Use and Abuse of Power in Avatar: The Last Airbender

Use and Abuse of Power in Avatar: The Last Airbender

Power should never be concentrated in one person’s hands – except when you’re the Avatar?

[Excited about “Last Airbender: Legend of Korra“, Overthinkers? Check out John Goodman’s article connecting the two series. – Ed.]

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the world is based around the four classical elements: air, water, earth, and fire. Select individuals are capable of manipulating or ‘bending’ one of these four elements, but the only person who can bend all four is the individual known as the Avatar. The show is vague with regards to the nature of the Avatar’s existence, but we do know that his power comes from some sort of higher spiritual authority, and that it is his duty to use this power uphold balance in the world. The question is: what right does he have to this power?

Let’s look at the show’s perspective on power, both physical and political. The two clearest perspectives we get come in the Season Two episode “The Crossroads of Destiny.” Here, we hear the opinions of Azula, one of the show’s primary villains, as well as from Iroh, a wise man who acts as a mentor to several of the show’s heroes. While the former claims that “True power–the divine right to rule–is something you’re born with,” the latter, talking to Aang about his powers as the Avatar, insists that “Perfection and power are overrated. I think you are very wise to choose happiness and love.” But in choosing the Avatar as their hero, the writers of the show seem to be implicitly condoning the idea, supported by Azula, that true power does not come from the people, but from a divine mandate. The Avatar’s power, though he has to work to hone it, is something he’s born with.

Ultimately, the problem with the Avatar system is that the people of the Four Nations never entered into any form of social contract with the Avatar, and there is no compelling reason why he should have authority over them; he is simply able to maintain this authority because he has more brute power than anyone else. The Avatar’s rule is most akin not to the presumed democracy or constitutional monarchy of the Water Tribes, nor even to the federal monarchy of the Earth Kingdom, but to the fascist regime of the Fire Nation, and yet the show simultaneously glorifies the Avatar and vilifies the totalitarian Firelord.

The show’s writers attempt to resolve this friction in an interesting way: they make it not only a meta-conflict applying to the writers’ choices, but, especially in Season Three, a central internal conflict for Aang, as exemplified by the show’s title and subtitle. Aang must choose between the role of Avatar and the role of Airbender, and as he progresses in his journey he increasingly finds these two roles to be mutually exclusive.

In order to look at the nature of the Avatar’s power, we need to look farther back than just the most recent person to hold the position. The clearest pictures of previous Avatars are presented in the episodes “The Avatar and the Firelord” and “Sozin’s Comet.” In “Sozin’s Comet,” we hear the story of how Avatar Kyoshi, the third most recent Avatar, responded to the expansionist efforts of the conqueror known as Chin the Great. Though Kyoshi claims that Chin was a ‘horrible tyrant,’ even calling him ‘Chin the Conqueror’ rather than using his usual epithet, Earth Kingdom history remembers him quite differently. In describing the cultural memory of Chin, one Earth Kingdom citizen states straightforwardly that “Everyone loved Chin the Great because he was so great. Then the Avatar showed up and killed him.”

Regardless of whether Chin was a hero or a tyrant, when asked about the circumstances surrounding his death, Kyoshi states, without shame, “I killed Chin the Conqueror.” Kyoshi firmly believed that, as Avatar, her power superseded that of Chin, despite his clear public support evidenced by his massive armies. Because she was more physically powerful than him, she believed that she had the right to take his life.

Similarly, when Avatar Roku, the Avatar following Kyoshi and preceding Aang, discovers that Firelord Sozin has established a colony in the Earth Kingdom, he demands that the Firelord withdraw his troops. “How dare you, a citizen of the Fire Nation, address your Firelord this way?” Sozin replies “Your loyalty is to our nation first. Anything less makes you a traitor.” In answer to this assertion of Sozin’s legitimate sovereignty compared with Roku’s rule-by-might authority, Roku simply replies “Don’t challenge me. It will only end badly.” Their exchange ends with Roku sparing Sozin’s life only in the name of their past friendship, and warning the Firelord that “Even a single step out of line will result in your permanent end.”

