The Zen of Watchmen

Never mind giving vs receiving. Is it better to judge... or to accept?

Posted Jan 18, 2010

[This is an article about the way we perceive and judge the world. It is not intended as either a book or movie review, and I tried not to give away anything that might interfere with anyone's reading or watching. Nevertheless, readers who haven't read or seen Watchmen and don't want to know anything about it may not want to read any further.]

There is an old Zen story of an elderly farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "May be," the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed. "May be," replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "May be," answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.

The story is usually used to caution readers from rushing to judgment. One of its points is that it is not always immediately evident whether a particular event will have positive or negative consequences, even if it seems obvious (as it does in the examples above) that the consequences are clearly either good or bad. Indeed, because the story ends with yet another “may be”, even a longer perspective is inadequate to judge any particular event, because something could happen the very next day that would turn everything on its head. Rather than judge, the story would have us accept things as they come, without judgment, and act accordingly.

It seems like good advice. And I have to admit that it’s liberating to step into that non-judgmental space. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Maybe they spurred distrust and dissatisfaction with the GOP and paved the way for an Obama Presidency that will, in turn, pave the way for a new era of peace. The present economic crisis? Maybe it will ultimately lead to both economic and social reforms that raise the standard of living around the globe.

On the other hand, the Obama Presidency could wind up splintering the American people and ushering in decades of backlash against progressive politics and racial tolerance.

The point is we just don’t know. And we can’t know. All we can do is focus on accepting our circumstances, rather than trying to control them.

This way of thinking, of “being”, is appealing. We are, after all, human beings. I can feel my burdens floating away as I write.

But then I start to wonder: Doesn’t judgment have its benefits? Doesn’t it motivate us to take action? If abolitionists did not condemn slavery, might it not have been institutionalized in the North, as well as the South? If Civil Rights activists did not rise up against Jim Crow might we not still be living under the “separate but equal” doctrine?  Isn’t acceptance without judgment just a way of maintaining the status quo? Maybe it’s better to have principles and live by them. Maybe accepting that which violates those principles is the last thing we ought to do. This is one of several philosophical questions Watchmen takes up.

If you haven't yet read or seen Watchmen, it is a critically acclaimed graphic novel written by Allen Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons and first published as a serial in 1986 and 1987.  Intended as both a social commentary of contemporary politics (it still feels relevant 20 years later) and a critique of the superhero concept, Watchmen features a number of original superheroes, including the book's Batman-like protagonist, Rorschach.  

The Rorschach character has principles. They’re good ones: Justice, fairness, honesty, for sure, possibly even decency. And he walks the walk. By the time the film reaches its climax, viewers have little doubt that Rorschach is driven to do what he believes to be good and just and that he will stick by those principles to the end. Indeed, he is willing to kill for them.

But this isn’t a typical superhero story. Rorschach’s foil (whose name I am deliberately not revealing) also has principles. And they’re good ones too: Peace definitely, possibly even dignity. They’re genuine, not faked. And he, too, is willing to stick to those principles to the end. And he too is willing to kill for them.

Part of Watchmen’s magic is that it makes you think you know whose principles you support and whose perspective you want to triumph, and then presents additional information that puts everything in a different perspective. At the end, you may still know whose principles you support and they may still be Rorschach’s, but you’re probably a little less sure. At the end of the film, Rorschach may still be right. But there is reason to doubt it, and there is no way to know for sure.

There are other characters in the film, including one who mostly approaches life through the Zen perspective advocated by the story. The graphic novel and this year's film adaptation both explore the resulting tension between acceptance and judgment, and months after watching the film adaptation, it is this tension that I find myself contemplating again and again.

The best I seem able to do is to conclude that either extreme is flawed. It feels inhumane to accept without judgment that which is unjust. That’s not the type of person I want to be. But neither do I want to delude myself into thinking that I have some special superpower to know how something will turn out…or even how something has turned out.

At the end of the film, despite the new information, Rorschach remains convinced that he knows what is best for the world. And though, as I said, he may well be right, it is scary to me that he does not seem to even consider the possibility that he might not be. He can’t. That type of cognitive process is decidedly gray, and as comics historian Bradford W. Wright described, Rorschach’s world view is "a set of black-and-white values that take many shapes but never mix into shades of gray, similar to the ink blot tests of his namesake". I admire Rorschach’s life journey. It took a lot of courage and integrity to survive his childhood and channel his experiences into something positive. I’m glad he made it. But I can’t accept his worldview. Our reality is too complex to be easily dichotomized into good and evil, or even just and unjust. I think these are choices we do have to make, but I don’t feel like I can truly trust someone who makes them without at least a little humility. I just feel like there might be grey areas that person either doesn’t want to or is incapable of seeing.

Watchmen inspires social activism. It is filled with characters who want to change the world for the better. But, more than anything else, it inspires humility. If neither the smartest man in the world nor one with God-like powers to perceive time non-linearly are in a position to confidently judge the film’s deciding event, how can us ordinary humans portend to know anything with absolute certainty? Will Watchmen change the way you look at the world? It says something about both the film and our reality that the answer is: May be.