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How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps - Avatar: The Last Airbender Meta
The who, the what, the how, and the why not?

User: avatar_meta (posted by terminal_axon)
Date: 2009-10-06 16:34
Subject: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps
Security: Public
Pink Brain Blue Brain is a book that's recently been on my reading list. It's about how inherent but small differences between male and female children can be unintentionally multiplied by parents, society, and their peers into the gaps we see now in society. I don't think this necessarily is restrained to males and females. Someone good at a certain talent might develop that talent to the exclusion of all else, and something with only a minor hereditary factor could seem completely inherent. This could probably also happen with personality traits.

All it would take is some operant conditioning, which is a type of learning in which behaviors are reinforced or punished. Rats can be trained to push a lever, pigeons can be trained to play a miniature piano, and people can be trained to do... well, anything you can imagine, really.

You can see how this would be significant in the case of Zuko and Azula.

Operant conditioning consists of two kinds of reinforcement: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is granting something desirable (food, praise, and so on) while negative reinforcement is removing something undesirable (for instance, pigeons trained to flap their wings to prevent a shock). Reinforcement is anything that causes a behavior to recur. Punishment is the opposite--anything that causes a behavior to decrease. Positive punishment is something bad being added (shouting, hitting, a shock) and negative punishment is something good being removed (food or privileges being denied).

Pushing a lever for food is the most famous example of operant conditioning. But pushing a lever isn't something rats do naturally. They have to be trained gradually--given food when they wander near the lever, until they spend all their time near it. Then they have to get closer and closer to the lever to be rewarded, then touching it, then eventually pressing it. The rats go from natural behavior to unnatural behavior, led by their training.

Why is this significant? I'm getting there.


I've seen some people arguing that Azula was horribly abused by Ozai, which is why she's such a psychotic bitch. I don't necessarily disagree. I think it's entirely possible that he engaged in some "intense training" with her or even something worse. There are also people who think she's just naturally a psychopath. That also sounds like a possibility to me.

However, I favor a middle ground. Zuko has good potential because he's partly descended from Avatar Roku, right? Well, Zuko was raised in the same household, but he spent more time with his mother. She positively reinforced good behavior from him and punished bad behavior (chastising him for feeding the turleducks like Azula does). He was never able to get his father's approval so he never had any behaviors reinforced from his father. Then he spent all his time with his uncle. Was his soul divided in two, good versus evil, from the start, or was he trying to choose between the two ways of life he'd been taught?

Of course, we all know how Azula turned out. If Zuko's all about Roku and Sozin, shouldn't she be the same way? What about their upbringing made him so conflicted and her so confidently evil? Maybe she was naturally a little more aggressive and competitive. Maybe Ozai spent more time around her and showed approval of behavior that he would have ignored in Zuko, because he wouldn't have been there to see it or because screw Zuko. Maybe she had a minor case of antisocial personality disorder and really was naturally inclined to be sadistic and heartless. Whatever happened, even a normal level of childish selfishness and competition was rewarded. She escalated it. It was rewarded more. Like a rat wandering towards a lever, she learned that it's good to be bad. Why wouldn't she be horrible?

Imagine if, when Zuko had pitched that rock at the turtleduck, Ursa had laughed. What kind of man would Zuko have grown up to become? 

"Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless." --B.F. Skinnner
 
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alexb49: line zuko
User: alexb49
Date: 2009-10-07 12:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:line zuko
Great arguments regarding middle ground. I agree that Ursa's influence is what made a big chunk of the difference between Zuko and Azula's personalities. I forget where I mentioned this but Ursa's influence wasn't all sweetness and light, which is probably why Zuko is so f'd up in general. She was definitely all XD and the kids laughed with her at Iroh's letter home when he was at Ba Sing Se. "City's beautiful. Wish you were here before I burned the city to the ground!"

I think Azula would have had to have some antisocial disorder. Zuko was scarred at 13, putting Azula at age 11 at the time. From the look on her face when it happens, that is one seriously messed up 11 year old.
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User: terminal_axon
Date: 2009-10-07 17:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks! Yeah, Zuko wasn't getting much instruction on what his ~*~destiny~*~ should be. I think Ursa and Iroh did a good job keeping him from being sadistic or evil. But we never saw Ursa talk to him about the more abstract parts of morality (justice, honor, nationalism). Neither did Iroh until it was almost too late--honestly, I think Iroh kind of dropped the ball on that one, but he might not have felt it was necessary until he realized that the Avatar actually had a chance.

