On “The Road” and Humanity
Last night I watched 2009's "The Road" (based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, which I haven't read), a post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son trying to survive. They're trying to get to the coast and then go south, where they think there might be more food and at least the winters won't be so brutal. Gangs of evil-doer survivors are marauding across the land, up to a particular kind of evil.
When the landscape is barren and there are few living creatures of any kind, people begin to lose their humanity. And that's when they start to do the unthinkable: eat other humans. What separates the good guys from the bad guys is that one point. And if you miss that point, the man and his son frequently speak of being the good guys, and when the boy needs to figure out if someone is good he asks: "Do you eat people?"
But the line that delineates good guys from bad guys goes deeper. Bad guys treat humans the way they'd treat animals. They hunt them down in "the wild." They corral them, lock them up, and take them out to kill, cook and eat them as needed. When one of the bad guys is killed the other bad guys will feast on his body. But no matter who dies or how, the good guys won't eat the corpse.
Even the good guys sometimes treat people the way they'd treat animals. When the father and son happen upon a nearly-blind old man, the father turns to his son and says something like, "I know what you're thinking and you can forget it. You want to know if we can keep him." And when a younger man steals their supplies, they find him and the father demands he strip down and hand over all of his clothing and even his shoes. Clothes and shoes in this film are largely connected to humanity (not to mention survival). What separates us from the beasts of this world–as opposed to the bad guys–is that we wear clothing and shoes (not to mention in some climates, unlike nonhumans, we'd die without them).
The moment most revealing of the film's theme is at the end, when–SPOILER ALERT–the father has just died. The son, naturally, doesn't think about eating his dad. After all, he's a good guy. Up walks a thirtysomething man and the boy needs to determine if he's a good guy. He asks the man if he eats people. The man doesn't. But more important is that the man has a family: a wife, a boy, a girl and . . . a dog. Of course the man's a good guy–he hasn't killed and eaten his dog. The man is still civilized; he still has his humanity. The boy will be safe with him. (And because the man has a daughter, there can be a future generation of good guys.)
Fade to black.
The problem with this entire premise from start to finish is that the sign that we've lost our humanity is the point when we begin treating other humans the way we treat every other animal.
As long as there is a family with a dog, there is hope. Hope of what, though? The standard for being civilized in "The Road" is simple and fairly low: civilized, "good guys" don't kill people or dogs for food. My fear is that's our standard in the real world, too.