Roku later states that he regrets this show of mercy when, in “Sozin’s Comet,” he tries to persuade Aang to kill Firelord Ozai. Clearly Roku and Kyoshi both believe that the Avatar’s authority supersedes that of sovereign rulers, and even extends to administering capital punishment at the Avatar’s discretion to any resident of the world, regardless of their nationality or citizenship, and without anything even remotely resembling due process.

Looking at previous Avatars’ uses of power, it’s not surprising that the current Avatar of the show’s time, Aang, might be tempted to use his power in similar ways. In the third and final season of the show, Aang is asked to use his powers as the Avatar to kill Firelord Ozai. This action would conflict not only with Aang’s personal moral code, but with the teachings of the Air Nomads who raised him, who maintain that all life is sacred, even maintaining strictly vegetarian diets for this reason.

When Aang consults previous Avatars, however, they all give him the same advice: he must kill the Firelord. Even the last Air Nomad to be the Avatar, Avatar Yangchen, tells Aang that “Selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs and do whatever it takes to protect the World.” In framing doing what is morally and spiritually right as a selfish decision, Yangchen is able to equivocate around the issue, creating a paradigm wherein the Avatar is above even basic morality. By Yangchen’s logic, the Avatar could commit whatever atrocity he chose so long as he was able to justify that it was somehow ‘protecting the world’. The phrase ‘whatever it takes’ is an extremely weighty one. Yangchen, as well as every other Avatar whom he asks, tells Aang that it is not only his right, but his duty to kill Ozai.

In the end, however, Aang does not go that route. In refusing to execute the Firelord, Aang takes one step away from the antiquated notion of the Avatar, and the show portrays this as the morally correct decision. Furthermore, when Aang goes into the Avatar state, where a combination of all of the past Avatars takes control of his body, he almost kills Ozai, and has to become himself again in order to spare the Firelord. In this turn of events, the writers are implicitly condemning all of the Avatars who came before Aang.

But why is Aang the Avatar to make this decision? Well, the world of Avatar, as we see it throughout the show, is on the brink of major change. It is undergoing an industrial revolution, as evidenced by the invention of the steam engine, steel, functioning dirigibles, and even automobiles such as tanks, and it is also undergoing social change. The Fire Nation is much more socially progressive than the other two nations, for instance, while the Fire Nation Army seems to have about equal numbers of men and women, the Earth Kingdom army is exclusively male, and we are given a good look at the institutionalized misogyny of the Northern Water Tribe in the final two episodes of the first season.

The fact that such a progressive nation could become a villainous force just because a few psychopaths happened to be born into its royal family may be the wake-up call the people of the Four Nations need before they can see that power concentrated in a single individual and based on physical power alone is a system that simply does not work. Maybe the day will soon come when the people see that the Avatar Cycle is an archaic and unjust institution, and that the world no longer needs it. When Aang decides that, though he does have the ability to kill Ozai, he does not have the right to do so, he enacts the beginning of this change.

This of course brings us to Legend of Korra, the sequel series to Avatar which is scheduled for some time in 2012. The series takes place seventy years after the original, in a world with skyscrapers, cars, electrical power, and at least one modernised city. It is into this world that Avatar Korra, Aang’s reincarnation, is born. The planned antagonists of the series are a group of people who are against the bending arts, and presumably also against the Avatar. What we still do not know, however, is whether these anti-Avatar rebels are going to be villains, or simply people who are no longer willing to live under a system of martial law which gives them no voice.

Maybe the time has come in the Four Nations where the Avatar should no longer exist. Whether the Avatar Cycle will quietly and gracefully end, or live longer than the people are willing to tolerate it and die through a violent revolution, is up to the Avatar.

[Does our love of the Avatar speak to the same power-worship that makes fascism possible? Will Korra bring about a revolution? Sound off in the comments! – Ed.]

John Goodman is this one guy from the internet. In addition to being
(and in his capacity as) a pop-culture enthusiast, he is also
tangentially involved with the shenanigans starting up over at the
Delian Cafe.

