10:00 am EST, January 29, 2018

This is how we save our people: ‘The 100’ as a study in leadership

A TonDC lawyer reflects on how leadership decisions made in The 100 season 4 mirror real world political challenges.

This guest post was written by Hypable reader @acapitalchick.

Consider the following for a moment: Government leaders lie about an existential threat to life on the planet. The public is deftly manipulated by the government’s control of information and propaganda. Critics of the government are silenced. Leaders make secret and unilateral decisions regarding who lives and dies, at times defying the public’s will.

I bet you thought I was describing the state of American democracy in 2018. But no, I was referring to events of season 4 of the post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama The 100.

At its core, The 100 is a story about leadership. The drama often uses political allegory and archetypes to explore the nature of decision-making by leaders. Not since season 1 has The 100 showcased so many scenes exploring the interactions between Arkadian leaders and their public. And since Arkadia is the closest form of government approximating a democracy in this story, it is of note how the show frames this relationship.

The story of The 100 is often told from the point of view of its leaders. We understand that, in the world of the show, leaders usually have the best of intentions, even if we may disagree with their choice in each circumstance. However, a focus on the scenes in season 4 that showcase Clarke Griffin, Thelonius Jaha, and Marcus Kane interacting with their public raises two interesting questions for the audience from the point of view of the Arkadian masses.

First, do we accept that it is sometimes necessary for government to withhold the truth from the public? And second, do people generally rise to what their leaders ask of them – for better or worse? Thinking about these themes in the context of current American politics raises provocative and timely questions about our desire for truth from our leaders and our willingness to follow them wherever they may lead.

‘No leader starts out wanting to lie’

Fundamentally, government consists of a social contract between leaders and the public wherein the public surrenders portions of its free will in return for a measure of order and safety. This contract is undermined when the government lies, no matter how (supposedly) well-intentioned, because withholding the truth allows leaders to substitute their judgment for that of the people in a way that shields them from accountability.

And because leaders are often in control of critical information, the access or exposure to independently verifiable facts is critical to the public’s ability to hold leaders accountable. It also prevents the public from exercising its own free will as to whether it will continue to follow a leader down a proposed path.

The 100 affirmed the importance of free will from a thematic standpoint during season 3 when Clarke refused to surrender it in exchange for humanity’s consciousness surviving the end of the world in the virtual City of Light. The loss of free will was deemed too high a price to pay.

And yet in The 100 season 4, Arkadia’s leaders, despite their best intentions, repeatedly thwart their people’s free will by lies of omission or deliberate concealment of their plans.

First, the threat of Praimfaya (a nuclear apocalypse) is concealed entirely from the Arkadian people and they are instead told that they need to work to prepare their shelter, Alpha Station, for the winter. Then, when Clarke finally does disclose the advent of the apocalypse, she lies and says there is room for all to thrive, despite her knowledge that Alpha Station can only generate enough water to sustain the lives of 100 people. Clarke shrewdly notes in private that this misrepresentation will motivate the public to complete the work that needs to be done even if they will not all benefit from the result.

The 100 season 4 clean Clarke

Next, Clarke unilaterally and secretly creates a list of people who will be permitted inside Alpha Station based on her own criteria. Clarke then shocklashes and imprisons Jasper Jordan when he attempts to reveal the truth to the public. Once the truth about their circumstances and the list are exposed by Monty Green, the public’s anger appears to be directed at Clarke’s lies, her methodology, and the inclusion of leaders (including herself) on the list of the “saved.”

In other words: the public objects to the unilateral and secret method by which the list was created, rather than the concept of a list per se. Jaha then quickly quells dissent by acknowledging their opposition and proposing a lottery for anyone who will continue to work. He motivates the crowd to follow the government’s lead by giving them a stake in the process.

If you were a member of the Arkadian public at this point in the story of season 4, how would you feel about Clarke’s leadership methods? Why does Clarke choose to lie and act unilaterally rather than pursue Raven’s proposal that they “crowdsource” their problem?  On the one hand, Clarke astutely leverages the public’s erroneous belief that they can all survive into manpower.  However, Clarke also suggests that her motivation to lie is a belief that people might react negatively out of fear when she tells Monty that “it’s too risky” to tell the truth. Yet, Clarke allows her own fears to drive her decision-making.

