Ah, Thel. I’m always happy to write about you.
Yes. That’s right. Today, I’m going to take you through all of the complex and emotional reasons why I feel personally attached to Thel ‘Vadam, more colloquially known as The Arbiter.
Before I begin, I recommend reading both “In Defense of Halo 2’s Arbiter Campaign” and “The Sangheili Renaissance: Cultural and Artistic Advancement in the Post-War Era” — both of which are articles I have previously written that (in part) analyze and highlight Thel ‘Vadam’s traits, what he’s like, who he is, and what he’s doing for his people. Consider it required reading. (I apologize for how mediocre the former is; I was a relatively unfocused writer then!)
Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s begin. And yes, this gets political. You’ve been warned.
A Privileged Upbringing
I think it’s important to give some context about my personal experience growing up and how I came to believe what I do now. As a white, cis, and straight male, I’m pretty much the spitting image of the American privileged class. My parents, thankfully, are pretty progressive people, and because of this I grew up fully believing that women, people of color, and people of all sexual orientations deserved equal treatment and equal opportunity. However, my problem was that I struggled with being empathetic to the types of people I mentioned above. For a long time during my early teenage years, I was naive and stupid; I believed that people exaggerated just how much racism, sexism, and similar issues really existed in Western society, just because I didn’t see it.
Upon growing into an adult, though, I recognized the value of listening. I learned that I didn’t have to experience these things or see them in order for them to be true, and the fact that I never experienced or saw them and that they did validated exactly what they were saying.
It was difficult for me personally, mostly because I had to come to terms with just how wrong I really was, and had been for so long. And it disgusted me that I live in a society that conditions young white straight cis men like yours truly to believe things like this, that these people were all just overreacting and that we took care of racism and sexism decades ago. The roots of misogyny, homophobia, and racial discrimination run very deep in the lands that supposedly give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed at living out their American Dream.
Following this, I came to believe that white straight cis men like me had a responsibility. As part of the privileged class, I believe that it’s important for men like me to stand up for women, people of color, and LGBT folks. In order for us to forge a new society that solves the issues of the current one, people like me need to use our voices (and ballots). The fact that my voice rings louder in this society then that of a black man or a transwoman is wrong. But I can use my voice for good and try to shape a new, better future with it as best I can.
You’re probably wondering how any of this ties back into Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam. Let me explain.
What the Galaxy Could One Day Become
This quote from Thomas Lasky in Halo: Escalations is one of my favorites in all of Halo.
When you think about it, Thel ‘Vadam really is the ultimate idealist. His defining trait (which is clear based on what I presented in the “required reading” articles) is that he pushes for and encourages everyone to set problematic ways of life aside. He encourages society to improve, be it the society of his own people or that of others.
Ever since the character-defining moment where he offers Tartarus a truce at the conclusion of Halo 2, Thel has been trying to unite people and eliminate harmful policies from the past.
Attempting to make peace with the Jiralhanae to end the Great Schism. Advocating for the Sangheili to set aside their grievances with humanity. Working to deconstruct and break down the long-held Sangheili belief that doctors are the lowest of the low and that the act of being wounded in battle is dishonorable. Giving Sangheili women the opportunity to stand alongside their brothers in combat.
These are all things that Thel and his Swords of Sanghelios following (including a fan-favorite Shipmaster) are actively doing in the current timeline of Halo. And that really strikes a chord with me, because I feel like Thel ‘Vadam embodies what I want my voice to do in the real-world, and what white cis straight men in power like (#NotMy)President Trump should be doing, but generally aren’t doing.
Following the conclusion of the Human-Covenant War, Thel was an icon, a hero to his people. This put him in a position with huge social influence. Society was ready and willing to listen to what he had to say, and Thel has used his time with that floor to do good. He used it to address the regressive and uncomfortable parts of Sangheili society and to challenge that society to abandon them. He’s using it to face deeply-rooted issues head on.
This, of course, is not an easy fight. Trying to overthrow centuries’ worth of damaging cultural norms never is; at this point of the article, it should be clear that that is true in the real world. It has caused strife. It has caused civil war. But it’s a fight that needs to happen, because by the end of it, the Sangheili will have a much stronger, better, and healthier society. The weight of both his own mistakes and those of his people weigh on his shoulders, and Thel has made the choice to prevent it from continuing to happen. He has chosen to do something about it.
Ultimately, Lasky was right. Arbiter Thel ‘Vadam is a symbol of what the galaxy could one day become. He’s a progressive symbol, a symbol that shows to the world, both in-universe and in real life, why it’s important for people in positions of influence to listen, truly listen, to what marginalized people are saying about their problematic experiences, and to make a concentrated effort to fix those problems, no matter how hard it is.
He’s a character that I deeply connect with, because he represents learning from your past mistakes and taking what you’ve learned to try and make the world better. It’s a principle that I live by, and it’s a principle that I think is incredibly relevant to the current moment.