16 Comments on “Use and Abuse of Power in Avatar: The Last Airbender”

  1. Tod #


    Have you ever heard of the non-aggression principle? How does it fit into your ‘abuse of power’ narrative? – I think it sinks it.

    “the writers are implicitly condemning all of the Avatars who came before Aang” – Not so. They can’t believe in capital punishment? Every Avatar died with a clean conscience. Showcasing Aang’s beliefs doesn’t condemn those who disagree, it just explores an alternative.

    Good thoughts on how the justice system is formed and changing overall, poor examples of power exploitation.


  2. Spankminister #

    Putting Avatar into a “right-to-rule” context certainly does create some parallels between ambitious rulers and the Avatar him/herself. I’m not sure “massive armies” necessarily constitutes “popular support” since the conquered don’t really have a voice. While no one has agreed to the Avatar system, the separation of countries implies that there is no hegemony that is acceptable, and everyone understands this. Ozai disobeys because of his megalomania, and Sozin initially claims to do it to bring stability and higher quality of life to the other nations. Whether or not he is right, or using this as a pretext for war is immaterial; every nation has the implicit right to self-governance.

    I see the appeal of the Avatar as similar to Metal Gear Peace Walker’s “Militaires Sans Frontieres/Soldiers Without Borders.” Taken in an objective context, the Avatar is a force for change without any consent of the governed, and Soldiers Without Borders is just a band of mercenaries that fight for the highest bidder. But they’re able to be heroes in their own stories because of the society that frames their narratives. In the case of Avatar, that means imperialist countries attempting to conquer their neighbors, and in the case of Metal Gear, it’s Cold-War era US and USSR fighting proxy wars in Latin America. The appeal of the Avatar and Soldiers Without Borders is not that they are ‘might makes right’ power-worship tyrants for justice, but that they are politically incorruptible. Metal Gear’s Snake and Kaz Miller move their band of rogues in to defend the army-less Costa Rica, regardless of their past allegiances, even if it means standing up to the world’s two superpowers, and Roku and Kyoshi both refuse to be swayed by conquerors from their own nation-states. Metal Gear Peace Walker’s MSF are “Warriors without a country,” and the Avatars we’ve seen also embody this ideal.


  3. @MollyOCR #

    John, this article makes it sound like Avatars wield power just because they can, and like Kyoshi and Roku defeated Chin and Sozin just to do it, which isn’t true. Both were combating violent expansionism of one nation into another.

    The Avatar doesn’t exist so that he can be the one with the most power; he functions as the Avatar to ensure balance in the world. The power is not used on the whim of the current Avatar; Aang consults with previous Avatars of all different nations to hear their experience and wisdom.

    The Avatar state is a collective action of this select group of educated and, yes, powerful people who have been around long enough to observe when it’s necessary to intervene. The current Avatar is more of a vessel for this group of experienced people to act through. (How would a kid be expected to even know when he needs to step in?) When Aang has lived his whole life and a new Avatar is born, his experiences will be added to their collective knowledge.

    The social contract you want doesn’t exist because the Avatar doesn’t rule a nation or any group of people. Each nation rules themselves, in different ways, but as soon as they try to rule each other, the Avatar acts. Aang is the Last Airbender because, without an Avatar to keep balance (while Aang was frozen), the Fire Nation killed all of the Airbenders, the most peaceful of all the nations. (Didn’t the Fire Nation only initiate their war after the Avatar went missing? Because there was no one to stop them?) Surely there have been Avatars living in peaceful times that have never had to wield their power, and we just don’t know it.


  4. Sam Goodspeed #

    With respect, I don’t think that the existence of peaceful avatars disproves John’s point about the power of the Avatar being one without oversight. The tricky part is that the only authority that can authoritatively shape the avatar’s decision’s is the knowledge of ast avatars, and thus policy becomes legacy.

    I think the more central point John was trying to make is the idea that the divine right to rule has its own tricky implications when there is a person on the planet who is definitively the avatar of the gods.

