Person of colder (plural: people of colder, persons of cold, sometimes abbreviated POC) is a term used primarily in Westeros to describe any person who is not warm blooded. The term encompasses all non-warm blooded groups, emphasizing common experiences of racism.
– just kidding
Understanding People of Colder
Welcome. In this new essay series titled ‘Cold War’ we will be taking a more in depth and slightly unconventional look at the conflict in the true North by interpreting events as they would appear from the perspective of the Others themselves. Through this method as well as applying real history and sociopolitics, I believe we can find the answers to many of the series’ most puzzling mysteries, such as why Winter is coming, what thee Others want, and what is their true nature. With each part I hope to get more specific, beginning with the conceptual nature of the Others as a literary device, their history as a people, and then how and with what purpose they are currently operating as an insurgency and then an army. Now without further delay, let’s get started.
Though they appear in the prologue, we still know relatively little about the Others, and much of what we do know is based in incidental accounts and ancient stories which skirt the line between history and folklore (if you need a basic review, Alt Shift X has got this). Yet with what little our characters, and we fans know about the icy neighbors to the north, I feel confident in saying that the greatest inability to understand the White Walkers is rooted in the knee jerk reaction to judge them as inherently “good” or “evil”, and to value them only in terms of how they affect to humans.
Too often people seek to understand the Others by jumping to a moral judgement, usually consisting of the basic “the others are the good guys, and they are here to save humanity” vs. “the others are clearly evil, and they are here to exterminate humanity.” In both cases, there is no real attempt at understanding the Others in relation to themselves, instead they are only being judged according to how they benefit or harm humans, as if their existence only has value in relation to the experience of mankind. We presume they are good if they’re good for us, and they’re evil if they aren’t. Yet we need to consider that the Others may have value to themselves.
“The Others are not dead. They are strange, beautiful… think, oh… the Sidhe made of ice, something like that… a different sort of life… inhuman, elegant, dangerous.” – GRRM
What I once thought might be a missed opportunity on Martin’s part, not giving us a POV from the perspective of the Others, I now realize is likely a big part of the point of them. The Others are being presented to the reader in essentially the same light that they are being presented to our characters, and in doing so tricking readers and viewers to see them as ‘the other’ as if that is their inherent state of being. But let me argue that this is in fact a false understanding.
The Others Don’t Call Themselves Others
“You don’t just have people who wake up in the morning and say, “What evil things can I do today, because I’m Mr. Evil?” People do things for what they think are justified reasons. Everybody is the hero of their own story, and you have to keep that in mind. If you read a lot of history, as I do, even the worst and most monstrous people thought they were the good guys. We’re all very tangled knots.” – GRRM
It’s important to note that in all likelihood, ‘the Others’ is not a name they gave to themselves. The Others are the others to mankind. This may seem a small thing to note, but I think it has major significance. Of course in a metatextual sense, Martin named the Others after the idea of ‘the other.’
The Other, is in fact a well known sociological, political, philosophical, and psychological concept used to describe usually a person or group of people that is different or alien to the self, or alien to one’s social identity (social identity is a form of self). In this way, the Other is a construct which we use to understand the self, by defining what we are by what we not. Because people tend to understand the world in duality (good is good compared to bad, hot is hot compared to something colder, large is large compared to something smaller, bright is bright compared to something darker) a person or group of people’s identity exists in comparison to the Other.
The SELF requires the existence of the OTHER to define the SELF.
(Remember that. It’s key to this story and also your life)
Cold is Relative
“You’re from south of The Wall: that makes you a ‘southerner’ to me”- Osha
This idea is very much present in the story as well. The people of Westeros lack a sense of national identity, instead typically defining themselves according to their House or individual kingdom. They do this through othering (a verb basically meaning to label a person or people as the other by placing them outside of the category of self/social identity) neighboring kingdoms and peoples. Notice how those from the Kingdom of the North define themselves as Northerners, while viewing those North of the Wall as Wildlings. Meanwhile the Wildlings prefer to define themselves Free Folk, and view everyone south of the Wall as Southerners, including the Kingdom of the North.
