Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dystopia: Plato Was Kind of an Asshole

Like most nerds, I've always been fond of Dystopias as narrative devices. Generally speaking, the idea of one man/woman rising up to overturn a society designed to prevent or control the actions of individuals is pretty much the most extreme underdog story you can tell. It's literally one person against the world. However, I also generally find that I don't much care for Dystopias if they are the entire point of the story. If the Dystopia is just the setting and the story is more about a specific character or idea, then I tend to really like it. But if the Dystopia is meant to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of a certain aspect of society, then I dislike it.

Here are some quick examples.

I don't like "Nineteen Eighty-Four". I don't like "Fahrenheit 451". I don't like "Brave New World". I don't like "THX 1138". I don't like "Brazil".

I DO like "The Matrix", "Equilibrium", "V For Vendetta", "Soylent Green", and I'm kinda OK with "Hunger Games".

Allow me to explain what the former films lack that the latter films have. For the most part, the first films I mention are pretty much wall-to-wall heavy-handed moralizing about how people suck and if we don't stop what we're doing, the world will go to shit. Everything else -- world-building, character development, plot -- is secondary to the writer's desire to make a point. I don't care how good that point is. If they want to make a point, they can write a fucking essay or a short story.

Out of all the movies I said I dislike, I'll probably get the most weird looks from saying I don't like "Brazil". Maybe I'm weird, but that movie bored the crap out of me. It was very pretty, but it was way too long and had too much to say without really knowing quite how to say it. I couldn't connect with any of the characters and so I never really cared about what was going on.

Similarly, I also have the unpopular opinion that "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" isn't that good either for many of the same reasons. To me it felt like 90% of "Fear and Loathing" was "They're high! Isn't that funny?" and honestly, I didn't really think it was that funny or insightful. Maybe I'm just not too keen on Terry Gilliam in general.

Anyway, the reasons I connect with the other movies I listed is usually because they have something to offer OTHER than the Dystopia itself. "The Matrix" series had cool action scenes, a great, traditional character arc, a lot of interesting pontificating about technology, and an interesting story that was more complicated that just "destroy the system". "Equilibrium" is probably the least deserving out of all the movies I listed, but it's basically "THX 1138" with really cool gun-fights, which usually helps a lot. In this case, the gun-fights were enough to keep me interested. "V For Vendetta" was great because it felt the most believable out of any Dystopia story I know. Most other Dystopias don't really stop to consider how the world could actually end up that way. The writers just tend to take it for granted that people will just let that kind of world happen under normal circumstances (more on that later). In "V For Vendetta", however, we're given a very believable Dystopia. The government doesn't control through drugs or giant walled off cities or thought-police, they control through fear and the promise of protection from a chaotic world. The people in "V For Vendetta" are not brainwashed. They often make light of their situation and don't have much genuine fear of showing discontent with the state of government. The reason they don't rise up is because they've grown to tolerate the state of things. They are comfortable with the way things are and see the alternative as much worse. This paints the antihero V in an interesting light. Is his rebellion and push for anarchy worth the loss of life, peace, and security? The story ultimately says that it is, but not without considerable personal and societal sacrifice. This message is much easier to relate to and its because the Dystopia is much less extreme and more believable. Similarly, "Soylent Green" presents a Dystopia that is more built around accepting comfort at the expense of human dignity and morality. The most famous example is how they euthanize the elderly and then process them into food. While everyone knows this, what some don't know is that when they euthanize them, they artificially give them a sort of emotional climax so they can die in comfort and contentedness. This sort of Dystopia works the best because you can almost understand why they would do this. "We need food, the elderly don't help society, so let's kill them humanely and then use them for food. Everybody wins." When you have this sort of Dystopia, it feels less like moralizing because you paint more than one side to the issue.