    What I find interesting is the play between the avatar as being defined by their nation of origin as well as being a sort of state-less entity. What defines an average bender’s ability is their homeland; if you’re born in the Fire Nation you can never learn waterbending, full stop. The avatar transcends borders and yes, is a regulatory force, because he has the ability to make and enforce sanctions. I think the thematic narrative of the show is intended to highlight this status Aang has as a perpetual alien; he is the only avatar without a state to call home anymore, and thus he has to make more difficult decisions about the role o he avatar in a world where people’s identities are becoming less and less defined by their nationalistic loyalties.


  5. JackJack25 #

    All in all, a great article. I agree that the Avatar’s position is inherently undemocratic, as is the distribution of bending powers in general. It doesn’t seem fair that some people are bestowed with awesome superpowers while the rest are forced to be normal, an issue that I think the Legend of Korra will address.

    I think it does merit mentioning, however, that it’s not as if there are absolutely no checks on the Avatar’s power. Presumably all the incarnations of the Avatar are “good” or at least dedicated to the idea of preserving balance in the world. The mechanism for how the Avatar is selected isn’t at all clear, but to the extent all Avatars are the same person, it seems that they are a highly moral individual.

    While I agree that the Avatar doesn’t get his power from popular consent, perhaps the Avatar is a philosopher-king and could rule better than the nations left to their own devices.


  6. Lavanya #

    In refusing to execute the Firelord, Aang takes one step away from the antiquated notion of the Avatar, and the show portrays this as the morally correct decision.

    Permanently crippling Ozai is more moral than just killing him? I suppose if you place life, regardless of its quality, over death, then it can be. The show certainly left Aang no other alternatives beside letting a genocidal madman run free.

    Make no mistake, prison was never an option for an Ozai who could still firebend. A great deal of time was spent setting up the notion that prisons are useless, particularly when it comes to containing powerful, motivated people. Hama and Toph invent whole new bending sub-arts to escape their seemingly inescapable prisons. The only time a bender is effectively restrained is when Zhao captures Aang, and even then Zhao assures him it’s only a temporary measure until he can be mutilated and left barely alive. Powerful benders are just too dangerous to contain. The show acknowledges this early on, in Episode 7, when Earth Kingdom soldiers capture Iroh:

    Soldier: “He is too dangerous, Captain. We can’t just carry him to the capital. We have to do something now.”

    Captain: “I agree. He must be dealt with immediately and severely. These [Iroh’s] dangerous hands must be crushed.”

    On the surface, S3 in particular seems like one long argument about how Aang HAS to kill Ozai because prisons just don’t work: Katara and Toph escape their specialty cell, Hama escapes hers, Iroh escapes his, and don’t get me started on the Boiling Rock! That two-parter is S3’s insidious messaging at its bluntest — a sufficiently motivated person will eventually escape ever the most ridiculously secure prison. The hi-tech coolers, designed to rob a firebend of their power for a few days, certain advanced bending techniques.

    And the thing is, Aang already realizes how useless prisons are before he even learns it’s possible to remove people’s bending. What’s his ludicrous plan to “gluebend” the Firelord so he can’t move his arms or legs but a mild-mannered way to inform the audience that Aang, too, realizes that the only alternative to executing a prisoner is to immobilize them forever? But rather than break Ozai’s spine or crush his hands, Aang uses a supernatural means of crippling the Firelord. He removes Ozai’s bending, taking away a fundimental piece of the man and preventing him from ever returning to the life that he led before being imprisoned (c’mon, a Firelord that can’t firebend?). Energybending is nothing but a coded way for Aang to mutilate someone at his mercy, destroying forever the person they were before he got his hands on them.

    The show may view what happened to Ozai as morally correct, and it may have dovetailed with Aang’s personal worldview, but I find Aang’s actions hard to endorse.


    • Lavanya #


      The hi-tech coolers, designed to rob a *firebend of their power for a few days, certain advanced bending techniques.

      *to rob a firebender of their power for a few days, can be circumvented by certain advanced bending techniques.

      (Apologies for the errors. I should have proofed my post more carefully.)


  7. Geekoid #

    Through out the series, pretty much everyone understand that he is their ‘rightful’ ruler. The people, the bad guys, and so on. In THAT world, if you are the Avatar, then you are the ruler.