Fan theorists make a similar misconception when they try to make the case that Jon Snow will save the world based on the notion that his father was a Targaryen and his mother was a Stark. The idea that the branding of his parents houses somehow gives him magical qualities which enable him to save the world, is rooted in the pretense that different characters are intrinsically defined as being “fire” or “ice” or “earth” or “water.” Yet a character’s status as “ice” or “fire” is a construct. All human characters can freeze to death and are warm blooded to the Others, and all characters can burn to death. Heck in the Doom of Valyria, even dragons burnt to death.
To build a conceptual framework around a notion of Us-versus-Them is, in effect, to pretend that the principal consideration is epistemological and natural—our civilization is known and accepted, theirs is different and strange—whereas, in fact, the framework separating us from them is belligerent, constructed, and situational. — The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq (2004)
These identities, like “otherness”, are relative and socially constructed, often to serve and reinforce power dynamics/hierarchies. Historically, empires and states (not unlike the Seven Kingdoms) have used the practice of othering to define a group of people as being uncivilized, irrational, or evil, and thus in need of saving, dominating, or even exterminating, ultimately for the extraction of resources or the benefit of the empire. We see various famous examples of this throughout history, whether in the European colonization of the East justified through Orientalism, or the American genocide of the Native Americans through Manifest Destiny, or the German extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust. In addition to these notorious historical examples, otherness is actually a practice which is constant and likely dates back to prehistoric times. Unity is essential to establishing a society or state, and unity historically requires a strong separation between those who are “one of us” and those who are “not one of us,” often seeing the latter group as inferior, evil, or lacking in humanity.
Haters Gonna Hate: The Deception of Coping Mechanisms
Aside from our limited perspective on them and their frightening and alien characteristics, our eagerness to hate the Others and to see them as evil is further supported by what is known as The Benjamin Franklin Effect, a proposed psychological phenomena which states that we do not do good things for people we think favorably of, but rather we think favorably of the people we do good things for. The inverse is also true. There is a human tendency to see negative qualities in people who we do not treat well, because it serves to alleviate our guilt about treating them in ways we do not treat those who we do not identify with. If we believe that a person or group of people is somehow evil and unworthy of our respect or kindness, it helps us feel better about the way we treat those people (for example, extermination).
Again, this is central to the practice of othering as a sociological and psychological practice which is used to justify exclusion and cruelty, therefore enforcing social hierarchy and power dynamics. I offer that this practice has happened, and will continue to happen in the next two novels, on both sides of the wall. In fact, we already see this dualistic ‘Us=Good, Them=Bad’ way of thinking as central to the religion of R’hllor.
“Okay, so people have a tendency to exclude and dehumanize others to construct our identity and as a rationalization to exploit them. But the Others aren’t even human! and they are the ones attacking! So despite the exclusion, can’t they also be evil?“
First of all, the Others are not the only non-human people in ASOIAF.
Also good and evil are subjective, and each person is able to draw that moral line for themselves. I’m not claiming that what the Others are doing can’t be considered evil, and I’m not calling them good either. Rather I’m saying that they are likely intended to be no more “evil” than humanity.
“We don’t need any more Dark Lords, we don’t need any more, ‘Here are the good guys, they’re in white, there are the bad guys, they’re in black. And also, they’re really ugly, the bad guys.” – GRRM
Plenty of the actions we witness humans do can arguably be seen as evil or justified based on our perspective. The Red Wedding is often perceived as evil because it violates the customs of warfare of Westerosi society, even though it ended a war and likely saved lives in the short term, while the same kind of betrayal is seen as wise when carried out against slave owners by Daenerys, despite the fact that slavery is normal by the morals and customs of Astapor. Stannis and Renly lead men to kill and be killed by the thousands because they believes that Joffrey has the wrong DNA to legally be king (they’re right, but they have no concrete real proof). The Dothraki raid, kill, rape and demand tribute from innocent people, while Wildlings raid, burn villages and kill innocent people in their effort to get south of the Wall for survival. Heck, the Skagosi eat people.