My final example is worth noting because while I generally enjoy "Hunger Games", I have a lot of problems with it. It's never adequately explained why the clearly wealthy Capitol feels the need to blatantly exploit the other Districts. Why put all of that effort into producing the Hunger Games, which are essentially designed to entertain the masses while also gripping them with fear, when you could likely avoid massive rebellion by... I dunno, FEEDING PEOPLE. It just seems silly to me. Still, I like it because the first story (I'm only familiar with the movie, so I don't know what happens in the other two books) is less about the character destroying the establishment and more about fighting for her own survival while exploiting the establishment. You don't usually see a Dystopia where the protagonist defeats the government by beating them at their own game. I think that subtle twist is what won me over.

So now that I've given some examples of what I think works and doesn't work, let me try to boil it down some more.

A lot of Dystopias are largely based on Plato's "Allegory of the Cave", which he attributes to Socrates, but I'm inclined to believe that Plato used Socrates to give his philosophies more weight than they would have otherwise had. It's one thing to have an idea, it's another thing to present an idea that you claim came from some other well-respected guy. If I say, "Pizza is really good," then that sounds subjective and biased, but if I say, "Chef Ramsay says pizza is really good," then that sounds objective and credible. Maybe I'm wrong, but we'll probably never truly know.

Anyway, Socrates (according to Plato) presents a cave with a bunch of prisoners chained together so that the only thing they can see is a wall and this is all they've ever known for their whole lives. They see a bunch of shapes on the wall from light and moving objects, and this is what they shape their perception of the world around. Then some guy comes along and frees them and all the prisoners would freak out. The real world would be unrecognizable and painful and so they'd instinctively want to retreat back to the familiar shadowy wall, but in time they would acclimate. However, the prisoners that remained would consider them corrupted by the outside world.

Obviously this Allegory is meant to speak to the nature of enlightening society, particularly in that era. According the Plato and other philosophers, Socrates was put to death for his philosophy. While this is not unheard of and definitely could have happened, it seems awfully convenient. Plato says that Socrates talked about how philosophers are burdened with seeing the world the way it truly is and are hated and feared by ignorant society and then is put to death by that very society.

Maybe I'm just a cynical bastard, but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of Plato's claims are somewhat fabricated to push his own philosophical agenda. He turned Socrates into a martyr and then put words in his mouth so that they would carry additional weight.

Anyway, because of my own opinions on the matter, I'm inclined to attribute the Allegory of the Cave to Plato rather than Socrates.

Basically, I think the Allegory is a crock of shit. It's designed to show how awesome philosophers are and how stupid and blind the rest of society is. I hate this sort of bullshit. It's the same reason I hate Henry David Thoreau. This attitude of "Look at me! I'm so smart! If only the rest of the world were as smart as me, the world would be a better place, so I'm going to teach my ideas to the rest of the world!" really pisses me off.

Of course, it's understandable why this attitude tends to be somewhat attractive, particularly to nerds. As nerds, we grow up as outsiders. We favor intellect more than most and we are generally put down out of ignorance by our peers. It is not surprising, therefore, that most nerds end up feeling like the majority of people are ignorant "sheeple" who just follow the leader and don't think for themselves.

So generally speaking, it's not surprising why this sort of attitude is generally present in many of the staples of Dystopia. A lot of those stories act as cautionary tales to make the "sheeple" realize that they're digging their own graves. The characters serve to reinforce those thoughts and any complexity to the issues are ignored in favor of slippery slopes and sweeping generalizations about corruption in society.

"Nineteen Eighty-Four" describes a future that could only possibly exist if the vast majority of the individuals involved willingly accepted ignorance in favor of nationalism. "Fahrenheit 451" is meant to show us a world without books (which makes it super ironic that it became a movie), which the writer saw as a pursuit of anti-intellectualism and independent thought. "Brave New World" was a Dystopia founded around universal apathy. "THX 1138" is basically just a futuristic interpretation of the Allegory.

It's not just that these stories primarily exist to hit the reader over the head with a message, but also that the message is largely predicated on how awful "most people" are and how they readily disregard and demonize intellect.

