization. Using a psychoanalytical approach to film theory, the text and subtext of the episode will be analyzed to find out how these concepts are applied to the story and what purpose they serve.

2. The Importance of Group Identity

Before these concepts are applied to the text of Men Against Fire it is important to under­stand how the process of group formation works. Identifying oneself within the context of group dynamics seems to be an inherently human feature. In the 1970s social psychologist Henri Tajfel demonstrated with an experiment how easily group dynamics can be established based on arbitrarily chosen, independent and unimportant criteria. Even when dividing a group of people into smaller groups through such a mundane process as tossing a coin, Tajfel and his colleagues noticed different behavior patterns between in- and out-group members of the participants. In-group members were treated more positively than out-group members, even though these group boundaries were solely based on a random coin toss (cf. Edwards 2009: 25). Tajfel calls these groups minimal groups as they only require minimal conditions for social categorization. John Edwards, who investigated the link between language and identity summarizes Tajfel's findings: “once boundaries have been created [...] group mem­bership per se becomes important” (ibid). But why do humans feel such a strong need to identify with and situate themselves within a group? What purpose does this innate desire for group belonging serve? The answer to this question lies in the construction process of individual identity itself. Edwards points out that individual identity can only be established in the context of social relationships, or more precisely social identity, because: “Our per­sonal characteristics derive from our socialization within the group [...] one's particular so­cial context defines that part of the larger human pool of potential from which a personal identity can be constructed” (ibid: 20). This is precisely why group affiliation is so important for humans and why it is one of the defining categories of humanness. In other words, an individual can only identify - that is to say understand - him- or herself through the context of a social setting, which is the group.

2.1. In-Group Favoritism and Out-Group Homogeneity

Group identities are constructed around the acknowledgement of sameness (cf. ibid: 31). This sameness can be represented by the side of a coin in Tajfel's social experiment or fea­tures like skin color, ethnicity, race, culture, nationality, or the affiliation with the same foot­ball club in the real world. Once we recognize another person as a member of our own group, we treat them more friendly and welcoming and we are more likely to attribute positive features to them. This social phenomenon is called in-group favoritism. Naturally, this also goes the other way. While in-group members are treated more favorably, members of an out­group are receiving the opposite treatment. Through this process the origin of stereotypes can easily be explained. One of the mechanisms of in-group favoritism is that even though members are acknowledged based on similarities, each group member is seen as multifac­eted individually. The out-group on the other hand is perceived as a homogenous them. Peo­ple of an out-group are characterized by blending their most apparent similarities to an all­encompassing stereotype. This phenomenon is generally called the out-group homogeneity effect (cf. ibid: 26). Edwards suggests that these mechanisms serve the purpose of infusing a sense of self-worth to the individual “through valued social affiliations” (ibid: 27). Thus, he concludes that “social identity is self-interest” (ibid). It is only a small step from this concept that explains the genesis of stereotypes (which can be both positive and negative) to inter-group discrimination which only features negative associations with out-group mem­bers to arrive at the concept of othering.

2.2. Othering

The concept of othering represents a key aspect of colonial theory and describes the process by which the colonial object, the colonized is distinguished as the other (cf. Ashcroft et al. 2000: 156). It is based on Freud's theory of subjectivity which deals with the perception of the Self in opposition to the Other (ibid: 155). Colonial systems were established on the basis of subordination and domination of the colonized population (cf. Griffith Williams, Korn 2017: 23). To maintain their function these systems were built to create and uphold an ine­quality between the colonial subjects and the colonial objects in social, economic, and cul­tural domains. This oppressive power dynamic depends on a clear distinction between the 3 dominant and the subordinate group, which often manifests itself through practices of racism and othering. Race, ethnicity, and culture are utilized as markers to construct social bound­aries through which the mechanisms of inter-group discrimination are perpetuated and con­trol over the indigenous population can be maintained. Through this process of othering it is made possible to project pejorative images on the oppressed out-group and thus, denying them respectful treatment (cf. ibid: 23-24). These mechanisms can still be observed in mod­ern Western society through practices like racialization, exoticism, cultural fetishism, as well as the representation in mass media, feeding into the perception of minority groups as an out-group member, as someone belonging to the other, which in turn causes marginalization and discrimination against these groups.