Killing and devastation on a large scale are often seen as either justified or evil depending on our moral perspective and given justification. Though this doesn’t negate the fact that some acts are still more cruel or violent than others, it does establish a tendency for people to be more likely to make rationalizations for violence perpetrated by characters whom we see the perspective of, and more likely to see actions which we don’t understand for the senseless carnage they ultimately are for the victims, often most of whom are low born folk who have no choice or much benefit.
Now if people can make a rationalization for Stannis Baratheon burning his own innocent daughter alive, then perhaps those same people could imagine a rationalization for the actions of Others if they only understood them just a little better.
“Come on. What rationalization could there possibly be for massacring innocent people and then reanimating their corpses as weapons?”
Well, let’s run through a little thought exercise shall we?
If Superman Came to Westeros
“..and instead of absolute power corrupting absolutely, absolute power has absolved him from fear, and greed, and hate, and all of the weaknesses that stem from human insecurity” – (Max Landis, Regarding Clark)
Imagine for a moment, that instead of Ned Stark bringing home the baby of Rhaegar and Lyanna, imagine if he brought to Winterfell a baby they found in a strange crash landed metallic ship that looked like a red comet. A baby they swore to care for because they assumed it was the Prince That Was Promised. What if Eddard Stark had promised a dying Lyanna to claim as his bastard the baby Kal El, the last son of Krypton.
If Jon Snow were Superman, it could change the entire nature of warfare. Heck, if he wanted he could leave the Wall to save his father from execution and fly back in a few minutes. He could fight for Northern independence, and protect against the wildling invasion. But if he were merciful, he wouldn’t actually have to kill anyone because he wouldn’t need to. He could go down to the battlefield and disarm every single Lannister soldier, break a hand if they were overly zealous, and send them home. Really most soldiers would retreat when they saw him in action.
Essentially, Superman doesn’t have to kill people because average people are no threat to him. Superman can choose to spare people because he can afford to spare people. Super powers have absolved Superman from fear of death and harm, and they allow him to operate according to whatever moral code he chooses, particularly when dealing with those he has power over.
This leads me to the concept of asymmetrical warfare.
- Asymmetric warfare (or Asymmetric engagement) is war between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, or whose strategy or tactics differ significantly.
To put it simply, asymmetrical warfare is when two sides fight very differently because they have to fight differently. Usually, this is between a large and powerful nation, and a smaller or poorer insurgent group. Examples of this include the American Revolutionary War, the Vietnam War, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In cases of asymmetrical warfare, the ‘weaker’ side uses tactics often seen by the stronger side as dishonorable, inhumane, and even terrorist, tactics that the stronger side often cannot afford to be seen using, or simply cannot utilize. These tactics include things such as using human shields, suicide bombing, and attacking civilian targets. Though these methods are often seen to be indicative of a lack of honor or lower regard for human life, both sides are just exploiting each others’ weaknesses and fighting in the most effective method they can. The side using the ‘inhumane’ or ‘dishonorable’ tactics may lack the technology, numbers, or less resources to compete with their opponent in any other way.
Now bear in mind that this isn’t a judgement of one side or the other being right or wrong, but rather that the standards of humane or inhumane warfare are relative. All war is destructive and brutal, and what is excused as often subject to what we can afford to excuse. It’s just not that easy to be like Superman.
Men Are Meat, Meat is Murder, Murder is a Means
The means used by the Others of killing people and use their corpses as puppet soldiers are indeed horrific, even when compared to the way Westerosi force young men into war, even when compared to the war the masters of slavers bay use of Unsullied, they are horrific. But they’re also the only methods the Others can use, and the Others are seemingly the only ones who even can use these methods.
