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Red Rising Analysis: Personhood

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

Pierce Brown's Red Rising series is a complex saga of social injustice, inequality, hierarchical systems, and civil war. There is also quite a bit of action, intrigue, and obscenity (mostly from Sevro au Barca). Woven within these elements are heavy themes that force us to reflect on our own feelings about real issues that we face today. In my last two posts, I discussed the themes of Identity and Social Stratification which have both led me down some deep philosophical rabbit holes. However, the theme that I believe plays the most prevalent role in the narrative, is Personhood.

Like in Red Rising, personhood is intertwined with several aspects of our lives and we express our concept of personhood on a daily basis. Put simply, personhood is the quality or status of being a person. But what does it mean to be a person? Why is this so important? Scholars have examined personhood from a legal, political, philosophical, and religious perspective for centuries; often crossing the disciplines. This is one of those issues that won't die because it literally helps us frame how we treat others. On a societal level, personhood has three aspects: citizenship, equality, and liberty.

Citizenship is the status of legally belonging to a sovereign state or municipality. Being a citizen entitles individuals to certain rights and protections under the law of the state for which they are a citizen. This is a two-way street as the state also has expectations of its citizens (taxes being a major one). But not all citizens pay taxes and not all citizens have the same rights. This is where degrees of personhood or gradient personhood come into play. A child is still a person. She is entitled to rights and protections under her state's laws. But she often does not have the same rights as an adult. Children cannot vote or drive or hold a political office. This again is a two-way street as they also aren't required to pay taxes or serve in the military during a draft (usually). This would seem to indicate that viewed through the lens of citizenship, personhood is not binary.

Another concept that supports gradient personhood is equality, or rather, inequality. This is an issue that we as humans struggle with daily and cannot seem to get right, even in the developed world. Inequality is dangerous because it denies the personhood of an individual or group. It's much easier to enslave a family if you don't consider them people. This line of thinking was used to justify the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans between the 15th and 19th centuries. Africans were considered inferior beings, likened to apes. This is still an issue in pockets of the world where people of African decent still experience discrimination. They are considered less than, or inferior. Gradient personhood comes into play here as though people of different ethnic backgrounds are considered people, they are often treated as second class citizens. And the patriarchal tradition that is prevalent in most western societies ensures this treatment extends to different sexes, genders, religions, and sexual orientations. This is an uncomfortable topic but it matters immensely to the discussion of our condition.

Brown does an excellent job of creating a parallel to real world slavery with the low colors in the Society. Reds toil in the mines which is akin to the plantations of early America. They have no rights and are essentially walking, self replicating machines. They are not people, but things to be used until they can no longer serve their purpose. A more abhorrent example of this is the oppression of the Pinks who exist solely to provide sexual pleasure to the more powerful colors. Much like slaves of old and even people today who are victims of human trafficking, Pinks are treated like things. They have no power to refuse the physical abuse they often suffer and must always wear an enticing facade. The weight of this is often too great for them, and the series mentions that Pinks have a suicide rate that is several times higher than any other color. Though receiving the most dehumanizing treatment, the low colors are not the only individuals who seem more like objects than people.

Red Rising raises questions about personhood through its depiction of a civilization that values individuals based on their utility. Within the Society, each color serves a different set of purposes. Reds primarily perform unskilled work, while blues serve mostly as pilots for example. This purpose driven philosophy has been bred into each individual within the Society making their bodies more capable of fulfilling their given tasks. Golds for instance, were designed to be the apex race; stronger, faster, and even larger than the other human species (minus the Obsidians). Given this train of thought, humans have essentially been reduced to tools; cogs in the machine that is the Society. They have become a means to an end as opposed to an end in themselves. This denies their personhood from a societal standpoint and reduces humans to objects.

Personhood is significant in both the Society and our society because it helps us determine who warrants consideration from a societal perspective. Issues like inequality, slavery, and abuse as they pertain to personhood are all fairly simple to attack. However, personhood extends to issues that we really don't have an answer for like abortion, the death penalty, and animal rights. The Society is an example of how issues like these can be conquered. Unfortunately, it is at the cost of our collective moral compass.

But what do you think? Is the Society's efficient yet abhorrent use of people the direction we as a people are traveling? Is it easier to cause harm when we don't consider the target a person? Is a self-aware AI a person?

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