On Zombies

15/05/2012 § 1 Comment

Of all the monsters that scare humans, zombies are treated the most seriously.  For example, there are many handbooks dedicated to overcoming zombie attacks.  One was published somewhat tongue-in-cheek as part of the Survival Handbook series.  Another was released by a government agency.  Yet, no similar books were published for vampires—which are currently more popular—or for werewolves—which are arguably as dangerous.  This begs the question of why zombies do such a good job of capturing our imaginations and, more importantly, our worries.

The answer to the question undoubtedly lies in the observation that zombies are the monsters that we can best relate to.  Zombies are, after all, human.  But what distinguishes zombies from humans is that zombies are basically brain-dead.  Their prime directive is to feast on human flesh, and they continue simple-mindedly in following this directive.  Furthermore, zombies cannot be reasoned with or be verbally dissuaded from their actions.  They can only be put down in the most emphatic manner.

Thus, zombies are scary to us because we often feel that we’ve already secretly run into them.  We’ve all met people that were unreasonably disagreeable.  Arguments with them were an exercise in frustration because they would have one point, which they would hammer into the ground.  Not only would they fail to argue against your position, they would fail to even understand it.  They couldn’t disagree with your assertions because they couldn’t even begin to make sense of them.  These people also have very insular minds, relying on an echo chamber of news sources to stay informed.  They repeat whatever points the talking heads that appeal most directly to them make, as if punditry is an acceptable substitute for actual argumentation.  These people are also very simple-minded in their desires and goals.  Basically, these people are zombies.

They cannot be reasoned with; they are not rational; they are extremely focused on attaining their narrow and simplistic goals.  Avoidance is the optimal way to deal with people like this, rejoining with verbal violence (shouting) is acceptable, and even physical violence can be tolerated if that gets the zombies to shut up.

One can succumb to them, though.  Succumbing to these conversational zombies is generally called ‘being polite,” wherein one simply smiles and nods to whatever the simpletons are saying.  Others may simply lie and agree, in the hopes that zombies will leave them alone.  But this only gives the zombie more power, enabling them to be satisfied in knowing that yet another person has been successfully infected with their worldview.  But they will at least leave you alone, unless they have some reason to suspect that you might not actually be infected.

It is little wonder why zombies are so popular in pop culture: they are merely a metaphor for how we feel about the unthinking creatures of habit that pervade all aspects of our lives.  These are the people that always trust the official narrative, never question what their trusted leaders tell them, and act with single-minded diligence in the pursuit of shallow goals.  This explanation is hardly new, and has in fact been discussed at length by many others, so there is little need to rehash it here.  But, this explanation does beg the question:  how do we know who the zombies are?

This is a disturbing question to deal with, for we all must live our lives in pursuit of narrow goals. All humans are finite beings, and so we cannot pursue every little thing that ever strikes our fancy. And we must at some point make appeals to an authority besides ourselves, for it is unlikely, if not impossible, for one human to ever know and understand the entirety of the collective knowledge of man.  Furthermore, all humans have their irrationalities and quirks, their beliefs and desires to which they cling stubbornly.  How then can anyone be assured that they themselves are not zombies?

Zombies are concerned with feeding off of uninfected humans, and this is a single-minded desire.  Likewise, humans are concerned with causing others to yield to their world view.  The zombie also lacks consciousness, which means that his actions don’t seem irrational to him, in his lower consciousness.  Not only that, zombies have no issue with using force.  Likewise, humans always believe their own actions to be rational (or, to be more precise, humans have an amazing capacity to rationalize their behavior) and are also willing to use force.

In fact, the way humans interact with zombies is not altogether different from the way zombies interact with humans.  Both have relatively simple goals—eating human flesh and staying alive—both pursue these goals rather simple-mindedly, and both use force instead of reason.  Really, the only way to tell the difference between a zombie and a human is to rely on visual cues, which suggests that the difference is more tenuous than most realize, and it also suggests that perhaps consciousness is simply a meta-rationalization. Ultimately, the difference between humans and zombies is small and mostly negligible.

What makes zombies so fascinating is that they are a metaphor for people who go through life without thinking.  What makes zombies so scary is the idea that they outnumber the living.  And what makes zombies downright terrifying is the idea that we might already be one of them and have no way to tell.

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