Greetings, intrepid Internet explorer! The more suspicious among you might have arrived here having read the headline and wondered if it was deliberate hyperbole to draw attention. I’m sorry to disappoint you if you were expecting to click-bounce on two paragraphs of flimsy content that doesn’t support the title.
But I’m being dead serious. I have a case to make, so let’s get down to brass beans…
The Case Against The Matrix
Let us leave aside all other arguments for now and focus on one question: If a movie could be said to be responsible for anything at all, what trouble could the prosecution charge cult classic movie The Matrix with causing?
The Simulation Conspiracy Theory
Currently, a new 2021 documentary is making the rounds, called A Glitch in the Matrix. Documentary film maker Rodney Ascher investigates the long-standing popular conspiracy theory which claims that, exactly as in The Matrix film, we are all living in a computer simulation. This isn’t just some joke-troll meme on the Internet. It is being treated as a “philosophic concept,” and a serious line of scientific inquiry. Here is Elon Musk being braced about the topic in 2016:
Worse than that, here’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson embarrassing himself on the late Larry King’s show, giving credibility to the simulation conspiracy theory:
Yet the Simulation conspiracy theory gets treated with complete respect, even though there is no difference between it and other conspiracy theories of our time, such as QAnon, vaccine denial, flat-eartherism, Illuminati, etc.
Thanks to the fear-mongering and conspiracies spawned by people who can’t tell The Matrix from reality, one-third of the population fears a global AI apocalypse. In fact, “Americans ranked the AI apocalypse as more catastrophic than the possible failure to address climate change,” which goes to show how conspiracy theories damage society by crowding out legitimate emergencies. The closest poll we have to simulation conspiracy theory belief is this one at Goodreads, with roughly 1/5th reporting that they believe it.
“The Matrix Defense”
If you’d like a more immediate threat to society posed by Matrix-derived conspiracy theory, look no further than the infamous Beltway Sniper attacks of the early 2000s. Briefly, a 41-year-old man and a 17-year-old teenager teamed up to drive around Washington D.C. gunning people down in a terrorist plot. The tally was 17 dead and 10 wounded before they were caught. The junior of the duo, Lee Boyd Malvo, espoused The Matrix as his reality and has continued to hold to this view even in incarceration.
Actual drawings by Malvo:
This is not a one-off case. “The Matrix Defense” has become a common-place claim in several murder trials, in which judges accept insanity pleas based on a defendant’s infatuation with the movie. From that article:
San Francisco 2000, a 27-year-old student murdered his landlady due to fear of being “sucked into the Matrix”
Ohio 2002, a 36-year-old bartender murdered her landlady for “committing a lot of crimes in The Matrix”
Virginia 2002, a 19-year-old teen shot both his parents with a 12-gauge shotgun and claimed he thought he was in a simulation
Some of these cases are brought up or interviewed in the documentary A Glitch in the Matrix.
There isn’t much harm we can point to in basing a religion around a film. But there was, and maybe still is, an actual “Matrixism” religion. By itself, that’s not so alarming. There’s a “Jedi religion” based on Star Wars, a “Dude-ism” based on The Big Lebowski, and so on. Our troubles begin when we have a movie based on solipsism (nothing is real and therefore no consequences for your actions) and involves so much violence and gunplay. As we have seen with the murder cases above, this religion can radicalize people right out of the gate.
I’ve talked before about the presence of toxic masculinity in social media and some of the damage it causes. At the heart of toxic masculinity movements is the “red pillers,” who borrow the “pill scene” from the movie to use as a metaphor for their male supremacy / misogynist agenda. They also call themselves the “Incels,” for “involuntary celibates,” since they won’t (or supposedly can’t) procreate for misogynist reasons.
Case in point: The Turner Diaries, a fictional novel which is basically a big white supremacy tract. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls it the “bible of the racist right.” A copy was found among the possessions of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. There are many more radical racist and militant works just like it.
Just because a work is fiction does not mean that it cannot have the intention of rallying people into a philosophy, religion, or other belief system, including radical ones. The Camp of the Saints is one such example in literature, and D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is one in film. Ayn Rand is to this day credited as a philosopher, while all she ever produced was fictional novels. Even George Orwell openly admitted that his fiction was meant to be a political tract and not taken at face value. And boy, have I ever harped on how much harm force-feeding students dystopian political tracts has done!
And for that matter, propaganda is a real thing, and very much in our current public discourse. We just got through with a serious insurrection attempt in the United States, with culprits that include FOX News, Alex Jones, and various bad faith actors including Russians and politicians right up to former president Donald Trump himself, currently facing impeachment #2 for inciting that insurrection. How did he allegedly do that? With media.
How Do We Recognize Intentional Propaganda?
This is the sticky question. Remember, this blog post’s headline is phrased as a question.
But…The Anonymous movement with its Guy Fawkes masks copied from V For Vendetta has not only been acknowledged, but proudly claimed by its author Alan Moore. The fact that legions of people buy and wear the masks made popular by this movie and participate in political activities goes to show that yes, fiction can indoctrinate.
Taxi Driver, Catcher in the Rye, these were one-off incidents. But when we tallied up The Matrix‘ sins back there, that was:
Body count from claimed killings: 21
Red pill cult: 100K
Matrixism cult: 16K
Simulation conspiracy theory believers: Possibly one-fifth to one-third of Americans?
CLEARLY something is going on! One movie just does not draw this kind of firestorm at random.
When Is a Cult Following Just A Cult?
We have run out of space long ago here, so we’ll have to leave some of these questions for next time. But the fact that philosophy books were handed out on the set of the film speaks to a motivation different from creating ordinary fiction. The fact that they have told interviewers that the film is “about one person’s struggle with and eventual acceptance of an identity that exists beyond the borders of a rigidly defined system” speaks to an intention to bake a political message into it.
Decoding that message is not so straightforward. There was little in The Matrix that was new at all. As I point out above, the “dream world” and “robot revolution” plots were tired old cliches before the Wachowskis were born. It’s the style of the movie that is unique. Is there something toxic conveyed in this style?
It is all but impossible to find ANY criticism of the Wachowskis, The Matrix, or simulation conspiracy theory online. But one brave NPR writer has ducked out of the foxhole, and you should read this passage deeply and let it sink in:
> “The simulation argument messes with our self-esteem, since it assumes that we have no free will, that we are just deluded puppets thinking we are free to make choices. To believe this is to give up our sense of autonomy: after all, if it’s all a big game that we can’t control, why bother? This is the danger with this kind of philosophical argument, to actually make us into what it’s claiming we are, so that we end up abdicating our right to fight for what we believe in.”
We can be sure of one thing, The Matrix has had an influence way outside any movie of our time, and it has all been bad influence. Regardless of the Wachowski’s intentions, they could not have indoctrinated more people had they been trying their hardest to do so. Perhaps this could have happened to any movie; The Matrix just happened to be in the right place and time. But the mystery lies kind of buried there, because we just aren’t equipped to address what’s going on in media in general yet. The story of the 21st century will be hinged on whether we understand just how much of a threat media can be to society, and how to tame it.