Yeah, I prefer the middle ground, but I lean more towards her being at least a little psycho. I don't think that means she could never have been good. According to my psych book, antisocial personality disorder can be redirected towards productive competition and feats of bravery or heroism and she obviously is capable of affection, even if she doesn't understand it. But still... that was a scary facial expression.
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alexb49: line zuko
User: alexb49
Date: 2009-10-08 01:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:line zuko
As far as Iroh giving instruction, I think it more likely that his firm belief that the individual determines their own destiny may have stopped him from going too far with Zuko. I think culturally in Asian cultures it's the father that is viewed as the moral guide for the family so there may have been other factors that stopped Iroh from doing too much. Once it was clear that Ozai was ready to kill his own son was when Iroh began injecting his own morality.
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Omoni: Squish
User: yukinoomoni
Date: 2009-10-07 13:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Squish
It's difficult. We all know that Ursa tried to talk some sense into Azula, especially when it became clear that Azula was veering off onto the wrong path. But I also think that, while it's clear that Ursa's disappearance had a huge impact on Zuko, we don't quite see until the finale that, perhaps, Ursa's disappearance affected Azula heavily as well.

It looked to me like Ursa was just starting to try and talk some sense into her daughter before everything hit the fan and Ozai started threatening Zuko's life. You could say she was choosing the favourite child, but then, Azula's life was never in danger; just her mental well-being. While that's serious in itself, Ursa knew that if something wasn't done, Ozai would find a way to get rid of Zuko, just for not being up to his high standards. Thus, any progress Ursa had with Azula was probably forgotten, until Azula's state was so brittle that it came to the surface in the finale. Or, as another thought, maybe Azula was confused; one parents telling her what she did was bad, while the other said it was good. Once one parent left, Azula chose the remaining parent's perspective as her own.

Plus, it's important to note that Azula was a prodigy. She was encouraged by her father to be the best of the best. It was clear from their audience with Azulon that if it made Ozai look good, then it was something to continue and improve upon. In these terms, Ozai saw Zuko as a failure, because nothing came easy to him, whereas for Azula, it did. Once Ursa vanished, it was probably only a matter of time before Ozai found some way to get rid of Zuko.

There are three years that we aren't privy to that were probably key in the development of Azula's character. We all know that she had that streak of madness inside her. We gets hints of how close Ozai and Azula were in the finale, when Ozai entrusts the entire Fire Nation to her. We also get the hint that she is, exacerbated by her already fragile state from Mai and Ty Lee's betrayal, extremely disappointed that her father won't use her gifts for the most important day of their lives. I'm of the ship to believe that Ozai was strict and unrelenting in his raising of Azula, so much that, in her own defence, she developed a wall so thick that only her friends betraying her could crack it. And of course Lo and Li didn't help ("Almost perfect; one hair out of place").

I would love to see more on Azula, just to see how she got the way she was at such a young age.
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User: terminal_axon
Date: 2009-10-07 17:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, to use the behavioral science perspective, even if Azula knew her mother wouldn't approve of her being evil... her mother wasn't there to do anything about it. She knows that Ursa would be upset when she's mean to Zuzu, but what does that knowledge mean when her dad's right there praising her for it? Also, I think even while Ursa was around, Ozai's approval was more important to her, maybe because Azula thought he was better because he was stronger, maybe because she thought Ozai only loved her and Ursa only loved Zuko, or for any combination of reasons.

Being insanely perfectionist is probably the trait Ozai reinforced the most, maybe even more than evilness. I don't know if Ozai ever loved her like a daughter; even if he did, he was definitely trying to raise her as the perfect heir. From his perspective, if she couldn't be perfect, she was as good as Zuko.

In terms of her view of emotions, I favor an interpretation I've heard from other people. She thought only fear and power mattered. Everyone in the world was either Ozai or someone she had to dominate. The only people she could trust were Ozai or people she had made afraid of her. I think this is a worldview that could also have been developed by the middle ground--a little sociopathy, maybe a little emotional abuse, and a lot of successfully trying to make Dad happy by being as evil as possible. Anyway, Ty Lee and to a lesser extent Mai kind of snuck under her radar by being harmlessly there and totally fearless and actually genuinely affectionate (most people agree on Ty Lee, but I also think Mai and Azula really did like each other), so subtly and over such a long period of time that she was able to fool herself into believing they feared her and she didn't care about them, and then when that illusion got shattered it was like... wait, what just happened? So then she lost her only sources of non-violence-related happiness and learned that fear was less reliable than love and nobody loved her (at least in her head) and... she didn't take it well.