Ultimately, her understandable fears about the disclosure of the list are proven unfounded. Arkadian anger was focused primarily on the truth being withheld and the unilateral creation of a list without public input. Perhaps they, as Alexander Hamilton once stated, “oppose[d] a thing merely because they … had no agency in planning it.” What if Clarke had been honest about the challenge in the first place? Might people have reacted calmly, as they did even after learning that they were lied to, and accepted the pragmatism of a list or proposed an even better solution as a result of open debate?

The narrative considers this temptation for leaders to lie from two perspectives. First, the experienced leader, Jaha, tells Clarke, “No leader starts out wanting to lie, or imprison, or execute his people. But these decisions whittle us down piece by piece.” In other words, Jaha argues that something about the nature of leadership requires misrepresentation (or worse) on occasion to achieve an optimal result under difficult circumstances.

The 100 season 4 episode 4 Monty sad

The counterpoints to this view come from Monty and Jasper, who represent members of the public who were lied to and left off the list. First, Monty accuses Clarke of playing God by substituting her judgment for the public’s and states that, despite her fear that chaos could result from the revealing the truth, “maybe they’ll [the public will] surprise you.” Second, during his final onscreen conversation with Clarke of the series, Jasper counters Jaha’s justification of lying when he states, “If you think that you have the best idea, you have to convince people; not lie to them.”

This tension between the public’s right to know the truth and the government sometimes acting covertly in furtherance of its view of the public’s security is as old as democracy itself. Indeed, an entire body of law addresses this ever-changing dynamic, ranging from the Vietnam War-era Pentagon Papers, highlighted in the recent film The Post, to the collection of electronic data by national security agencies.

On The 100, we cheer for Clarke; we understand her good intentions and likely agree with her overall objectives of saving as many lives as possible and avoiding chaos and panic. However, does our agreement with her objectives make her sometimes unilateral or misleading methods more palatable? And, if the answer is yes, does that inform our view about how some of the public in our world support leaders with whom they agree even if their means are authoritative or untruthful? Should that prompt us to object to these methods regardless of whether we support a leader generally or not? And how can we determine whether to continue following a leader if we don’t have access to all the facts?

Calling upon the better angels of our nature (or not)

Since the first season, The 100 has pulled no punches in exploring the dichotomy of human nature. Human beings are capable of staggering sacrifice fueled by love for one another, and yet also commit horrible acts motivated by fear and anger.

When considered in the context of democracy, this dichotomy underlies the sentiment perhaps best expressed by Winston Churchill that, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for the all the others.” Within the world of The 100, one need only consider the juxtaposition of season 1’s voluntary culling of Arkadians so that the majority could live, and season 3’s election of populist and military aggressor Charles Pike to recognize the full spectrum of human behavior when faced with an existential threat.

The 100 season 4 again explored the way in which human nature, in the form of a crowd’s collective will, can be directed by a persuasive voice for better or worse. Sometimes the Arkadian people responded admirably to calls for unity and calm in the face of great adversity.

When informed about the looming apocalypse, the Arkadian people latched onto Clarke’s words of hope (even as they proved in part to consist of false promises) and worked long hours to prepare Alpha Station. Later, despite their anger over being lied to, the Arkadians again responded to Jaha’s positive message of unity and quickly returned to work. In both cases, leaders spoke to their people with rational messages of hope and unity and the Arkadians responded with calm determination despite dire odds.

However, season 4 also explored what happens when there are charismatic appeals to fear and violence in a vacuum of persuasive leadership to the contrary. In the episode entitled “We Will Rise,” fear and anger in the aftermath of the burning of Alpha Station are channelled into a grassroots-led attempted lynching of the perpetrator of the fire, Illian. The episode portrays an interesting vacuum of persuasive displays of public leadership from current chancellor Kane and former chancellor Jaha.

At first, Kane admirably confronts a mob at the onset of the episode, threatening to shoot any Arkadian who beats Illian. Later, a stricken Arkadian named Hardy, father to a five-year old boy, foments anger among the people and calls for the summary execution of Illian. Jaha, despite his earlier persuasive speech that quelled dissent over the list, remains silent and fails to publicly challenge the angry rhetoric despite prodding by Monty to do so. In fact, no one publicly challenges the mob again.