Though each White Walker is worth several humans in battle (minus obsidian), they seemingly have very very very small numbers, as they are unable to even reproduce on their own. Consequently, when it comes to war, the Others literally have no choice other than to use the dead as their soldiers, or die.
” We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.” – Malcom X
You may feel that you specifically are morally above practicing this kind of brutality, but historically humans have committed similar or crueler atrocities against one another in war all throughout history, and in time periods far more advanced than Westeros, particularly towards different ethnic groups.
Now, since the Others aren’t necessarily human (or, not in the normal sense), let’s think about all of the inhumane ways in which we treat other species to this day. Whether for utilitarian use, or for their meat, or just because they are over populated, we have no problem killing or enslaving animals for our own needs. Of course, we use the justification that it’s okay for us to do this to animals because they aren’t intelligent, but the act of valuing intelligence is a human practice (and is also mostly an excuse, as we historically have not valued animals or different humans any according to their intelligence). And for all we know, the Others have their own things which they value and care about.
This isn’t to say that the Others actually see things this way. It’s just a thought exercise as we try to break ourselves from judging the White Walkers as good or evil according to what benefits us.
It’s not genocide if they’re evil
“Yes but GRRM wrote Ramsay Bolton, Joffrey Baratheon, and Gregor Clegane. Those characters are basically irredeemable morally black monsters who enjoy causing misery. They serve as proof that this series has morally black characters. Why can’ the Others just be a race of morally black characters?”
I see this argument thrown around way too much. Even without morally dissecting those characters, there is a huge difference between writing a psychotically cruel and violent person, and writing an entire race of evil murderers. You have to consider Martin’s politics and world view here; to write the White Walkers as a race of murderers akin to Ramsay Bolton, who all deserve extermination, would be to end his novels on a conditional justification for genocide. If the White Walkers have no innocence nor rational justification for what they do, then Martin is creating a morally convenient war.
If the Others are all intrinsically evil, then war against the Others is a war in which every enemy combatant deserves to die and every casualty on the other side is “good”, and serves as a total white washing of the tragedy of war. It’s a war which serves the narrative that it’s possible to fight a war against a people who are evil and deserve extermination as a species. Sure this is possible in a fantasy novel, and it’s often written, but considering that Martin has spent 5 books challenging these ideas of a just war, it would be bizarre to end the story on a morally clear cut war.
“War brings out the best and the worst in people. Literature of the past used to celebrate the glory of war; then the hippie generation in the 1970s wrote about the ugliness of it. I think there’s truth in both.” – GRRM
“We all have good and evil in us and there are very few pure paragons and there are very few orcs. A villain is a hero of the other side, as someone said once, and I think there’s a great deal of truth to that, and that’s the interesting thing. In the case of war, that kind of situation, so I think some of that is definitely what I’m aiming at.” – GRRM
In light of this quote, I think we need to be very skeptical of the notion that Martin will have the ultimate war of ASOIAF turn out to be a totally glorious war without tragedy or realism. The Others acting as an illogical force of nature just turns them into a punching bag to make our heroes look glorious, without challenging the way we look at war.
We have to go beyond trying to boil down the central conflict of ASOIAF to “haters gonna hate.” Instead I offer that if we really want to understand the conflict with the Others, we should try to see things from their perspective, looking at their history from the other side of the wall.
I understand that this may seem speculative and conceptual, and I also understand that the safest way to go about defining the Others, is to simply admit that there is too much that we don’t now yet, wait for Season 6 or Winds of Winter, and call it a day….
…or maybe not.
Maybe Martin has been giving us clues to what the others are really about all along. Maybe it’s out natural tendency to subject them to the practice of ‘othering’ which has prevented us from really seeing what is going with the antagonists of our story. After all, if we learned anything from To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s that
Thank you for reading the first part of my new series. Part 1 was a little bit on the conceptual side, but in part 2 of Cold Wars I am going to take a page from Harper Lee and look at the history of the whole history of the North from the Other side of the Wall. The Dawn Age, the Long Night, the story of the Night’s King, and the thousands of years since.