My part 2 question comes to this on a reverse side. This essay was written by a college student, Andrew Tague, called “Are Pokémon slaves willing companions?” It is in pdf. Do you believe he wrote his arguments well and countered the points he wanted to counter? Do you think he could have improved upon his essay?

Oh, do I have to?

Fiiiine.  But be warned; marking university students’ essays is actually part of what I do for a living, so I’m not going easy on him.

(here it is, by the way)

Well, the prose could certainly stand a fair bit of polishing, and if I were marking this essay for a class then I would probably scribble “reference?” in the margins next to a couple of sentences, but I like the point of it.  It’s not often you see people actually put up an internally consistent definition of slavery based on primary sources before assigning the label to Pokémon training.  It’s very easy to demonise Pokémon by saying “look, slavery” but most of the worst things associated with slavery in the mind of a non-specialist don’t apply to Pokémon training at all – and, in fact, calling it that trivialises actual slavery, which is still very much a thing in some parts of the world.

Having said that, I think that he actually concedes a few points to which you can come up with objections, and that there are in turn obvious parries to his own arguments which remain unaddressed (although in fairness this is rather a short essay to deal with such a difficult topic).  In particular one of my principle reasons for rejecting the ‘slavery’ thing has always been that I actually believe capture is consensual – partly because that’s just the way the anime presents it much of the time (the battle is about winning respect, not rendering the Pokémon unable to resist), partly because it very neatly explains why unconscious Pokémon can never be captured (something which is otherwise difficult to deal with convincingly), partly because the characters consistently treat physically restraining or abducting a Pokémon as being completely different to capturing it in a Pokéball from a moral standpoint (the former is unequivocally not okay).

Some people actually do object to pet ownership on moral grounds, and in particular the statements that pets “do not display levels of intelligence and self awareness” and that these are “defining traits of humanity” are actually not self-evident or uncontested.  I can certainly understand refraining from discussion in a piece of this length, but I would want one of my students to footnote that.

There’s an odd paragraph in there where he talks about using one Pokémon to catch another, and about the respect accorded to the Professors who initiate new trainers; he seems to be bringing these up as a point of similarity between Pokémon training and either slavery or pet ownership, but he doesn’t actually explain what the link is (his definition of slavery didn’t say anything about the acceptance of the practice in wider society, so it’s difficult to see how it’s supposed to fit into the overall argument).  You can extrapolate what he seems to be getting at in this part, but you shouldn’t have to; the argument should stand on its own.

Ash cares deeply for his Pokémon; this is beyond contestation to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the anime, and it’s a perfectly fair point, and an important one – to which the perfectly fair and important answer, I think, is that Ash himself is indoctrinated in the system.  The kid’s supposed to be ten, for heaven’s sake; he may have (in fact, it’s Ash; he almost certainly has) a very limited grasp of the history and ethics of Pokémon training.  He wants the best for his Pokémon, beyond a doubt, but we really have to question whether he’s the best judge of what that is, or fully understands the impact his lifestyle has on his companions.  Ash himself isn’t naturally inclined to spend a lot of time on these questions (although, to his credit, he does recognise when he’s made a mistake), because he’s grown up believing that he has that right, and his society supports him in that belief.  He’s a good kid – it’s hard to deny that – but these are questions about the society Ash lives in, not Ash himself.

By the same token, Ash’s apology to Butterfree for the ill-considered trade and obvious remorse over that doesn’t change the fact that he was able to do it in the first place.  The conspicuous benevolence of the way the system seems to operate shouldn’t conceal the very real inequality in the power dynamic here, because to my mind that’s actually part of what makes the relationship so interesting.  Pokémon give up a lot to travel with humans, and although I continue to believe that they can abandon their trainers if they choose, that’s not always going to be an easy or practical option for them if they’ve travelled far from any suitable habitat.  Meanwhile, humans can give up their Pokémon with very little difficulty, and may even receive a new one more to their tastes in return.  Bear in mind that the Gentleman seems to have given up his Raticate with as little consideration as Ash gave up Butterfree, and with none of Ash’s remorse – the tone of the episode makes it obvious who we’re supposed to empathise with, but both exist.

Desiring the happiness of one’s slaves is not incompatible with the idea of slavery or ownership of another being – for me, as a classicist, what comes to mind is the Roman philosopher Seneca, who (like all wealthy Romans) owned numerous slaves.  He never argued for an end to slavery (I, at least, don’t think any such idea would have been conceivable to him, though that’s certainly debatable and I don’t know Seneca as well as perhaps I should), but he does speak at some length about treating them well, because he believes we should value people according to their moral fibre and not their social standing, and in fact argues that (say) an alcoholic or an adulterer is even lower than a slave because these people choose slavery for themselves (Seneca’s particular brand of Stoicism basically teaches, among other things, that we are all slaves to the circumstances of our own lives, which is an… interesting perspective, when you look at the circumstances of his life and his complicity in the Imperial administration of Nero, but let’s not go there today).  So, yeah – you can wholeheartedly commit to the idea of owning people while still making an effort to treat them kindly (although it bears mentioning that Seneca is, by his own admission, not really representative of his culture, class or era, and that his portrayal of his own relationship with his slaves could easily be distorted – we lack any testimony of the slaves themselves).  The legality of a slave’s status and the emotional nature of a slave’s relationship with his or her master do not necessarily go hand in hand – although personally, I think a society where such benevolent master/slave relationships were the norm rather than the exception would be so unusual that we might have trouble recognising it as slavery.  Having said all that, this is a very American debate, and in conversations with Americans ‘slavery’ tends to mean the slavery of the Antebellum South, which is not a period I know well (whereas, in conversations with me, ‘slavery’ tends to mean the slavery of the Classical Mediterranean – regular readers may have noticed that this is a theme), so perhaps it’s better to let this slide.

So… yeah.  I don’t think I would call it a terribly original piece, and the arguments themselves are fairly superficial and miss a few things that I, at least, think are important (make of that what you will), but he’s done his homework, all right.  I know I’ve never gone to the effort of presenting a formal definition of slavery for talking about this stuff, which is an important step.  B/B+.

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