    IT’s a position passed on through reincarnation; which is why the bad guys often want to lock him away.

    Add to that, he is fighting the people oppressing and wiping people out, it’s easy to see why he is the hero.

    That’s the stage the set for the story.


  8. Peter Tupper #

    A person’s ability to bend all four elements is a _sign_ of being the Avatar, but it doesn’t _make_ him or her the Avatar. Aang is taken to be the Avatar by everybody even before he learns any other form of bending, because he has the tradition behind him, and because he acts, for the most part, the way the Avatar is supposed to act.

    In the world of “Avatar”, it’s widely taken the Avatar exists, that he or she is in contact with the the accumulated knowledge of the Avatar lineage and with the spirit world. Bending all elements is actually secondary to the moral/spiritual authority he/she wields.

    This makes the Avatar more like a spiritual leader akin to the Pope or the Dalai Lama, a person whose authority transcends national borders but is restricted in certain ways, particularly intervening in secular matters.

    At least a couple of times, Aang submits to civil, secular authority. In the case with Avatar Kiyoshi, he even takes responsibility for the acts of a previous Avatar. We can take that as the Avatar overstepping his/her bounds in the view of the secular authorities.

    So, Aang’s authority as Avatar is not a case of “might makes right”, but based on tradition and religious belief. Just as in our world, there are debates over the limits of the religious authority, even by the people who have it.


  9. Gab #

    Hey John, great article! I love this show, am dying to see the continuation, and am glad to finally see a post on OTI about it! :)

    There are some critiques to contend with, and they seem to center (both explicitly and implicitly) around the problematic of the social contract/ where the avatar gets authority from. Allow me to try and reconcile the two…

    Some key social contract dudes were Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes. Yes, even Hobbes. They all talk about how some collective of a bunch of people come together and design a “contract” of some sort, placing authority in some other figure as a means of getting protection/organization/identity/ whatever. Whether it be “government” or a “leviathan,” etc., not so big of a deal here. The point is, positive freedom (freedom to)gets exchanged for negative freedom (freedom from). Okay, obviously each individual avatar doesn’t get asked by all the nations to take on that responsibility. But hang on. In social contract theory, there’s also a continuing theme that when you’re socialized into the society under the contract, you’re implicitly signing it for yourself, especially if you don’t leave or cause a state of war. For example, kids don’t count as real people for Locke (nor do a lot of other persons we consider, you know, people nowadays, but I digress), but once a man is old enough to inherit property, the act of doing so means he’s agreeing to the overarching social contract. So, going with that, we could say that since every generation is part of the world in which avatars are an ultimate authority, the fact that they remain part of the societies “subordinate” to the avatars means they’re signing the social contract. It’s symbolic and subconscious, but it’s happening, nonetheless. So then the avatar’s role is preserving balance and protecting the negative freedom of the subjects; and, like any good classically liberal government, he’ll keep his hands off unless something goes wrong.

    But that isn’t as cool, nor as convincing, as the other way I think we could do this.

    Because also with these social contract theories is good ol’ God. When things go to crap on earth, He’s the highest authority to which men (MEN- these are old dead white dudes, remember) can appeal. The social contract is meant to act as protection for us on earth so we don’t constantly pray for help all the time (since God’s a busy Dude and all). But the rule of God is sovereign. He’s like the last line of defense. So if we think of the avatar NOT as the government/leviathan, but as God, lurking/floating/bending in the background in case things go wrong between men, the social contract theory doesn’t fall apart: Persons in any of the four kingdoms can appeal to the avatar when things go badly and the state fails them. Ergo, the avatar restores balance only when whatever is set up by the social contracts doesn’t cut it.


  10. Jo #

    The title of this article is ‘Use and Abuse of Power in Avatar’. Yet you haven’t been able to give a single example of abuse on the part of the Avatar to back up your claims.