Sorry Plato, but I just don't buy it. People aren't inherently allergic to enlightenment, they simply prefer the sort of enlightenment that has the most to offer them. Find just about any adult and they will probably tell you that at some point they had some sort of enlightenment. They found God. They rejected God. They read a book that changed their life. They heard about Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi. People actively seek enlightenment and understanding. The reason they actively resist understanding is when it conflicts with the understanding they developed and it seems less comfortable. In this respect, the Allegory carries some weight, but the problem is that in the way it is presented, it assumes that the philosopher is objectively right and the rest of society is objectively wrong. How does Plato know he is not the prisoner? He assumes that because he spends all day thinking up bullshit that that means his definition of the world is more valid. He believes that the rest of the world lives in blissful ignorance and therefore must be educated, even if they resist. That sounds like the pot calling the kettle black to me.

I'm not saying that society isn't inherently stupid about a lot of things. As a large group, we tend to be very reactive and panic over a lot of things. But one thing we definitely AREN'T is uncharacteristically complacent. We throw a hissy fit about big government when they try to give us free health care. Do you really think we'd let them drug us and take away our rights for vague notions of "peace" and "comfort"?

This is what I can't stomach about a lot of Dystopias. This inherent pessimism about humanity. That we would so willingly give up everything of value simply because we suck like that.

But Dystopias can work, as I've already established. But in order to work, the characters have to take precedence. The story has to be about the conflicts that the individuals face, not about how fucked their society is. Writers have to give their readers some credit. They can't be condescending. Subtlety is your friend.

"V For Vendetta" builds its Dystopia brick-by-brick, compromise-by-compromise. Like real-world dictatorships such as Nazi Germany, people sacrificed their rights and their fellow citizens for promises of power and control in a chaotic global environment. They were desperate. I can believe that the characters in "V For Vendetta" can feel happy with their lives. They still have their jobs, their jokes, their families, a sense of security, entertainment, and basic necessities. They just have to conform and submit to government restrictions and be OK with the government murdering random citizens for perceived danger to society. But in "Nineteen Eighty-Four", I don't think that Dystopia would go one day without a mass uprising. What do the people get back for everything they sacrifice? Nothing. They just let it happen because they weren't as smart as George Orwell.

It's easy to believe a society reaching Dystopia out of fear and desperation, but difficult to believe a society reaching Dystopia out of ignorance, complacency, and apathy. You have to offer them something in return for their sacrifices. People won't just follow blindly unless you have something to offer.

A bad Dystopia assumes that Dystopia is an inevitability. A good Dystopia believes that a Dystopia comes from the survival instinct. We resort to Dystopia when we believe it is the only way to survive. That's what makes it compelling.

And slow-motion gun-fights don't hurt either.

So all I'm trying to say is that if you're going to write a story that is set in a Dystopia, don't do it just because you want to stand on a soapbox about some major problem with society. Do it because you want to explore the nature of society in and of itself. Don't take sides. Make things complicated. Otherwise, you're just an asshole like Plato, using a fictional story to talk about how you are so much smarter than everybody else and that if they knew what was good for them, they'd accept everything you say.

1 comment:

  1. k, this is a good post. I like it.

    Only useful thing I have to quibble about, is in regards to your argument against the Hunger Games making sense:

    People are able to philosophize when they have their basic human needs met, things like food, and shelter, affection... there's a brief list somewhere I'm too lazy to check...

    So what the Capitol's done, is they've given their districts almost everything they need, except not quite enough. That makes the workers' main goal food and safety, and everything else is basically forgotten. The only people who aren't hungry all the time are the ones who are treated well by the government (thaat one doesn't hold under a microscope, though, because their kids can still get killed in the games).

    In the books, that's why Gale is one of the few to really bitch and moan. Suzanne Collins can pretend Katniss and he had it really rough, but compared to almost everyone else, they were among the most wealthy.

    I could go on and on... in the end, I agree that Hunger Games isn't exactly a realistic depiction of a possible future, but not for the same reasons.