The Walking Dead: The Philosophy of Negan – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Negan. Join as we explore the methodology behind Negan’s actions and how he psychologically breaks survivors to police themselves and become the perfect Dictator in the post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead.
Written by: Alec Opperman
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Camille Lecoq
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Walking Dead: The Philosophy of Negan
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. Today we’re talking about everyone’s favorite psychopath. A man who is one twirly moustache away from being a hipster. The mayor of pee-pee pants city – Negan. And yes, there are spoilers ahead.
Despite being the latest antagonist of the show, Negan gets an inordinate amount of praise from fans. Negan is hard not to love, in part because he’s just so damn charming. It might not be just his undeniable charisma that makes us gravitate towards him. He is one of the most effective leaders of the post-apocalypse. But the real question is: how effective, exactly?? Sure, we could leave it as “not very,” because of course someone is going to murder or overthrow him, ((why?)) because, well, this has all happened before. But I digress. Negan’s cruelty is neither novel, nor irrational. With a little help from philosophy and psychology, we can better understand how Negan is the perfect dictator.
A leader, especially a post-apocalyptic one, can spend all day putting people in their place, rooting out insurrection as it appears, and awing people with the occasional spectacle of violence. But a much more effective dictator can get people to police themselves, and Negan is a master of this craft. Negan is terrifying, as many dictators are, but what defines his terror is his seeming omnipresence. He’s everywhere, and always watching. In fact, the finale of season 6 is like one giant proof of concept for this: Negan’s Saviors let Rick’s gang believe they’ve somehow evaded them, with subtle reminders that they’re always one step ahead of them. Negan even admits that the whole thing was orchestrated to strike fear into them.
Negan’s method isn’t so different from a system devised by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham for prisons: a design that would make it impossible for a prisoner to know whether or not the guards were watching him: the pre-electronic equivalent of CCTV. It was called the panopticon, from the Greek term for “all-seeing.” French philosopher Michel Foucault said that Bentham’s panopticon was “power reduced to its ideal form,” a kind of “political technology.” When people are always, but maybe not, under surveillance, they internalize disciplinary power, they become their own police. Negan takes panoptic power and infuses it with his own brand of Lucille-infused terror.
Daryl tries to escape, but soon realizes it was all a ploy – the door was left unlocked to encourage Daryl’s escape, only to be surrounded by Negan when he’s on the cusp of freedom. On one level, this is pure psychological manipulation: causing Daryl, and the viewer, to question reality: is this a chance to escape, or an elaborate trap? It also inculcates in Daryl this kind of panoptic terror. Negan is always watching, whether you realize it or not- so you best stay in line. It’s for this reason that Negan is so obsessed with finding the missing guns from Alexandria. Sure, it’s part “I don’t want Team Rick to use them to shoot me,” but it’s also to further ingrain the point: you can’t hide anything from Negan.
Even saviors are constantly fearful for what Negan will find out. Negan’s followers saying “I am Negan” reinforces this constant surveillance. There’s no one to confide in, no one to trust, because they all have become little satellites of surveillance. Even we, the viewer, have managed to internalize Negan’s terror. Reeling from the loss of the one of the few characters we still gave a shit about, we all collectively clench our buttholes when people break the rules. Negan has achieved the goals Bentham’s panopticon without the actual technology. He “breaks” people with his campaign of terror.
To “break” someone is to internalize Negan’s set of rules. Bentham’s panopticon doesn’t “break” prisoners in the same terrifying way, but the goal is the same: to make people police themselves, to behave as if someone else is watching, whether or not they actually are. The perfect example of this is Dwight, who admits to Daryl that he, too, thought he would never kneel to Negan. Now, he fully embodies Negan’s rules, despite the fact he shows clear signs of hating him.
But violence and surveillance alone don’t provide the best means for controlling people. People find ways to be unseen, and even when they’re being watched, don’t go on performing their jobs to the best of their ability. But Negan is smarter than that. Negan is art 20th Century totalitarian, and also part 21st Century corporate manager. He understands talent development. Those brazen enough to defy him are often spared, while their friends are killed instead; their rebellious tendencies are raw talent for Savior Inc. to develop. He’s also keenly aware of the dangers of talentless sycophants, cutting out yes-men before they ruin the corporate culture.
Negan knows the secret sauce of motivation, and as a result, he does more than just punish people, he rewards them. Negan’s response to people may seem erratic- as if his bouts of violence are driven by his temper, but I’d like to argue that it’s all very deliberate. He’s developed a whole points system to incentivize work, and while consistent rewards are a great way to motivate people, psychologists argue there’s an even better way to get people to do shit: reward them randomly. Behavioral psychologists have found that when rewards are unexpected, and unscheduled, they are far more effective in promoting certain behaviors. Don’t just buy a worker a cup of coffee every time he hits a deadline, or every 5th time, make it a surprise. If you don’t believe me: go play a slot machine,. Random bonuses and treasures will keep you playing for hours. And this is what Negan does all the time.
There’s also Carl’s stay with Negan, where it’s not only physical rewards, but emotional niceties that are randomly doled out. Carl kills Negan’s people, and expects to die, or be mutilated, but instead Negan takes him in and commends his bad-assery. But not to overdo the kindness, he makes Carl take off his eye-covering, makes fun of him, but then apologizes when it goes too far. Negan then asks Carl to sing a song at the threat of violence, and intersperses violent bat swings with compliments.
This strategy, generally and unfortunately, works, and if Negan seems like an abusive boyfriend, he should: this random reinforcement is also used by abusive partners to keep their victims in relationships. Another way to understand Negan is through the lense of sweat-stained t-shirt aficionado Slavoj Zizek and his works on totalitarianism.
“Far from imposing on us a firm set of standards to be complied with,” Zizek says, “the totalitarian master suspends (moral) punishment. His secret injunction is: ‘You may.’” This is Negan to a tee. The saviors are like a well-ordered anarchy. Aside from “the rules” to which Negan constantly refers, his followers are free to murder and pillage. According to the Ziz, the totalitarian master, “tells us that the prohibitions which regulate social life and guarantee a minimum of decency are worthless, just a device to keep the common people at bay – we, on the other hand, are free to let ourselves go, to kill, rape, plunder, but only insofar as we follow the master.” Through this lens, Negan’s dictatorship makes perfect sense in context of the real-world totalitarian governments: people’s deepest desires are pandered to, so long as they don’t conflict with the ruling establishment- Wanna steal and murder? Go to town! Fuck the rules. Just don’t fuck with MY rules.
So Negan is a pretty effective dictator, but is he an effective ruler? The problem with heavy-handed dictatorship is that it breeds problems, the kind of problems we’re sure to see as Rick, Ezekial, and maybe even Dwight, rebel against Negan. It’s the same problem of real-life dictatorships that are constantly threatened by assassination plots, insurrections, and so on. Maybe Negan should have brushed up on his Machiavelli who famously said “he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed by it.”
What do you guys think? Has Negan perfected the science of control, or is he sowing the seeds of his own demise?