As the credits rolled on V for Vendetta, many thoughts rolled through my mind. While the film raises more questions of philosophy and morality than it answers, the theme that struck me most was the incredible power of ideas.
“Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” tweet
The mysterious V — always masked, always anonymous — declares himself to be an idea, with all the power and possibility therein.
But while it’s easy to see how V for Vendetta champions the nobility and power of The Idea, it also excellently reveals the darker side of ideas.
In an age of instant communication, when ideas are so easily broadcast and shared, it’s more important than ever to listen to what V has to tell us about the dangerous side of ideas.
(Warning: this article contains movie spoilers aplenty)
The Consuming Power of Ideas
One of the most telling elements in any story is the juxtaposition of the protagonist and the antagonist. In V for Vendetta, this dynamic perfectly highlights one of the dark sides of The Noble Idea. Consider, if you will, the goals and philosophies of the protagonist and antagonist:
High Chancellor Sutler
- Believed that, in the aftermath of nuclear war, extreme order was required to preserve his country.
- Believes so strongly that his ideals are necessary for everyone, that he is willing to torture and kill to see his vision realized.
- To him, the collateral damage resulting from his totalitarianism is a reasonable sacrifice to make.
- He is greater than a man, he is the embodiment of an idea: order and security amidst the destruction of the world.
- Believed that, for the horrible crimes Sutler and Norsefire committed against humanity (and him personally) in creating and distributing the virus, Sutler’s regime must be overthrown.
- Believes so strongly in this, that he is willing to torture and kill to see his vision realized.
- To him, the collateral damage resulting from the ensuing chaos is a reasonable sacrifice to make.
- He is greater than a man, he is the embodiment of an idea: freedom from tyranny.
On the one hand, they are the antithesis of each other, order and chaos. And yet, in the defining choices that they make, they are the same man: they are both willing to take any means to achieve their ends.
The counterpoint to these extremes of order and chaos, represented in V and Sutler, are the characters of Evey and Finch.
Evey Hammond tries to keep her head down and live a normal life, despite the state-sanctioned murder of her activist parents. She is at first accidentally and unwillingly caught up in V’s plans, but when she comes face to face with the atrocities of the Norsefire party, she finds within herself a steely will to see justice done.
But even with her newfound worldview, Evey holds on to conscience. She believes in V’s ideals about bringing freedom from tyranny, but cannot stomach his casual murders, and even goes so far as to try and warn his victims. When she chooses to carry out V’s final task, she does so free of the vengeance that tainted V’s idealism . She does it in the pursuit of real hope for the people, a hope built on freedom.
Chief Inspector Finch has been a party member for 27 years, believing he is serving the people of London. When his investigation into V leads him to damning truths about his own government, he decides to pursue the truth, even at great risk to himself and his worldview.
And yet, when he has the proof he dreaded, he does not turn and join the anarchy that’s overtaking the city. He wants to see justice, not chaos. Even in seeing the corruption of his government, he still believes that law and justice can prevail. By the end of the movie, he does not disagree with the Idea that drives V, but does not allow the Idea to consume him.
“If our own government was responsible for the deaths of almost a hundred thousand people… would you really want to know?” tweet
These two characters both have the same noble intentions that initially drove V and Sutler — one desires freedom, the other order. Evey and Finch, however, resist the lure of The Noble Idea. They are driven by the Idea, but they do not allow it to consume them at the expense of principle.
The separation of intentions and actions is a crucial one, and one well illustrated in V for Vendetta.
After all, if intentions dictated the morality of action, there would be no villains in the world.
The Corrupting Power of Ideas
Why is it so crucial to separate the nobility of the intention from the nobility of the action? Because ideas easily create their own perspective and context. An action that disgusts us in one light may be lauded by us in another, depending on the lens of the Idea.
The danger here is that the action and its morality did not change, but only our idea of it.
Evey’s torture provides a prime example of this. When the viewer believes that she is suffering at the hands of Creedy, her treatment is seen as vile and cruel. But when it is revealed that it was actually V all along, we suddenly see it as a harsh but necessary tool to shape her for a cruel world.
As viewers swept along in a story, our perspective changes our belief about the facts — namely, Evey being brutally tortured and dehumanized.
The facts remain the facts, but the lens of the Idea shifts, and thus our narrative changes. However, truth demands consistency. The corrupting power of ideas is in our human ability to paint good intentions over evil actions.
Take the movie’s example: V’s championed cause is the freedom to choose, as evidenced by his stand against tyranny, and his admiration for those like Valerie Page whose choices were outside the Norsefire’s acceptable behavior.
And yet, in his zeal, consumed by the nobility of his intentions, he strips Evey of her right to choose — betraying the very principle he claims guides him.
This is very telling, and reveals an inconsistency not with the movie or the character, but with humanity itself. Although we rarely see it on such an extreme scale, this dissonance occurs regularly in our daily lives. Just look at your Facebook feed and you’ll find examples both personal and political.
… The person who champions religious freedom, yet is quick to raise outcry against the freedoms of other religions.
… The person who champions social freedoms, yet is quick to spew vitriolic words at views and opinions that fall outside their own.
… The list could go on for an unconscionably long time.
This is the corrupting power of ideas. When one idea, perhaps even a just and good idea, becomes so burned into our focus, that we see only the ends, and use the Idea to justify the means. Good ideas and intentions, devoid of the larger context of truth, action, and principle, are quickly corrupted.
The Inertial Power of Ideas
Ideas have incredible power — to spur us to action and to keep us in apathy. An Idea spurred thousands of people to risk themselves at the end of the movie, but an Idea had also kept them enslaved in apathy for years before that.
It’s interesting to remember: the populace had exactly the same power at the beginning of the movie as they did at the end. V didn’t give them all guns or disarm the government. What changed?
The people’s narrative did. In the scene where V broadcasts his message to all London, he shatters the idea that has held these people in fear: the idea that they are helpless:
How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. tweet
I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent. tweet
By putting the responsibility for the current regime squarely in the laps of the people who voted it into power, he also empowers them to make a change.
The point is that ideas always beget action. This might seem an obvious or useless point, until you realize what it means: no idea is passive, even if that idea is the belief of powerlessness.
An idea, once rooted and believed, demands action. Burying heads in the sand is an action.
We face a similar situation in our own country. We see the state of the economy, the corruption of the government, the reprehensibility of our two major-party presidential candidates, and we feel frustrated and helpless in the midst of the shitstorm.
So let V remind you today, the day before Election Day: we the people have the power. We were not windswept into this state of affairs: we have made choices, for security over freedom, for comfort over justice, for easy lies over hard truths. In so doing, we have become complicit to the things we say we hate.
As long as we believe that we are ultimately powerless in the affairs of our country, we will continue in the false dichotomy that is the Republican vs. Democrat, Us vs. Them deadlock that keeps an oligarchy in power.
We have the power to choose the Idea we will follow —an Idea that empowers us to change, or an Idea that envelops us in apathy.
V for Vendetta is such a great movie, loaded with great questions and concepts — far more than one article can cover. Respond and let me know your take on the movie, the article, or on the power of ideas. Let’s discuss!