For some reason, multiple channels on TV have recently been showing the Back to the Future movie trilogy, over and over again. I have no idea why, though if I had to guess, I'd say it might have something to do with the announcement that Telltale Games, one of the few remaining adventure games publishers, is making a series of games based on the franchise. (Hi, Dave!) Like most members of my generation, I watched these movies in my youth and remember them fondly, but only after watching them again, now, as a (nominal) adult, do I begin to see nuances and interesting themes in the films.
The Future movies are, in part, about the immigrant experience—that's one of the reasons my father, a film professor and former film reviewer, loves them. They also make an interesting comparison between the teenager and the immigrant—both strangers in a strange land, with new customs, beliefs, and languages. They're films about history, obviously, and choice, and change, and tradition. But the theme that I want to focus on here is a subtler one: they're about shame.
Back to the Future has spawned some great and memorable lines, at least one of which has been uttered by a sitting president. One of the most memorable, at least for me, was the oft-repeated challenge to Marty: "What are you—chicken?" Usually delivered by Thomas F. Wilson playing one of the various Tannens of history, with a superbly timed musical sting immediately after the final word, the delivery of this line has stayed with me into adulthood. What interests me right now, for the purposes of this blog post, is that, to the best of my recollection, this line doesn't actually appear until the second movie in the trilogy, which marks a turning point for how the idea of shame is discussed in these films.
In the first movie, Marty McFly meets his father George thirty years ago, when George is a shy, geeky, unpopular teen with dreams of writing science fiction novels and one day maybe talking to a girl. George is, quite simply, a loser: a coward and a weakling, a failure of American manhood. (Tangentially, I think this is why I identified more with George than with Marty as a child. Marty was the skateboard-riding, guitar-playing, super-cool dude who already had a girlfriend; moreover, he doesn't change significantly as a character over the course of that first movie. George, by contrast, is the nerd who eventually faces his fears and gets the girl by the end of the movie. Marty was already cool; George is the nerd who becomes cool. And like most of the movie's likely audience, I too was a nerd who wanted to make it big one day.) George avoids confrontation, trying not to bring shame upon himself ("What if she laughs at me? I don't think I can take that kind of rejection!"). But paradoxically, by trying to avoid shame, George is shameful; by not attacking his problems head-on he becomes a nothing. What finally triggers his metamorphosis is standing up to Biff, in one of my favorite bits of acting in the whole trilogy: Crispin Glover, shaking slightly from adrenaline and relief, staring joyfully at his hand, still amazed that he's done it; then, realizing the chivalrous thing to do, he reaches out his other hand to Lorraine and says gently, awkwardly, "Are you all right?"
Shame is not standing up to one's tormentor. Shame is not acting.
And yet this lesson is seemingly reversed in the second and third films. Marty is sensitive to being inactive, to not acting like a man (to acting like a chicken); he is quick to act and to react. This is ultimately his downfall: by acting on a challenge from Needles, Marty gets into a car wreck, permanently damages his hand, never becomes the rock star he's (apparently) destined to be, and ends up a white-collar drone with no future.
Or at least, that's what originally happens before he and Doc Brown start futzing with the space-time continuum. And that's what makes the Back to the Future trilogy such a great vehicle for talking about shame, because time travel makes it possible to see the long-term consequences of one's actions—and shame is all about consequences.
What are the consequences of doing this, or not doing this? Whose interests am I serving by acceding to this person's demands? If I do not stand up for myself now (as George did), when will I stand up for myself? If I let this person push me around (as Marty let Needles do), I may gain short-term prestige, but at what cost?
Marty's and George's respective dilemmas are really the same issue, seen two different ways: what I do in the present will determine who I am in the future. And here's where I start getting serious.
A while back I read part of a book by Philip Zimbardo, who is one of those unfortunate individuals who may have done many great and noble things, but will always be best known for one awful and ignoble act. In Zimbardo's case, he designed and led the now-infamous Stanford prison experiment, in which 24 middle-class, psychologically normal American male college students were put into two groups—"prisoners" and "guards—and were told to act out those roles. Over the course of the experiment, the guards became brutal monsters, resorting to psychological torture to control the "inmates," and Zimbardo lost sight of the nominal goals of the experiment and allowed actions that violated every ethical rule in the psychologist's book. The experiment was planned to last two weeks; he was forced to end it after six days. Some of the "prisoners" suffered psychological trauma lasting for years after the experiment.
Zimbardo's book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, is about people in situations where they are coerced or convinced to act inhumanly, and how they react. He specifically cites the situational pressures that led to the abuses and torture of Iraqi prisoners by American guards at Abu Ghraib prison, how people were put in a situation where it seemed not only permissible but proper to physically and psychologically abuse other human beings.
In the back of his book, and on the book's website, Zimbardo gives several tips on how to resist these influences, these situational pressures that convince a person that right is wrong and wrong is right. One of these tips is the following (emphasis mine):
“I will balance my Time Perspective.”
We can be led to do things that are not really what we believe in our value when we allow ourselves to become trapped in an expanded present moment. When we stop relying on our sense of past commitments and our sense of future liabilities, we open ourselves to situational temptations to engage in “Lord of the Flies” excesses. By not going “with the flow" when others around you are being abusive or out of control, you are relying a temporal perspective that stretches beyond present-oriented hedonism or present-fatalism. You are likely to engage in a cost/benefit analysis of actions in terms of their future consequences. Or, you may resist by being sufficiently conscious of a past time frame that contains your personal values and standards. By developing a balanced time perspective in which past, present and future can be called into action depending on the situation and task at hand, you are in a better position to act responsibly and wisely than when your time perspective is biased toward reliance on only one or two time frames. Situational power is weakened when past and future combine to contain the excesses of the present. For example, research indicates that righteous Gentiles who helped to hide Dutch Jews from the Nazis did not engage in the kind of rationalizing as their neighbors did in generating reasons for not helping. These heroes depended upon moral structures derived from their past and never lost sight of a future time when they would look back on this terrible situation and be forced to ask themselves whether they had done the right thing when they chose not to succumb to fear and social pressure.
Recently, an article has been making the internet rounds: the story of Specialist Alyssa Peterson, who committed suicide in September 2003, after serving only a few weeks in Iraq—weeks in which she was assigned to an army prison in Tal Afar and ordered to use inhumane interrogation techniques. The article is a disturbing yet fascinating read, and I suggest you take a look if you haven't already. As both the author and Alyssa's fellow soldier Kayla Williams point out, suicidal depression (or any psychological illness) is never caused by only one thing, and it would be irresponsible to claim that it was solely her experiences in Iraq that led to Alyssa's suicide. However, a devout Mormon like Alyssa, placed in a situation where one is being coerced to do brutal and inhuman things—where one is being told to ignore the long-term consequences of one's actions—would have experienced severe psychological stress, which was certainly a factor in her suicide.
Now, obviously, I'm a pretty long way from talking about a movie with time travel and flying DeLoreans and people crashing into manure trucks in three separate historical periods. But the kind of psychological pressure that convinces a naive, easily manipulated teen that driving his enormous truck irresponsibly on a residential street is a smart thing to do is similar to, though certainly of a lesser degree than, the psychological pressure that convinces a person that forcing prisoners to form a naked pyramid of bodies and taking pictures is an acceptable thing to do. And in both cases, one of the keys to resisting this coercion is the same: looking to the future. Imagining what kind of person you will have become as a result of this action (or inaction). You may be shamed by your choice now, but how will you feel five, ten, twenty years down the line?
The future comes whether we want it to or not, and usually quicker than we think. Never forget that.