We’ve all read books like Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Giver, right?
If not, what the heck have you been reading lately?
Shakespeare or something?
Or maybe 1984 or Brave New World, the original dystopian novels.
The word “dystopia” originated in the late 18th century, combining the words “dys” for bad, and “utopia” for a place where everything is perfect. It’s the word that's being used for a lot of literature coming out these days, from all over the world, where young people rise up and take down dystopian societies for the good of everyone.
Great stuff, right?
There are some staples to what makes a “dystopia” well . . . dystopian. A government that controls peoples’ every move, a lack of freewill, people blindly following laws (whether the laws are good or bad), generally people dying for preventable reasons.
The list kind of goes on.
But here’s a question for you: are you currently living in a dystopia?
If there’s one common theme for citizens of dystopias, it’s that they’re not necessary sure they’re living in a dystopia. Somehow, the younger generation seems to know something’s wrong, but the older generations seem intent on keeping the status quo—if for no other reason than because they’re barely staying afloat as it is (Organising a revolution? We can’t even keep food on the table! How are we supposed to overthrow a government?).
Most usually though, the older generations seem oblivious to the fact things are very wrong in their society.
Hence this article. I mean, if you’re older than a teenager, then there’s a good chance you wouldn’t know it if you were in a dystopia.
So I’m going to ask one question that will help you determine whether or not you’re in a dystopia:
ARE YOU SCARED?
Now, that might bring some strong reactions. Yes, I’m definitely scared! No, I’m definitely not scared! Or maybe some mixed reactions. Even, What on EARTH are you talking about? or Scared? Scared of what?
Let’s talk a bit about being scared. People can be scared for a very long time, so long that it just becomes a normal part of life. A state of constant fear can become a new normal—both the feelings, and the actions that might stem from the fear as self preservation tools. Being scared can become normal to the point where being scared doesn’t even feel like they’re scared anymore—but it is fear, and the person is still scared.
So let’s talk about different forms of being scared, shall we? If you answer, “Yes,” to one or more questions, then you might be living in a dystopia. If you answer, “No,” to all the questions, then you might be living in an amazing country that takes care of its citizens (Hooray!)
ARE YOU SCARED OF BEING POOR AND HAVING NOTHING?
You’re a hard worker. At least, you’re working as hard as you can. You’re contributing to society to the best of your abilities. Are you scared to take a vacation? Like, if you relaxed for one second someone else would swoop in and take your job? Are you scared of acquiring a physical disability? Like, if you injured your back and weren’t able to do manual labour anymore, would you have a form of income? Are you scared that if you slowed down from 60 hours of work a week to 40 that you wouldn’t have enough money in your savings? In short, are you scared of being homeless and having nothing?
In the Divergent series, there are people who are factionless—people who don't belong anywhere in the well-fed and taken-care-of areas of society. These people comprise the homeless. The youth in factions are terrified of becoming factionless. This isn’t an incidental addition to Divergent. Do you see homeless people in your neighbourhood? How many studies have proven it's actually cheaper to provide homeless people with accommodation? That social welfare isn't a black hole where money goes to die, but rather an investment governments make in the wellbeing of their people. Why is tackling homelessness so complicated?
Simple. Homeless people, in their own way, contribute to dystopian societies. They’re your motivators to be scared. You’re supposed to be scared of becoming them—you're supposed to be afraid of becoming homeless, and of being unable to feed and clothe yourself. Why? Because it motivates you to work harder, which in turn generates more profit for companies and places that benefit from your labour.
There’s no easy way to put it, but if your government, your country’s economy, or businesses profit from you living in a state of fear, then you’re living in a dystopia.
ARE YOU SCARED FOR YOUR SAFETY?
This was a big one in the Hunger Games. Literally, children and teens were scared for their safety, and the parents weren’t doing much better. Here’s the thing, though: being scared for your safety doesn’t have to look like a giant arena with fighting to the death. If you read the local news, are there stories of school shootings, of police officers shooting innocent, unarmed people, of local law enforcement locking up protesters who are just defending their land?
Is there cause for people to fear for their safety as a result of a lack of government regulation, or a lack of legal accountability?
If you’re scared of government employees (IE: police, military, doctors, politicians, etc.) potentially harming you, then you’re living in a dystopia.
ARE YOU SCARED OF BEING DIFFERENT?
This was a big theme in Divergent, where divergent characters had to hide their divergency and just how divergent they were (honestly, just having fun with the word “divergent” right now). Divergent characters were ones with behavioural traits that didn’t neatly fit into the five main personality groups (factions). Society might not be as clear cut as this, and you might not have to abandon your family if you aren’t the same personality type.
But . . . are you scared to hold the hand of your loved one when you’re in public? If you’re unmarried, or interracial, or non-heteronormative, then . . . do feel scared? Do you feel eyes on you? Or, do you feel like the owners of establishments, if they knew, would kick you out? Do you fear you’d lose your job and livelihood if your employer knew? Does a sense of fear, however big or small, guide your decisions to be open about your relationships?
What about your gender? Your religion? The ethnicity of your parents? Your country of origin? Are you scared of negative repercussions if people in power knew?
Often, under the guise of, “It’s our culture,” racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is allowed to flourish. People put stock in rules and regulations (IE: the nuclear family is necessary to raise healthy children) that exist for no other purpose than to give an illusion that society could be perfect if everyone just acted the same—and giving a convenient, built-in group of outsiders to blame imperfection on. After all, if there were no “dangerous divergents” to blame society’s problems on, then people would actually have to fix the real issues.
