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Beast is still awful: The othering of plant people in 'X-Force' #6

Comic Books

Beast is still awful: The othering of plant people in ‘X-Force’ #6

Clearly not an ethics book in his hand.

Let’s face it, the formerly bubbly Beast has been awful for a while now. He recently drove the point home even harder, and ethics professor Aaron Rabinowitz is here to hold his blue, furry feet to the fire.

In Benjamin Pearcy and Stephen Segovia’s X-Force #6, we get a taste of what happens when a brilliant mind becomes obsessed with producing the best consequences, at the cost of their own humanity.

Following the assassination of Professor X, Beast (Hank McCoy) has taken over as the leader of X-Force, a squad tasked with protecting the interests of the mutant nation of Krakoa. Beast is driven by a single-minded devotion to mutant survival, and he repeatedly makes it clear he’s willing to use any means necessary to succeed at that task. Here that means putting forward some dubious ethical reasoning about cyborg personhood, the sort of dehumanizing thinking you’d expect Beast to resist after a lifetime on the receiving end of abuse.

Beast is still awful: The othering of plant people in 'X-Force' #6

Marvel Comics

The conflict arises in the South American country of Terra Verde. In keeping with the name, the country sank all their resources into developing plant-based biotechnology that can both cure illness and weaponize human bodies, which looks like a cross between Groot and the Venom symbiote.

The medical advances would compete with Krakoa’s own medical marvels, and the enhancement to individual bodies could make it so normal humans are capable of matching mutants in personal combat. Both things strike Beast as unacceptable risks. To make matters worse, the scientists who developed the biotech have formed into a rebel organization that aims to undermine a treaty that would make Terra Verde effectively subservient to Krakoa.

So X-Force does some 1980s CIA cosplay, rolling into a South American country to crush a socialist rebellion and cement control over a puppet government. All the usual spook behavior is right there, including killing of innocent scientists and the lobotomizing of the rebel leader, who turns out to be the President’s own son.

Naturally, members of the X-Force team, especially Jean Grey, experience pangs of conscience for this violent nation-building. Beast waves away their concerns on the grounds that the new species could present an existential threat, and as something other than human or mutant, they’re not worthy of moral consideration.

Despite all the signaling that we’re dealing with Beast breaking bad, there is still something so jarring about hearing such an inhumane justification from someone so familiar with the pain that inhumanity brings. As far as Beast knows, the plant entities are still sentient, rational persons who are simply trying to do what seems right to them, and yet Beast encourages the team to see them as no different than humans who’ve been overtaken by robot alterations, only this time the alterations are organic.

Beast justifies this dehumanizing with a half-hearted gesture towards a famous philosophical problem, the Ship of Theseus. He suggests “there is a certain point at which a cyborg becomes more robot than human,” which may seem intuitively true at first. Upon closer examination, though, we can justifiably become concerned that there is no reasonable way to draw that line.

In the original thought experiment, the boards that make up the famous ship of Theseus are replaced one by one until the ship is made up of entirely new boards, and the question is whether that new ship remains the ship of Theseus, and if not, at what point did it stop being the ship of Theseus. The problem is even worse when we think about the identities of sentient beings over time.

Consider a person, like the rebel leader in this story, who maintains a sense of himself through a change from one kind of physical substrate to another. Does it really matter, morally, that the person has gone from 100% human biology to 100% artificial or plant-based biology, as long as they have psychological continuity and retain sentient awareness? Even if the process was sudden rather than gradual, it wouldn’t seem to matter at all.

Say I took your consciousness and put it in a computer where you can still have goals and experiences, and still identify with the person you were before the transition. Would we really want to say such a “cyborg” entity lacks moral status? Beast knows better, and Jean Grey rightly rebukes the arguments as lazy rationalizations.

The fact that the alteration is organic, rather than inorganic, also likely explains why it’s harder for the other team members to dehumanize these plant-based enemies, even though it’s morally irrelevant. Their reactions betray a kind of substrate chauvinism, the view that some entities are more valuable than others based on what they’re physically made of.

It’s likely to feel less intuitively immoral to kick a robot dog rather than a flesh and blood one, but if both beings experience suffering, we should see it as equally immoral. Even if the rebel plant people weren’t biological in nature, their sentience and higher cognitive functions alone would make it immoral to slaughter them.

Beast is still awful: The othering of plant people in 'X-Force' #6

Marvel Comics

In this situation, Beast could benefit especially from the work of Donna Haraway, whose 1985 essay “A cyborg manifesto” made the argument that we are all cyborgs, in the sense that we are all composite entities, and that we should be skeptical of organizational frameworks that divide us into “antagonistic dualities,” such as animal vs. machine or human vs. mutant.

Haraway grounded her manifesto in feminist theories of justice and respect, highlighting how attempts to separate out the self from the other are the precursors to injustice and abuse, just as we see in X-Force’s behavior. Haraway challenges the othering that is prevalent throughout our attempts to categorize the known world, a point that Beast is likely to understand with regard to his own “cyborg” classification, and so should respect with regard to new and more literal cyborgs as well.

The othering of cyborgs, both literal and philosophical, allows anti-mutant humans to see themselves as the norm and mutants as freaks. It is that same misguided view that allows Beast to rationalize seeing this new, emergent species as an abomination not worthy of moral consideration. It’s an unfortunately common kind of dehumanization, one that fits well with a strong-felt need to achieve some “greater good,” even if the path to it is through a person-sized incinerator.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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