Marshall McLuhan, one of the most influential media and communication theorists, once said “the clown is a person with a grievance…The clown’s job was to tell the emperor or royalty exactly what was wrong with society.” The modern day clown functions more in reverse — he tells society what is wrong with the king, a metaphor for those in power. In the new Joker film, we learn how Batman’s arch-nemesis came to his grievances and became the Clown.
Joker was a really good film and lead actor Joaquin Phoenix’s acting was phenomenal. The film broke records for the biggest October opening ever and it’s safe to surmise it won’t leave award season empty-handed. That being said, even though I enjoyed Joker as a piece of art, I felt uneasy about its underlying messages.
While I think the film’s creators wanted to use this unique origin story as a way to wrestle with the grey area in anarchism as a political tool, the subtext felt uncomfortably “alt-right” at times. And in their artistic calculus, they conflated leftist protest and rightwing violence as coming from the same root.
*****Spoilers beyond this point*****
Films ask us to inhabit the perspective of the protagonist, in this case, the anti-hero Arthur Fleck (later to be reborn as the Joker). We are made to empathize with Arthur, his struggle with mental health and how society treats him badly. Joker taps into the zeitgeist that made Heath Ledger’s Joker so popular or that made “Was Thanos Right?” a question Marvel or pop culture fans would think to ask a serious philosophical inquiry.
We live in an era of both over-abundance and massive inequality, where the powerful assert their rights to an increasingly bigger piece of the pie and leave crumbs for everyone else. We’ve made capitalism into a moral system where meritocracy is the new God and the working class or poor merely don’t have enough divine providence. There’s an epidemic of loneliness in a society that is supposedly more connected than it has ever been. Climate change will have catastrophic effects of the planet, and there’s a good chance we might not do anything to stop it. How do we deal with these contradictions? To repurpose a quote Paul Laurence Dunbar, we wear the mask that grins and lies. In that way, we are all clowns — putting on a smile and happy façade to hide our tears and existential angst.
Both the protests and Arthur Fleck’s anarchic violence are public disruptions and demands to be seen in a society that makes them feel invisible. But there are serious differences in what inspires them and what they hope to achieve. Even though it is disruptive, protest is ultimately an exercise in reforming the system. The “mentally unstable loner who is tired of being bullied by society” uses violent revenge to be made visible. For the former, justice as “just stop bullying me!” For the latter, “now it’s my turn.” Where one sees a tool, the other sees a weapon
It also is a truism that one is interested, while the other is disinterested. When the Joker killed the talk show host, he didn’t care about the consequences. People holding “Resist” signs do care about the consequences. And while it might be an easy rebuttal to say “violence is a form of protest,” I can’t see how it could apply in reverse.
The left generally points their grievances at “the king” — the systems of dominance and oppression, hierarchies, capitalism, racism, sexism, classism, colonialism, empire. The right generally points their grievances at the people — women (who withheld sex), feminists, the SJWs who can’t take a joke, the liberals, the violent blacks on welfare, the Jews, the gays, the Mexicans, the others, those who ruin society for the rest of us, the illegitimate elites. At their polar extremes, anarchists on the left say we need to burn society to the ground in order level the playing field. Anarchists on the right, however, want to burn it all down so they can re-emerge from the ashes on the top of the hierarchy.
While I think the former is a more interested in “doing what’s right,” both are still immoral. People who say “burn it all down” aren’t wrestling with the real moral responsibility to make the hard distinctions between who is guilty and who is innocent, and deciding who has the moral authority to make these decisions. For many (maybe all?) anarchists, making these distinctions is unnecessary, which I think is evil in C.S. Lewis’ basic sense of the word (achieving “good” ends through “bad” means). The left is the modern clown, the right is McLuhan’s clown.
The Joker became both the Clown and the King. And what happens when we make a clown the king? Are there any parallels in real life that come to mind?
One of central political takeaways from Joker is that the irrational person is the only person that can change society. For us to break up an oppressive order, we need to insert chaos. That is an appealing idea that taps into our righteous anger and is has at least some logic to it (rational people are so busy thinking and planning and considering and nuancing that they can’t actually do anything). But I hope people who feel a sense of empathy or can identify with Arthur don’t reach the conclusion that this type of violence and murder is okay.
Empathy can come in the form of shared nihilism, but the true nihilist is either dead or is spreading death to those around him or isn’t doesn’t care if death goes where it “shouldn’t” go. A true anarchist either assumes guilt is spread evenly (which should be self-evidently wrong) or is disinterested in controlling the flames of their justice. A synonym for disinterested justice is “injustice” because, by definition, justice is interested in making distinctions between the guilty and the innocent. A person not interested in making those distinctions seeks revenge, not justice for the forgotten.
This is why I ultimately think Arthur is more aligned to right-wing anarchy, concerned more about the individual than the community. Order made him invisible, but chaos made him even more than just visible—a hero. Murdering the bullies may have been cathartic for him and for some of us to watch, but it makes us forget that Joker’s goal is vengeance against people, not to reform the system. The moral ambiguity we have when Arthur defends himself isn’t as grey once he chases the men down to murder them, and is certainly adios when he kills a man on national TV. Arthur is clearly oppressed, but isn’t concerned with eliminating the oppression of others. In the flames of chaos and admiration, the Joker, the rioters and us, the audience, don’t see that the reason he is the hero is because he is the new bully. Or, which may be a darker realization, we do see it and we like it.
Chaos doesn’t make distinctions between the bullies and the bullied, and it certainly doesn’t make the more difficult identification of people who became bullies because they were bullied so much. I’d guess that Joker is not interested in making those distinctions and it’s not clear that Arthur could either. And whether they can or not, what should be clear to us, the audience, is that the Joker is now the bully. Yeah maybe killing the rich guys make some of us want to give him a thumbs up. But what happens when innocent people get killed in the chaos he, we, create?
The world is definitely messed up and we don’t need Joker to tell us that. But hopefully without lessening the seriousness of these topics or this essay in my readers eyes, I think a useful answer to these philosophical questions comes from Lil Wayne: “Fuck the world, not the people.” We should question, confront, attack and ultimately change the system without losing our humanity. The comedy is that the Joker lost his humanity trying to gain it.
As a fan of the Joker as a character (Mark Hamill’s and Heath Ledger’s) I understand his appeal. But Joker asks us, in a very visceral way, to consider that maybe chaos is the answer to all of society’s grave problems. But I sincerely and humbly hope I have persuaded you—even if only the tiniest little bit—that it isn’t the right one.
Joker is catharsis. But the Joker is not a political or moral compass.
This post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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