28 Oct International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: Fantastic Futures – International Humanitarian Law and the Generative Potential of Pop Culture
[Neiha Lasharie is a Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She is a recent graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Her research interests include TWAIL, IHL, the international white slavery/human trafficking regime, and Islamic law and jurisprudence.]
It is not so much that life imitates art. Life and art are necessarily discursive, in that life informs art just as readily as art informs life. Beyond truisms, the ubiquity of pop culture has only intensified this discursive relationship, with memes, in particular, the driving force thereof. In GIFs, stills, and oft-repeated phrases, popular media is distilled for consumption through cultural osmosis.
This is one part of the picture. But how does the ubiquity of pop culture implicate international law, if at all? Another truism may be helpful here: the world is small, and shrinking further. Mass communication – including the very social media platforms that proliferate memes – has brought distant issues closer to home. Personal irrelevance is no longer an excuse for socio-political disengagement. Instagram carousels, for example, pithily condense complex international issues (for better or for worse), allowing laypeople to share information with an easy tap of the thumb. To varying extents, most people with access to social media know a little about a lot. And where issues of international relations are concerned, international law (particularly international humanitarian law) is often invoked or implied.
Pop cultural content, similarly, cannot entirely disengage from a world which it is necessarily derivative of. This is true even of the most fantastical, imaginative media. As such, even content created for children is reflective of our world. Recognizing that children cannot – and perhaps should not – be insulated from the real world, cartoons have long touched on topics of immense gravity and seriousness. One contemporary example is the Dreamworks cartoon She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018-2020). A new adaptation of the classic 80s franchise, the universe of She-Ra is consumed by war, one where child soldiers are at the forefront and whole populations are displaced. The cartoon explores the trauma of war unflinchingly, even as far as to hint at genocide.
But just because media is meant primarily for children does not mean it is limited to children. In addition to parents, older siblings, etc, young adults independently consume children’s media. Additionally, as fans grow older and revisit the media they still hold dear or that otherwise stirs nostalgia, their appreciation of serious discourse laid out subliminally, becomes more acute. Knowledge of the world only compounds this awareness, as references to the real world grow apparent.
One cartoon in particular that has received this treatment is the Nickelodeon classic Avatar: the Last Airbender(ATLA), and its follow-up series The Legend of Korra. The first series actively engages with war and imperialism; the latter contends with relative peacetime, and the complications thereof. In ATLA, the future of the world rests (as it so often does in cartoons) on the shoulders of a single child, Aang, the last of his Air Nomad people. He finds out, in a harrowing episode, that his people were exterminated by genocide at the hands of the Fire Nation. Other peoples are also displaced, either driven from their homes by war or systematically placed into labor camps. Prisoners of war languish in harsh conditions. Occupying forces fill people with dread. In a world where many are “benders” – able to shape and weaponize elements – power differentials still persist. These same power differentials, particularly between civilian and combatant, have long animated the need for an ethics of war in our world.
References, then, go both ways; just as the Air Nomads seem to invoke Tibet (two Air Nomad characters are called Gyatso and Tenzin, after the current Dalai Lama), the ATLA/Korra “fandom” (among others) invokes international humanitarian legal principles to describe fictional events. And this invocation takes many forms, on many platforms. Just a cursory Google search reflects the heated nature of these ongoing debates.
TikTok is an interesting example of this discourse and it’s possible potential. The platform’s unique method of communication – using viral soundbites overlaid on video – lends itself to easy consumption of informational and idea-exchange. Several such TikToks detail the ways that Uncle Iroh (a particularly beloved character from ATLA) may have violated the Geneva Conventions, with reference to specific articles. Whether or not Uncle Iroh is a war criminal (and I have several thoughts on this myself), he is a prime example of the interaction between IHL and pop culture. Uncle Iroh was the heir of the Fire Nation, and a feared and skilled general responsible for much of the Fire Nation’s expansion. But when we, the audience, meet him, he is a kind and good-humored old man, who had relinquished his claim to the Fire Nature after the death of his son. He is deeply concerned that his nephew, Zuko, will become a ruthless warlord himself. Despite his dottering appearance, he is secretly shrewd and driven; Iroh is revealed to have joined a secret society aimed at restoring peace to a war-torn world. Iroh’s character arc, from former warlord to gentle peacemaker, is a story of rehabilitation – a story we see too little of in our own world.