    Let’s start with Chin and Kyoshi. You claim that Kyoshi abused her power as the Avatar by killing Chin and try to back your claims by saying that Earth Kingdom history remembers him as ‘Chin the Great’. However, you neglect to mention that he is only remembered this way by one Earth Kingdom village and by a person who is not only shown to be cowardly, untrustworthy, and deceitful but is also separated from the actual fact by no less than 400 years. Whereas Kyoshi who has never once been shown to possess any such qualities is someone who lived 400 years ago and describe Chin as a horrible tyrant. Furthermore you attempt to discredit Kyoshi’s claim that Chin as a tyrant with the idea that he had public support because of a large standing army which is completely laughable. If things worked like that in the real world people like Hitler or Stalin would never be a problem.

    In the end we learn that Kyoshi showed extreme restraint before dealing with Chin (from the map we see that he had all ready taken over most of the Earth Kingdom) which is clear evidence that she didn’t meddle in the affairs of these sovereign nations indiscriminately and this certainly can’t be called an abuse of her power. The only abuse of power here was by Chin with his large army seeking to expand his territory.

    Next we have Roku who confronted Sozin when he established troops in the Earth Kingdom. Yet here we don’t see an Avatar violently ending the life of a man who would use his power to violently expand his controlled territory but instead Roku shows mercy and restraint by leaving him with a warning. Again not a show of abuse on the Avatar’s part but on the part of the ruler.

    The Avatar is not just one person, the Avatar is the collective wisdom and experience that spans many generations and many nations while you mistakenly believe that power is all that comes with being Avatar. The Avatar is meant to have no loyalties to any one nation but for the entire world. Whereas rulers in the world of Avatar do not have the wisdom, experience, or restraint that comes with being the Avatar. They have their power in the form of their armies and their loyalties to their nations and themselves. These nations have every right to rule themselves but that does not give them the right to rule other countries especially by violent means and that is where the Avatar steps in.


    • Upthrust #

      Keep in mind our main source is called “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. As far as titles go, it seems about as balanced a source as “Fuhrer: The Last Aryan”. As much as a television show can, Avatar follows the third-person limited perspective of the current avatar and the girl who is smitten with him. The fact that we don’t see many dissenting voices in Avatar does not mean they do not exist. Their opinions do not fit into the Avatar narrative, and are predictably marginalized.


  11. j #

    I’m a little late to the discussion, but a good article, and I’m excited for the new series! You’ve presented us with a lot to think about, and here’s my two cents:

    I see the overriding theme of the series as balance. There are the four bending elements which have different strengths and weaknesses, but not one is more powerful than each of the others. This theme of balance extends to the bender versus non-bender warriors. Sure the solders that can fire bend or earth bend have an advantage over the non-bending characters like Sokka, Suki, Ty Lee, and Mai but the non-benders still kick butt ;)

    There is also the Spirit world and the physical world, and one of the Avatar’s main duties is to be the connection between the two worlds. This role gives him the authority, as a previous poster mentioned, of a religious leader like the Pope or the Dalai Lama. We learn through hints sprinkled throughout the series, most notably the Season 1 finale, and the series finale, that the spirits used to live in the physical world, and for some reason decided to separate to their own sphere. The giant turtle in the finale also talks about how in the beginning there was no bending of elements, but of others’ energy.

    So I think that the spirits lived among the people, and found certain groups of people were drawn to them. After a while, the spirits decided to bend the energy of their followers to enable the mere mortals to bend a particular element. Then the spirits decided to withdraw from mortal matters, leaving a huge power vacuum because after the people were literally being ruled by the gods, who was to keep the peace? The solution was to have one person assume the authority as emissary between the spirits and the people. Since each of the four main groups of people had certain individuals that had special powers, the Avatar had to have even more to enforce balance. The Avatar was also to be reincarnated every few generations, so that he could take advantage of accumulated wisdom and skill.

    Azula’s assertion that her family had a divine right to rule, well was only her assertion. There was nothing in the series to indicate that any of the kings or lords we met were in any way chosen by the spirits. The closest was the leader of the Northern Water Tribe, but the water spirits were still living with the people. The forgotten fire civilization implies that the Avatar and the Spirits don’t really care who is ruling, just that the balance between each of the four nations, and between Man and Nature is maintained.

