Rachel Sharansky Danziger

Can Game of Thrones teach us morals?

(Beware, spoilers for Game of Thrones, season 5, episode 9 ahead!)

When I first watched this week’s Game of Thrones episode, I thought that the show finally went too far. Why make us watch Stannis Baratheon, one of the more decent characters in Westeros, sacrifice his own sweet daughter Shireen? Do we really need this scene to further the story? As Shireen’s screams went on and on off camera, I recoiled from what seemed to me like a cheap shot at our sensibilities.

Upon reflection, I think that the show creators did us all a service. They enabled us to examine moral questions that plague our own day and age, but remain murky when we observe them in real life. Reality, as a rule, is messy. Every big historical event conflates too many causes, opinions, agendas and actors to allow for one exhaustive explanation. When such events happen in our own time, our closeness only adds to the confusion. Whom should we support in the ever shifting Syrian civil war? Who are we supposed to believe in our analysis of police brutality in the US? Is public shaming in the name of liberal values a good thing?

Sometimes, in order to contemplate questions of morality, we must step away from reality and its confusions and explore such themes in laboratory conditions. Philosophers get to do so in their studies. We get to do so through art.

When Stannis Baratheon chose to sacrifice his daughter on the altar of his ambition, he wasn’t acting impulsively. He made an educated decision that expressed and revealed his long-held moral worldview. He decided that justice as he perceives it (that is, his “just” claim to the Iron Throne,) is more important than human decency, family attachments, and, well, anything really. As he said to the unsuspecting Shireen minutes before her death, “If a man knows what he is and remains true to himself, the choice is no choice at all. He must fulfill his destiny and become who he is meant to be, however much he may hate it.” Like Renly Baratheon before her, Shireen had to go in the name of an ideal.

In the context of the show, we feel very strongly that Stannis is wrong. It’s easy for us to point out the flaws in his moral position. Why should an innocent person pay for someone else’s self-fulfillment? What gives Stannis the right to treat other human beings as justified means to his end? And can some abstract idea of a just world order come before what we owe the people around us? In short, we feel that morality can’t exist when others are “its” and not “thous” to us. We hear sweet Shireen shrieking, and right and wrong seem clear to us.

But it’s hard to maintain such clarity in real life. Take, for example, public shaming. One ill-put tweet can cost people their careers, happiness, and even life. The crusaders of PC don’t wait for explanations or qualifications. They don’t check if the person meant what they seemed to have implied. They don’t ask if he or she could be “enlightened” through persuasion. They pounce with holy rage and glorious righteousness, in a classic “shoot first, ask later” fashion. As the storm rages, many of us become complicit. We share and like the angry posts and tweets in the name of values we hold dear, be they LGBT Rights or Anti-Racism. The person at the heart of the attack– someone who may have merely misrepresent himself/herself, or spoke out of amendable ignorance – is sacrificed on the altar of justice, tolerance, and all those good things. Sounds familiar?

Another example is the common demand to “unfriend” certain people. During the war last summer, as a Pandora box of hatred and mutual accusations exploded in Israeli society, many people expressed opinions that others (myself included at times) found harsh and racist. Suddenly, I heard more and more people proudly announce that they “unfriended” such people on Facebook. Worst, I heard people asking “how can you still be friends with x, when he thinks….” Such statements reduce other people to an “it” status in our minds. The offender is no longer an actual person, a “thou” worth engaging with, a dear friend with history and secret pains. He or she are now nothing but a wrong opinion, something to be removed from our personal world if we wish “to remain true to ourselves,” as Stannis put it. How on earth will we ever convince others if we start by dismissing them?

The political arena is quite naturally the queen of “itifying” other people. To some extent, it’s a necessity. Leaders simply can’t take every person’s needs and desires into account if they wish to lead a whole country. When the state is under threat, there are always sacrifices to be made.

However, there is a world of difference between what the state has to do and what our state of mind should be when it does it. When we forget that the people who pay a price have a face and a human identity, we lose some of our humanity as well. Ten years ago, when the state forcibly evacuated thousands of Israeli citizens from the Gaza strip, some onlookers were practically gleeful. “These settlers had it coming,” I heard some say, “they got their just deserts.” Such commentators went beyond saying that the disengagement was necessary (in their opinion). They completely ignored the human tragedy unfolding, happy to sacrifice other people’s homes and happiness on the altar of their ideas of justice.

Stannis Baratheon is a fictional character, and as such is far more consistent than most actual people. His decision to sacrifice Shireen fits all of his decisions so far. Other people (his brother, for example) are consistently “its” when it comes to his pursuit of what he sees as destiny and justice: his ascension to the iron throne as the rightful king.

Real people are rarely as consistent and aware. We often do things that don’t actually stem from our moral worldview. We often “itify” people without realizing it. I’m sure I did so myself, many times over, in the name of my beliefs and deepest values. By exposing the danger behind a single-minded idealism, Stannis Baratheon’s decision made me pause. Maybe next time, when I disagree with someone, I’ll be more careful not to “itify” him or her. Maybe by shocking us, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss will nurture our morality.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and educator who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, history, and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and other online venues, and explores storytelling in the Hebrew bible as a teacher in Maayan, Torah in Motion, and Matan.