A staple of dystopian fiction is the need to fit in—or else. Are you scared of being different? If so, you might be living in a dystopia.
ARE YOU SCARED TO DEMAND BETTER?
Look, dystopias take different shapes, forms, and degrees. Just look at all the dystopian novels. Not all of them are death and decay, or science fiction altering personalities, or uniformity under fear of death.
But all of them preach to be thankful for the bare minimum—that so long as there's food on the table, shelter over your head, and society is running like clockwork, then everything is okay—and everything else is frivolous.
Let's focus on people in the middle or near the bottom of the social ladder . . . are you scared to demand better? What was it about Maslow's Hierarchy, the triangle of needs? That, yes, fundamentally we need food and shelter (and, yes, we should be thankful when we have them) . . . but we also need art to live, we need connections with friends and family. We need self esteem and self respect.
Having time for art, for connecting, for self esteem and self respect are all needs that could easily be met . . . but work can be draining. Hours aren't always flexible. Work isn't always meaningful to the employee, but takes up the majority of their lives. Burnout is a real thing. In many forms of literature, work (and by extension, food and shelter) frequently takes priority over connection and meaning (Cat's in the Cradle, anyone?).
There aren't always enough hours in the day, or energy in a person, so they can meet their physiological needs AND all the other needs. Why are there so many punk rock songs about protesting the status quo? Because in some societies the status quo is working as hard as you can, putting all your energy into something that might be completely meaningless to you, and then being thankful when you've got food for your body, but you lack food and meaning for your soul.
Are you settling for a job that ONLY takes care of your physiological needs (food, shelter, etc.)? Are you scared to demand and pursue the fulfilment of your other needs because, if you did, then you might have nothing? Do you undervalue needs that can't be quantified by money or hours worked, but are measured by the fulfilment you feel with connections with art, people, and meaning?
If you're only meeting your physiological needs—that is, you're only surviving—are you scared to demand better? Are you scared to demand an actual life?
If you are, if living seems like a pipe dream, then you might be living in a dystopia.
DO YOU DARE TO DREAM?
This is the way things are.
We, as a society, tried to be better and we failed.
We won't try again.
Isn't that a recurring refrain in dystopian literature? That justification for the dystopia is that nothing else could possibly work. That creating a perfect world would be difficult, so we should all just give up on that dream? Dystopias are, admittedly, imperfect and require the sacrifice of values, individuality, and dreams—but they're what a society settles for.
Part of living in a dystopia is being told that this is the best we can do, and inciting fear for trying to do better, for seeking a better life. That, YES, it's theoretically possible to make a society where everyone's needs, both physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual are met.
BUT, making things better would be very difficult. BUT, it could fail (again). BUT, it would require restructuring and rewriting old rules. BUT, it would take time, energy, and possibly lots of money to make things better. BUT, we might have to give up the certainty we've grown used to.
BUT BUT BUT
All the BUTs induce a sense of fear.
Are you scared to try? Are you scared of the possibilities? Does someone implying we could all be better and have so much more put you on the offensive, so you justify a broken system just because it's "working"—not perfectly, but well enough? Does the fear of all the BUTs make you settle for bandaids instead of the creation of long term solutions?
Does dreaming we could all be better, not just in the far future, but right now, scare you?
Do you dare to dream?
Only a fool would say that fixing society is easy. But a person who dares to dream puts in the effort to make the world a better place. They change the BUT IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to BUT WHAT CAN I DO TODAY TO BUILD THE WORLD I WANT?
But our actions to end a dystopia starts with the ability to dream. Not to dream of little bandaids, but to dream big, dream fearlessly, and dream of the world we want, not the world we would settle for.
If you don't dare to dream, if your ability to dream is dominated by fear, then you might be living in a dystopia.
Or, maybe your society actually is perfect, and there really are no improvements left to dream.
This point is really your judgement call.
ARE YOU SCARED OF YOUR GOVERNMENT?
Here’s the thing about the government: you’re not supposed to be scared of them, especially if you’re living in a democratic society. Here’s the fact of the matter: you vote them in, and they are intended to be your representatives. Not your caregivers, not your guardians, not people to make decisions for you—people to make decisions in your stead because you have a job and can’t attend parliament full time.
The government gets their money—salaries and budget for social programs—from you, the taxpayer.
Your government isn’t supposed to be operating as an independent entity. They’re supposed to be like . . . a teenager you give money to so they can run to the store and pick up some groceries for you. You give them money and a little grocery list, and they come back with the items on your list. Maybe not all the items because stores don’t always have what you’re looking for in stock.
But, within reason, they take your money and get you the things you ask for. If that hypothetical teenager takes your money and buys, say, a handgun with it, then there’s something very wrong with that. Just like a government that takes the tax payers’ money and puts it into their own self interests, or gives it to their friends. If you government isn’t doing what its citizens want, and worse, doing things that might ultimately HARM citizens (like starting a war), causing a sense of fear caused by the government, then I'd hate to break it to you . . .
. . . you’re definitely living in a dystopia.
I sincerely hope that the answers were by and large no to the questions above. But if you answered, “Yes,” to these questions, then there’s a lot of great literature on how to handle your dystopian society.