    After that long winded explanation, in short: there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that any of the mortal rulers were divinely chosen, neither were they democratic; while the Avatar’s power is not democratic, he was divinely chosen, and his job is to keep the peace.


  12. Den Valdron #

    I’m not sure I buy into this Thesis. A few things.

    First, this is a world where the supernatural is shown to exist, in the form of various spirit beings, sentient and semi-sentient animals and creatures, and in at least some cases, the spirits of past persons through reincarnation and ghosts. Do they get a vote? If not, why not? Are their opinions and views irrelevant, particularly since many are in charge of or maintain aspects of the world? If they do get a vote as agents and agencies of the world, then how does that relate to the human cultures? Is the Avatar an unelected rogue human, expressing might makes right over all? Or is the Avatar the selected representative of a supernature, and of a gestalt world community, tasked with wielding certain powers and maintaining a balance?

    I find the notion of popular support represented by a massive army to be laughable. Indeed, a massive army of conscripts is, if anything, proof of a lack of popular support or legitimacy, particularly to the subordinate population or foreign victims of that Army.

    And at that point, we come up to the real problem. Who elected Firelord Sozin? Or Firelord Ozai? Or FirePrincess Azula? At best, their authority comes from completely arbitrary inheritance, and at worst, their authority is rooted in brutality. Each of them, in fact, exercises their power against vulnerable persons to brutalize and subjugate them, they are oppressive beings.
    In the case of Chin the conquerer, we have another oppressive being.

    These are all people who operate without due authority or any kind of social contract, and whose activities violate social contracts – with their own people, with other peoples, and with the supernatural.

    Throughout the series, peace is never an option for Aang. He didn’t pick the fight with the Firelords. Rather, Ozai went after him. Indeed, Ozai, in going after Aang, perpetrated genocide on Aang’s entire culture.

    Does Aang therefore have a right to self defense? Does Aang’s power grant him a moral right to self defense? Is the exercise of that power to commit self defense legitimate? I would argue so.

    Throughout the series, we see the Fire Nation oppressing other cultures – not only genocide against the Air Benders, but genocidal and oppressive tactics against Water Bending talents and the Water cultures which are sustained by those talents, genocidal and oppressive tactics against Earth Bending tactics, war, famine, misery and oppression upon the members of Earth Kingdoms.

    Presumably, all of these victims have a right to defend themselves with any power that they have.

    But is there a further right to defend victims? If I was to see a large man beating a small child unrelated to him, would I have a moral right to intervene to stop this violence, regardless of being unrelated and in no social contract with either? Who elected me to step in? And yet, instinctively, I feel that I have this right. If put to it, I think that I would argue that such transgressive violence is a violation of the larger social contract and an indirect assault upon myself.

    That being the case, I think that Aang, both as a victim of oppression and harassment and survivor of Genocide, both has an unrestricted right to defend himself, and a right to come to the aid of other victims and oppressed.


  13. Rena #

    I know this is over a decade old but I gotta comment on this:

    “but to the fascist regime of the Fire Nation, and yet the show simultaneously glorifies the Avatar and vilifies the totalitarian Firelord.”
    That isn’t what fascism is. The avatar position is most similar to the federal monarchy. The nations are essentially the same as the city-states are to the Earth King, where they act autonomously without the avatar but when need be the avatar can pull rank.

    “Ultimately, the problem with the Avatar system is that the people of the Four Nations never entered into any form of social contract with the Avatar, and there is no compelling reason why he should have authority over them”
    We are in a world of pre-colonial China. Every single national government is either a theocracy or a monarchy, with nary a constitution in sight. The concept of the social contract doesn’t exist yet. Does that make it okay? No, but the Avatar isn’t devaluing legitimate power and freedoms citizens would have without them.

    “Kyoshi firmly believed that, as Avatar, her power superseded that of Chin, despite his clear public support evidenced by his massive armies. Because she was more physically powerful than him, she believed that she had the right to take his life.”
    My mouth is agape. Did you actually claim that *armies* determine public support? You also removed all context. Like this is a fun article about overthinking a kid’s show, why are you twisting facts like a political hit piece? Chin literally marched his armies to Kyoshi’s doorstep. He was at her home. She was the rightful governor of her peninsula and he tried to take it. She took the peaceful way out by just leaving and he refused to move and fell to his death while his army retreated. The fact she takes full responsibility for an act that’s at best homicide IS the shame You painted a warlord as sympathetic and the woman who took all steps to avoid killing him while keeping peace as monstrous.