She's such a fascinating character. Really, the whole Fire Nation royal family is.
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Omoni: Smile
User: yukinoomoni
Date: 2009-10-07 17:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Smile
Azula thought he was better because he was stronger[.]

This is an EXCELLENT point.

I, too, think that in terms of Ty Lee, there was real admiration and respect there, but also a ton of fear, which was why she was so quick to react with praise and gushing whenever Azula did anything (as well as cry loudly whenever Azula insulted her; it was all to please Azula, in every way possible). Mai, however, I think really and truly did like Azula; you're right. It's just that, later, her world was shaken when she found herself in love, and in turn, desperate to protect that love rather than sacrifice it for something that was, in the end, so obviously wrong.

I adore the entire Fire Nation, really. They're just so twisted up in spirals and coils, and it's fun to sift through it all and examine it.
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User: terminal_axon
Date: 2009-10-07 18:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Eh, yeah, Ty Lee did fear her (Return to Omashu circus scene), but I think a lot of the gushing was genuine. In The Beach especially, it just seemed so automatic and instinctual, and you could make a strong argument that that's because she's been doing it out of fear since childhood, but Ty Lee is such a heart-on-her-sleeve person that I think she really does just think Azula is that cool. Of course, you could also argue that they're both true--she's been saying it for so long she believes it. Agh, so complicated! Anyway, ultimately I think Ty Lee's praise was more her being a ditzy friend than a suck up.

I like how Ty Lee and Mai are both really amoral. I don't think they enjoy hurting people, but they never turned on Azula until she started hurting people they personally cared about. Ty Lee is nice, but that's not the same thing as being good. I think Mai might actually be in some ways a more moral person than Ty Lee; I don't know if Zuko could've loved anyone who didn't have a similar selfless streak. It's all really open to interpretation.
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Omoni: Mai & Zuko
User: yukinoomoni
Date: 2009-10-07 18:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Mai & Zuko
Mai could be interpreted as "bad" by her behaviour in "The Return to Omashu" - certainly alot of people within the fandom have found that hard to get past - unless you look at it from a certain angle: Azula had just come to Omashu in order to recruit Mai to her team. From the sounds of it, it's been at least a year since they have seen eachother last (maybe only a few months, come to think of it). I always viewed the trade-off stand-off as a sort of test of loyalty for Mai, and not exactly a callous sort of disregard for her brother. Certainly Azula was testing Ty Lee when she made her go through a myriad of unbearable circus acts - perhaps this was the same for Mai.

Or, it really could be that Mai doesn't like her brother, just for the fact that she's 17 and has a baby brother, and feels like she's not only been thrust out of her parents' inner-circle, but out of the family as well. She's still a teenager, after all.

I think in her own way, Mai reminds Zuko of himself. She's had to struggle with good and bad just as he has. It hasn't plagued her like it has him, but near the end, it's obvious that she's struggling with it. He not only understand this kind of conflict, but probably it helps to have someone who has gone through it and succeeded helps as well.

As for Ty Lee, I've always seen her as the type of person who views life as a game so that morals won't come into conflict. "See How Many Earthbenders I Can Chi-block. See How Many Times I Can Flip Someone Over My Head." And so on. It's easier to ignore conscience when using this type of perspective.
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User: terminal_axon
Date: 2009-10-07 20:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I never really had a problem with Mai going along with Azula in Return to Omashu. If she turned on Azula right then and there, it wouldn't have accomplished anything. Nobody had threatened Tom-Tom and he was being held hostage by a bunch of kids.

I definitely agree about Ty Lee. I think Mai is kind of similar. When Zuko's on her side and the worst she has to deal with is Azula cockblocking her, her life is actually very close to what a normal teenager's life would be like. Zuko introduced that conflict into her life--suddenly, there's a problem that not even ordering around servants or fireside epiphanies can help. I don't like that; I think she should have more of an identity outside of him. I guess you could argue that even though Zuko was the catalyst for her looking beyond her own life, she made her choices based on her own reasons. Still, I would have liked to see that developed more.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2011-01-18 11:38 (UTC)
Subject: provides access
Outstanding article, a bunch of fine knowledge. I am going to point out to my girlftriend and ask them the things they think.
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