2.3. Dehumanization

In colonial systems the practice of othering was taken to extremes, in many cases leading to colonists not actually seeing the indigenous population in the colonies as human, categoriz­ing them as an entirely different species of subhumans. Stripping the colonized of their hu­manness allowed the oppressors to legitimize the disregard of any moral accountability in their treatment of the oppressed. Biological race theories of the 19th century and the devel­opment of Social Darwinism provided the pseudoscientific justification for the systematic dehumanization of the colonial objects and thus enabled the many atrocities committed against them, including slavery and even genocide (cf. Ashcroft et al. 2000: 183). The prac­tice of dehumanization is closely linked with violence as Nick Haslam illustrates in his sum­mary of the findings of Herbert C. Kelman: “hostility generates violence indirectly by dehu­manizing victims, so that no moral relationship with the victim inhibits the victimizer's violent behavior” (Haslam 2006: 254). The victims are thereby categorized outside of the realm of moral values (cf. ibid).

3. Men Against Fire

Since its premiere in 2011 the Netflix anthology series has gained popularity by addressing controversial themes that are rooted in contemporary problems concerning technology such as communication and digitalization, the effects of social media, surveillance, and body pol­itics. The series takes these themes and constructs self-contained stories in form of roughly one-hour length episodes around them, highlighting extreme and negative effects of tech­nology use. In the case of Men Against Fire the story takes place in a futuristic reality set ten years after a not further defined war, in which technological advances are being used for 4 military operations. Soldiers are enhanced by a neurological implant called MASS that con­nects them to their fellow soldiers similar to a virtual reality system, lets them share visual data and reduces fear and also controls their sensory perception. MASS also rewards the soldiers for their achievements on the battlefield with pleasurable erotic dreams at night. The episode is told from the perspective of Stripe a soldier fresh out of training following him (and his unit) on his first day in the field. Their mission is to find and kill so called roaches, monstrous, animal like mutants. On the mission Stripe's MASS system is hacked by a device developed by the roaches. By following multiple military film tropes like the crude language of the soldiers, their comradely rivalry, the cliché of the new soldier of the group who is seeing battle for the first time Men Against Fire sometimes reminds the viewer of the satirical approach to the war film genre in the film Starship Troopers (1997).

The title of Men Against Fire references the influential 1947 book Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command by Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall, who was a World War I veteran and combat historian. In the book he problematizes the reluctance of soldiers to kill other human beings and theorizes methods that will “free the rifleman's mind with respect to the nature of targets” (Marshall 1947: 82) and produce “more willing firers.” (ibid). This philosophy constitutes the central idea for the Black Mirror episode. Marshalls thoughts are directly incorporated into the story via the MASS technology. The neurological implant literally “frees the minds” of the soldiers by altering their perception of reality, mak­ing them more ready to kill the enemy. Marshall's book is directly referenced in a scene near the end, when Arquette reveals the function of the MASS implant, explaining how in the second World War only 15 to 20 percent of the soldiers fired their weapon (Men Against Fire 2016: 49:30), a claim made in Marshall's book (cf. Marshall 1947: 54).


1 The neurological implant manipulating the sensory perception of the soldiers is deliberately called “MASS”. This could also be a reference to mass media and social media.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Othering in Science-Fiction
Processes of Dehumanization in Black Mirror's “Men Against Fire”
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Postcolonial Science-Fiction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
postcolonialism, othering, dehumanization, science fiction, science-fiction, film analysis, black mirror, men against fire, dystopia, human identity, literature, group identity, postkolonialismus
Quote paper
Daniel Muchaier (Author), 2020, Othering in Science-Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/937636


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