On Twitter, the account @ViolateGeneva has over 171,100 followers. Its description: “A catalog of violatable [sic] and non-violatable [sic] Geneva Conventions in video games.” The account succinctly describes whether or not certain moments in video games (e.g., a specific move in a fighting game) constitute a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Like the aforementioned TikTok video, these tweets even single out specific articles. Where the Geneva Conventions are often shorthand for “war criminality” or even IHL as a whole in much pop culture, this Twitter account has a rather broad understanding of IHL instruments. @ViolateGeneva occasionally includes within its ambit other IHL treaties, such as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. Beyond this, the account has often – albeit somewhat obliquely – criticized real-life politicians for their alleged complicity in violating the Geneva Conventions, such as the late Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (“You can play a game by someone who has violated the Geneva Conventions thanks to Donald Rumsfeld’s Solitaire”).
All of this is to say that the very idea of war criminality has become more accessible, allowing concepts that are usually explored in great detail in graduate-level university seminars to be distilled into easily-digestible tweets or videos up to one minute in length (to say nothing of blog posts, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, etc). These formats make an otherwise dense and complex legal regime more accessible to young laypersons.
To be clear: increasing the general population’s access to international law is not a bad thing at all. In fact, equipping average people with international legal vocabulary is useful for several reasons. For one, access plays a large role in legitimacy. By making IHL the topic of relatively mundane discussion, the very existence of a law of war becomes a matter of course. Given the fact that many states see international law as dangerously malleable, or even illegitimate, allowing international law growing purchase on a societal level is useful. Even more importantly, access to international legal terminology may allow average people to identify and critique State actions that are potentially violative of international law. Which is to say: knowledge is always good. What is the point of international law (avowedly, anyway) if it languishes so far removed from those it ostensibly claims to help?
The negative – albeit remediable – corollary to this is twofold. First, digestibility requires a certain degree of dilution, especially given the limits of certain social media (e.g., character counts, video lengths). This means that, as mentioned before, IHL is reduced to the Geneva Conventions, which reflects a lot of the regime, but not all of it. Nuance can be sacrificed at the altar of simplicity. And, close to home for many, knowledge of the legal regime does not equate to knowledge of the problematic roots thereof.
There is also the small issue of war crimes requiring an actual war, a fact that often gets lost in favor of humor; most of @ViolateGeneva’s conclusions are rendered invalid because of the nexus requirement. Valid enough: the altar of humor is a worthy one. But this distinction is a truly important one, and the blurring thereof may obscure general knowledge of human rights violations or (if the act in question is widespread and systematic) crimes against humanity.
The second negative is simply that, of course, IHL does not map quite so squarely onto fantasy worlds that do not have the same dynamics as our own world. Fiction allows for suspension of disbelief. The very idea of childhood as a distinct phase of life (or at least one where children have specific rights that protect them from violence and the worst proclivities of war) may not persist in a given universe. Magic, too, creates a problem. In a world where magic is mundane, is the weaponization of magic akin to regular arms? Are certain types of magic inherently excessive and indiscriminate, and the use thereof thus violative of IHL? Some fictional universes (e.g., The Stormlight Archives series of fantasy novels by Brandon Sanderson) have their own codes and ethics of war. Do we hold the conduct of war to the standards of the universe in question?
This also, obviously, seems a little silly. The whole exercise of applying IHL to fictional universes may seem to be a harmless pastime at best and useless at worst. But there is an opportunity. International lawyers and international legal scholars cannot gatekeep laypersons from engaging in this exercise. My own graduate-level international law classes tested our knowledge of course material through the analysis of fictional fact patterns. Law school is more of the same, frequently featuring surprisingly fantastical hypos. That is how we learn. And in fact, scratching one’s head while trying to reconcile IHL with fictional universes is in itself an opportunity to mitigate one of IHL’s major flaws: reactivity.
States dedicate a significant amount of money towards their militaries, including research and development. And while Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions stipulates that states should consider whether their research of or development of new weapons, means, and methods of war may be violative of IHL, that is overbroad. This is where, perhaps, we can look to fictional and fantasy worlds. Where lawyers and politicians may lack imagination, fiction and fantasy do not; we can imagine, through these lenses, what the future of warfare could look like, and be more proactive in defining the contours of legality and criminality. The present terrain of warfare must have seemed a dream to many decades ago – but with the exponential growth of technology, it has become a further truism to say that science fiction is science future.
If IHL is in the business of regulating warfare and protecting civilians, we must be willing to use all the tools at our disposal towards these ends. This includes – and must include – imagination. Why discourage, then, swaths of laypersons equipped with basic understandings of IHL and the ability to find parallels between the darker elements of fantasy and the darker elements of our real-world military capability? Radical imaginations can portent grim futures and their mitigation.
IHL needs allies, particularly against intransigent states. Why not let one such group of allies be the very people IHL seeks to protect, even if they wield unconventional tools? Convention has only gotten us so far, and there is much further to go.