Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
Discussion after the trailers. Wait for it...
You may recall that two days ago I declared my personal belief that corporations are not people. So what's up with the title of today's post? Well, it's ironic, innit? Literary device and all that. Also, it embodies the idea that organizations can get out of hand when we pretend they're separate from the people they're made of.
Last year, author and activist Cory Doctorow tweeted this:
Human beings are the gut flora of immortal, transhuman corporations @cstross— Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) October 2, 2014
And this summer, he expanded on that idea in his Locus Online piece "Skynet Ascendant":
Corporations run on a form of code – financial regulation and accounting practices – and the modern version of this code literally prohibits corporations from treating human beings with empathy... We humans are the inconvenient gut-flora of the corporation. They aren’t hostile to us. They aren’t sympathetic to us. Just as every human carries a hundred times more non-human cells in her gut than she has in the rest of her body, every corporation is made up of many separate living creatures that it relies upon for its survival, but which are fundamentally interchangeable and disposable for its purposes. Just as you view stray gut-flora that attacks you as a pathogen and fight it off with antibiotics, corporations attack their human adversaries with an impersonal viciousness that is all the more terrifying for its lack of any emotional heat.That's a pretty bleak interpretation, to be sure, but it's only one point of view. It's the attitude that gives us phrases like "I don't make the rules" and "I just work here" and "I was following orders"—which have become cliché, but many still hide behind those doctrines when trying to avoid responsibility for their actions.
There is a fundamental tension between the desire to build "a government of laws and not of men"—i.e., a set of rules which apply fairly to everyone, without bias or prejudice—and the need to recognize that it is still people who apply those rules to each other, and people are never free from biases.
We're not re-animating corpses here. Any legal entity only exists because we say it does, and we can always change the laws if they're not working, or simply dissolve the entity in question. It's not a monster that we can no longer control; it only becomes monstrous if we choose to let it run amuck.
To use an analogy, it's like playing a tabletop game (especially a role-playing game) and finding that some of the rules don't work well for your particular group of players. If you're all not having fun, do you continue following the rules as written, or do you house-rule something to improve your particular experience?
It can be a complicated question, and the answer will depend on your particular situation. To paraphrase Commander William Riker: "Justice is never as simple as a rulebook."
But back to our movies. They both come out of the Monty Python comedy troupe (American member Terry Gilliam directed Brazil), and I see each one as a meditation on how a group of humans can be less than the sum of its parts—that is to say, the whole is sometimes less empathetic and rational than its individual members. Both films are tragic and funny—sometime simultaneously—but there's always a kernel of truth in even the most absurd scenes.
Humans are amazingly creative and imaginative, but that also means we can talk ourselves into believing all kinds of crazy made-up stuff. I doubt we can ever prevent ourselves from occasionally slipping into irrationality, but let's remember that we're all just people, and always do our best to be excellent to each other.