We Live, Unequally

They Live (1988) is a celebrated message movie:

John Nada, a generic drifter who finds his way to Los Angeles as the film begins. … Nada wanders through Los Angeles, gets a job as a construction worker, and is led by a new buddy named Frank to a shantytown. …

Once Nada stumbles upon a package of special sunglasses, the secret is out. When he wears these glasses, he sees subliminal messages everywhere. ”Marry and Reproduce,” says a billboard on which a bikini-clad woman pitches vacations in the tropics. ”Consume,” says a sign advertising a close-out sale. ”This Is Your God,” says a dollar bill, and on the newsstands magazines put forth slogans like ”Honor Apathy” and ”Obey.”

What’s more, the glasses enable Nada to see just who ”they” are: the rich and powerful who, through these lenses, become skeleton-faced ghouls with glittering metallic eyes. (more)

Naturally Nada immediately goes on a murder-all-aliens rampage. Wouldn’t you?

I sure hope not. The movie seems to suggest that one should murder all non-kin elites in any society where elites use psychological tricks to keep non-elites from feeling outraged and going on murderous rampages. (Like pretty much every society ever known.) You might argue that the movie only suggests mass murder for non-kin who are ugly very-distant relations. But then why celebrate this as a “message” movie? Are we supposed to see murdering elites as a metaphor for, say, frowning at them?

The movie tries to transfer xenephobia of space aliens to elites within a city, even when there are no obvious signs that these elites aren’t paying their way, by being more productive. In the movie, aliens bring world peace, let humans continue to live peaceful lives, bring advanced tech, and integrate Earth’s economy with distant planets to achieve gains from trade. None of which, according to this movie, excuses them:

What do these things want?
They’re free-enterprisers.
The earth is just another developing planet. Their third world.
Deplete the planet, move on to another,
They want benign indifference,
We could be pets or food,
But all we really are is livestock.
We need an assault unit.
Someone to hit them hard. (more)

Look, there is a vast space of possible societies, with an incredible number of possible dimensions. Yes, humans are primed to watch for and resist dominance, and to be suspicious of outsiders. And yes maybe more equal societies are better, all else equal. But an overwhelming focus on that one dimension of inequality risks neglect of the other dimensions, which taken together are vastly more important. We should seek social arrangements to help us search this vast space for more productive possibilities, including the possibility of peaceful mutually beneficial trade with outsiders. Even if that increases, horrors, inequality. Or, double horror, subliminal advertising! Really.

Imagine a movie depicting a hero upset by some lazy poor folks on welfare, who then goes on a rampage murdering poor folks. Would this be celebrated as a thoughtful message movie, reminding us all of the importance of hard work? Not a chance.

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