Gun Kata and Puppies: What the movie Equilibrium teaches us about emotions

Let me tell you how my co-worker got herself fired. Many years ago, a well-liked boss of my department was let go. This upset my co-worker. She was so angry that over the next few weeks she disrupted the morale of the department and gathered others in a mutiny against senior management. One day, she stormed into our senior manager’s office and tore a strip off him. And then … she got her butt fired.

Emotions make you act rashly, sometimes.

When we experience the painful situations our emotions get us into, it is easy to see why many yearn for calm, thoughtful rationality. If we could stop freaking out, even for a minute, and think through our problems with a cool head, we could avoid so many issues, right?

This is a premise of the 2002 movie Equilibrium, starring Christian Bale. If you have not seen this movie, it is one of my favourites. It blends a thoughtful, philosophic exploration of human nature with fantastic action. Thoughtful yet thrilling. Who could ask for more?

In this post, I will explore this movie’s exploration of the role emotions play in human society.

Spoiler alert

I’m not going to give away the ending, but I will give away several key plot points to the movie in the following discussion. Brace thyself!

Mastering our emotions

The world of Equilibrium is set in the future after a devastating third world war has pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. Survivors of this war concluded that our emotions made us dangerous. Our passions turned us into monsters. Love for our family too easily turned to hatred of others and our anger to violence. This dark side of our emotions may have been tolerable when we were primitive and the worst we could do was fire pointed sticks at each other. In the world of Equilibrium, however, humanity’s technical prowess had reached a point it could wipe out the species. With that much power at our disposal, their society decided emotions were a wild variable they had to quell.

And so, the survivors of the war developed Equilibrium, a drug that eliminated emotion. Their society required every citizen to take Equilibrium and established an institution to enforce the elimination of emotions—the Grammaton Clerics.

A society without emotions

Christian Bale plays John Preston, a Grammaton Cleric who hunts down people off their meds who, thus, become capable of emotions. John, free from feelings of his own, ruthlessly hunts down these “sense offenders,” killing them in wild shoot-outs or, if captured, seeing them tried and executed for their crimes. The clerics are logical, rational, and merciless. In one scene, John, in fact, dispassionately watches his wife executed after it was discovered she was a sense-offender.

Without emotions, society became utterly merciless in its efficiency, unhindered by concern over the impact its actions had on its citizens.

A world without emotions

Emotions do cause us to act rashly at times, hurting ourselves and others. Yet, as I have described before, feelings have rationality. Laughing at a loved one’s death or screaming in rage at a wedding are inappropriate. We demand explanations when they occur. Emotions communicate the status of individuals and groups in social settings, quickly informing all present whether we are safe or in danger, friends or foes.

Likewise, emotions inform us of what goals we find worth pursuing and the means we find acceptable to achieve them. Equilibrium highlighted this point brilliantly. The founders of Equilibrium’s society wanted to eradicate emotions in order to create a world free from war. Yet, by eliminating the feelings people have for each other, its citizens became capable of murder on a massive scale in pursuit of that goal. Did the absence of war justify mass murder? Without emotions, society had no tools to explore that question.

And if you need more to convince you to watch the movie, I have only four words to say to you: gun kata and puppies.

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