The episode chooses to restrict Kane’s message that the Ark’s capital punishment system should end to private conversations with guard David Miller and proposed executioner Octavia Blake. Ultimately, the mob is dispersed only by falsely being told that there is a safety threat. The attempted lynching of Illian illustrates how hate and fear can flourish in a vacuum of forceful, persuasive leadership to the contrary. It also, interestingly, illustrates when a lie can achieve a peaceful outcome.

Finally, the penultimate episode of the season, “The Chosen,” explores how, even under the same circumstances, the public can choose either peaceful self-sacrifice so that some might live or pursue violence at the risk of all depending on what a leader asks of them.

Despite the crushing prospect of losing 364 lives that they believed were saved, the Arkadians ultimately accept Kane’s proposal of a lottery for 80 people. There is public debate and dissent, but ultimately people peacefully submit their names or make their plans to sacrifice for others. Even Hardy, leader of the earlier lynch mob, accepts the lottery process and asks Jaha to care for his son if he is not chosen.

Kane, invoking the sacrifice of their countrymen during the culling, encourages the crowd to “call upon the better angels of our nature to guide us.” It is an important message: leaders can inspire people to come together in peace and face adversity (or even certain death) with great forbearance.

When the lottery begins, the crowd at first meets Kane’s call with a quiet acceptance of their fates as the names are read aloud; loved ones console each other as the survivors are chosen. However, Jaha refuses to accept that his people should cede 364 lives and, tapping into Hardy’s rage and despair, convinces him to rally the crowd to fight by holding the food supply hostage. 

Given that three out of four people in the room were doomed to die anyway, it is no surprise that the public quickly chooses violence when stirred to action by a grassroots leader. Ultimately, Jaha and Kane avoid conflict by gassing their own people and then, using the very list that the public had rejected earlier in the season, select who will live and die. Three out of four unconscious Arkadians are carried out of the life-saving bunker to their death; their choice to fight for survival negated and without the chance to say goodbye to loved ones or face their death knowingly.

When considered together, these scenes depict a public that follows whatever a persuasive leader asks of them. It tells a thought-provoking story illustrating the inherent dilemma of democracy – one that resonates in the real world as calls for hope and unity battle for the public’s attention with voices of bigotry and fear.

This tension was identified at the founding of our republic by Alexander Hamilton who wrote both that, “liberty … make[s] human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism,” and yet at the same time, “the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”

The drama suggests that how leaders appeal to our dual nature can be determinative in how we, in turn, exercise our free will. And, returning to the earlier question of the relationship between truth and free will, does this risk of mob rule sometimes justify authoritarian or manipulative methods?

Is ‘The 100’ a cautionary tale for our times?

In the world of The 100, Arkadia’s leaders were desperate to save their people from an unimaginable existential threat. By all appearances, their decisions to lie or even incite violence were, for the most part, motivated by the intent of saving lives. In our world, the deliberate manipulation of fear and anger have ushered in a disturbing tolerance for bigotry and a dangerous disregard for the truth. We are experiencing a vacuum of principled leadership at the highest reaches of our government and the use of lies and propaganda to achieve objectives.

The penultimate episode’s final images of government leaders carrying out unconscious bodies to their death can serve as a chilling metaphor for the life and death decisions our government makes every day as the public is numb to outrage, disengaged, manipulated, sidelined by electoral structures, or disenfranchised. Are we willing to accept leaders lying to us if they achieve policy objectives with which we agree? Are we comfortable with our own free will being chipped away with every lie or abuse of power? Or are we bold enough to seek out leaders who will tell the truth regardless of the risk of how it will be received? To choose leaders who, rather than bait public fear, instead convince us, as Jasper said, that they have the better idea?

The 100 season 5 will no doubt examine the consequences of past decisions made by Arkadian leaders, as well as raise new questions of leadership as people struggle to survive amidst scarce resources. Will newly emerged leader Octavia learn from the lessons of the past and appeal to her followers’ “better angels,” or will she too rely on lies and threats of force to control the public? Moreover, what will the cryogenically preserved travelers from closer to our time aboard the spaceship Eligius observe about the future state of the world and how it is governed? 

As the characters of The 100 begin to build a new world, keep your eye on the crowd. It might give you a clue as to how our story might unfold as well.

‘The 100’ season 5 premieres April 24, 2018

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