Link: Joss Whedon gets Cultural Humanism Award

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Joss Whedon Cultural Humanist. Whedon receives 2009 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Harvard Secular Society. 90 minutes streaming video, or audio only mp3 file. Joss Whedon is the creator of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and the film Serenity.

Whedon is introduced and then gives a speech followed by a lengthy question and answer session. The reason he was given the award is that all his work reflects a view largely critical of religion, and supportive of a humanist vision of struggling to achieve good within this world. Though as Whedon points out at the event, he gives a place to religious views, as part of his interest in multiplicity of voices in his work, including the difference points of view within one character.

In his speech Whedon refers to violence and cruelty in the name of religion, but also says that the enemy is not religion but dark tendencies within everyone. In that sense Humanism is more of an act of faith than religion, because it is the faith in overcoming evil without an other worldly entity, sometimes referred to by Whedon as the ‘sky bully.’

In his speech and answers to questions, Whedon refers to his own fear of death which he says has been overcome since becoming a father. The vampire in Buffy are identified as disturbing because they want to deny the possibility of death, and therefore the possibility of something more important than themselves. In the last part of the question and answer session he rounds off with his anxieties about power, the fear of not having power and the fear of the consequences of having power. This is an underlying issue in all of his work,

Whedon discusses the connections and conflicts between emotional realism and mythological symbolism in his work. He talks about what ethics there is without God, and says that a conversation with his wife led him to the idea of evolutionary ethics, before he knew about is a widespread theory. Whedon is referring to the idea that ethics evolves as part of the need of the human species to survive through co-operation. He identifies the basic point of ethics as to avoid pain in other people, because we don’t want it happening to us, or people to whom we are close. When discussing different ethical decisions made by Buffy at different times, Whedon refers to way that a moral system may simply be a convenient way of justifying what we choose at some moment. This leads to situationist ethics (ethical choices as contextual rather than universal) and to Whedon’s only early interest in existentialism and absurdism in Camus and Sartre. That interest was apparently spurred by a transformational viewing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which led Whedon to question the reality of a normal point of view. Near the end, Whedon also refers to the need for redemption, the way that we all do things we regret, and use power in ways which are wrong. A very recognisable theme in his work. At another point, Whedon refers to the need to to keep shocking people and causing pain in the view for dramatic reasons. This seems a bit contradictory with the idea of avoiding pain, and part of Whedon’s feeling that having power in making TV and cinema leads to badness might refers to this, though he does not say so. Given this concern with not causing pain, it’s not surprising that Whedon expresses some interest in Buddhism, though recoiling from its theology. Whedon’s attitude combines a feeling that existence leads to evil, with a utopian hope for a society in which there is no power and no pain.

On more specific points in his own work, the influence of John Ford comes up twice in relation to Firefly. He refers to the preacher Shepherd Book in the series as like the preacher played by Ward Bond in The Searchers. Whedon partly explains the rapid introduction of a large number of characters in Firefly with reference to Stagecoach, where a bizarre range of people are forced together in the stagecoach. He refers to the difference between Angel and Buffy as characters who begin as heroic; and Spike and Faith who come to humanity and heroism from an evil beginning. Whedon refers to the difficult in Angel as being to define the character of Angel and his reason for fighting evil, every series offers a new solution. Buffy and Angel reach the same point of getting beyond the idea of unique heroism and destiny, and seeing good in individual actions. Whedon defines Dollhouse as being about all the ways we inevitably objectify everyone else, and project onto them. He had a few things to say about the development of Dollhouse being slowed down by concerns with audience figures and keeping the production company happy.