    “In answer to this assertion of Sozin’s legitimate sovereignty compared with Roku’s rule-by-might authority”
    So we have moved from the Fire Nation being racist to “legitimate” rule. Like even the most charitable take has Sozin being the last in a line of absolute monarchs who also rule by force with their armies. They are LITERALLY in the process of colonization. If you want to call the avatar system an unfair monarch, fine. Roku is an anti-nationalist, isolationist, anti-colonialist monarch pushing back against Sozin, a genocidal, imperialist, and nationalist monarch currently in the process of colonizing sovereign land and demanding a Fire Nation national that hasn’t been a true citizen in years (as he forewent that citizenship as part of being the avatar) to bend the knee and give full loyalty to his country. How is Roku worse here? Oh, and then Sozin tries to murder him by shooting him in the back and that’s why Roku spares him.

    “In framing doing what is morally and spiritually right as a selfish decision, Yangchen is able to equivocate around the issue, creating a paradigm wherein the Avatar is above even basic morality.”
    That’s not what is happening here. Yangchen is saying that Aang’s desire to live up to the air nomads’ spiritual teachings are selfish. It just so happens that you personally agree with their anti-capital punishment ways. I’m not saying it’s wrong but Yangchen isn’t arguing for an anti-morality mindset. She is arguing, at worst, moral relativism. She is saying that the material condition of the air nomads as a peaceful society of monks away from the hardships and strife of international politics and war allowed them to be fully pacifistic, but in the same way Aang has been using his normally peaceful bending training to fight the fire nation for the entire show, the need for the avatar to be ground in the harsh reality of the other nations mean they can’t just take the air nomad approach. It’s selfish to put one’s spiritual enlightenment and training over the needs of the planet when they are the only one to protect said planet. I feel like you’re forgetting that the fire nation are genocidal monsters here. Aang’s citing air nomad’s teaching is him conceding the point that maybe Ozai needs to die but “hey, I was told not to kill and I should follow that rule at all costs” and Yangchen says “no, you need to prioritize what the world needs over what you as an air bender want.”

    “The Fire Nation is much more socially progressive than the other two nations, for instance, while the Fire Nation Army seems to have about equal numbers of men and women, the Earth Kingdom army is exclusively male, and we are given a good look at the institutionalized misogyny of the Northern Water Tribe in the final two episodes of the first season. ”

    Was 2012 so bad we were literally saying “hey, at least the nazis are gender diverse”? Like the idea, the FN army is equal men and women is baseless. We overwhelmingly see men. We don’t see women in the Earth Kingdom army but we also only see the army, like, twice? Like here’s the amazing part: the entire show is about non-firebenders not being sexist. We have entire episodes about how the fire nation propagandizes the war. This isn’t “just a few sociopaths.” This is deep-seated hatred that seeped into the entire country. Jeong Jeong was the highest-ranking official in the land and he wasn’t allowed to leave without being on the run. The Fire Sages went from being an independent religious organization preserving the history of the nation and serving the avatar to being under the heel of the Fire Lord. Zhao literally killed a god just to spite the water tribes!

    I can concede the point that the avatar is a divine right of kings. I don’t know how I feel about that and if my issues with DRoK are resolved if it’s literally true, but even if the avatar is a luck-based absolute monarch enforced through military might, this does not make it more or less legitimate than the other absolute monarchies ruling through military might. You might question the Avatar just being allowed to execute other leaders, but any country can invade and change leadership, and the avatar is doing that but instead of colonizing or demanding dues, they’re at worst doing neo-colonialism. They change leadership to fit their needs and wants but it’s not like, economic desires but spiritual ones. There’s something to be said about a divine king determining the fate of the world and invading on the basis of liberation in an American show airing in 2005. That would be a better article than this.


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