the ethics of bloodbending

from evy's notebook

When is something so powerful that it feels immoral or unsafe to possess? Fame, money, strength, influence - perhaps there's a point at which you feel no one should be have too much of these, even if the power is used for something that you believe is good.

I could probably watch any episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender and be inspired to write something for this notebook - it's an incredibly lovely and thought-provoking show. Tonight I watched The Puppetmaster, and there will be spoilers for that episode in this post - though the spoilers don't give much away for the full series plot line, only for this particular episode.

We follow Katara (one of the main characters) as she befriends an old innkeeper named Hama. A war has been devastating their world for over a hundred years, and both Katara and Hama have been deeply affected by the Fire Nation's attacks on the Southern Water Tribe where they both grew up. Hama tells a story of how the Fire Nation kidnapped and imprisoned her due to her ability to control water (a skill called waterbending). She eventually escaped because she developed a skill that allowed her to control the water in a person's body: bloodbending.

Bloodbending is portrayed as both intensely powerful and immensely creepy. When Katara (who is also a waterbender) learns about this skill and is told she must learn it, she replies with hesitation, "But ... to reach inside someone and control them? I don't know if I want that kind of power."

Hama responds, "The choice is not yours. The power exists. And it's your duty to use the gifts you've been given to win this war. Katara, they tried to wipe us out, our entire culture, your mother!""

This feels like a compelling argument! There's a war that's killing and imprisoning thousands of people, and the main characters of this show are literally the four people expected to end the war. Why not develop the skill to control enemies as if they're puppets?

While Hama's original motivations for bloodbending are perhaps understandable, we soon learn that she has been using her skills to kidnap villagers from the Fire Nation town where she lives (where, of course, no one knows that she came from the Water Tribe) and that she imprisons them in her own jail she's created. The main characters all agree that this behaviour is wrong. Interestingly, this isn't the first time in the show where a character claims that all people from the Fire Nation should suffer, to which the protagonists respond in argument for the innocence and dignity of villagers who just happen to live under a tyrannical government.

But what's most interesting to me is that this episode seems to infer that bloodbending is wrong, and should not be used. When Katara uses it to defeat Hama, she's devastated. But why is bloodbending so bad?

Is it because hurting people is wrong? As I've watched this show, I've seen many Fire Nation soldiers left to drown after their ships are destroyed, so it's not like harm must be avoided at all costs. Is it that bloodbending is particularly creepy? Now I find myself wondering if perceiving something as creepy leads me to be more likely to perceive it as unethical.

Or is it that bloodbending feels too powerful? To be able to force someone to act in any way you want, to be able to directly command an army of soldiers - perhaps this could defeat the Fire Lord, but is this too much power? I wonder if Katara weeps at the end of the episode because she knows she's capable of bloodbending, knows that power corrupts, and doesn't trust herself to use this power responsibly.

But what is responsible use of power? Was Hama responsible when she used bloodbending to escape imprisonment? Was she irresponsible to capture villagers who associated with the nation that imprisoned her? I don't know how to build a nuanced framework around making these decisions - and even if I did, I wouldn't trust myself to hold the power of implementing it at a societal level. Perhaps the best we can do to limit the damage of power is prevent anyone from ever gaining too much of it.