Utopia vs Dystopia: A Matter of Semantics?

After witnessing the dystopian societies of 1984, Brave New World, and The Hunger Games, I wondered to myself, what would a Utopia really be? What differentiates a Utopia from a Dystopia? Is there always a fine line?

If you have learned of a Utopia as a perfect society, you might naively think that a Dystopia would be the opposite, or a failed society.

Yet this could not be further from the truth. The societies of 1984, Brave New World, and The Hunger Games are stable, successful, self-sustaining worlds, yet they are considered to be Dystopias. None of the three societies are failures. They merely contain different moral systems and social classes than what we are used to today. Yet they are considered repulsive and to be avoided at all costs.

1984

In 1984, the world is run by three superpowers locked in constant warfare. This way, since each individual power is always at war, each government can maintain permanent martial law and rule with an iron fist. Any dissent is dealt with ruthlessly, as seen in the plot. The system works. It is, I daresay, perfect.

In Brave New World, the government does not rule with an iron fist, but rather, by providing so many distractions and recreations to the common people (analogous to TV or drugs in our world) that the average person is too amused to worry about any oppression by the government. There is a propagandized doctrine of happiness, that there are no problems as long as everyone is happy. The work is done by genetically engineered stupid people (the Epsilons) that serve as slaves to the other castes. Indeed, the way it runs, this society can be thought of as perfect as well.

The only major difference about the presentation of the Dystopia in The Hunger Games is that it presents an overly dramatic story of a rebel going through an elaborate system (the game itself) to rebel. It is also the only one so far that presents any hope to the rebels. In 1984 and Brave New World, by contrast, the government wins at the end.

In this respect, the government in The Hunger Games is nowhere near as successful as those in 1984 and Brave New World. Despite its running the games for 74 years, the government faces decadence and imperfection, which didn’t seem to affect the other two Dystopias. So in a way, the government in The Hunger Games is not a true Dystopia—it does not have lasting power, so it is not perfect. In 1984, the government could turn people against each other, and in Brave New World, everyone is happy so no one has reason to rebel. In The Hunger Games, however, people are unhappy, and these unhappy people unite together, posing a real threat to the government.

So the society in The Hunger Games is more akin to a short-lived Middle Eastern or South American state undergoing rapid regime changes, as a large amount of discontent exists and is significant. By contrast, the societies in 1984 and Brave New World are more like the former Soviet Union/the current United States. The people are either squashed in rebellion or are too mesmerized to rebel.

Where does a Utopia fit in all of this? A Utopia is supposed to be perfect, but how are the societies of 1984 and Brave New World not perfect? Sure, in 1984, the main character is tortured, but you could make the argument that if he had just listened to the government and did what it asked for, he would not have been hurt at all. Indeed, when he is brainwashed at the end, the society seems perfect to him.

And if you are a thinking human being in Brave New World, there is little reason you would want anything else from society. You are provided with all the joy you could possibly want. Sure, the lower class Epsilons are treated unfairly, but they are made dumb biologically. They might not have a consciousness as we have. They are basically machines.

You could say that in a true Utopia, everyone would be treated fairly. But how can a society actually function if this were the case? There has to be someone or a group of people in charge. Even in Plato’s Republic, containing the first proposal of a utopian society, there are social classes with clearly defined rulers.

And even with powerful and rational people at the top, this does not create a Utopia. In Watchmen, set in the Cold War, the titled superheroes try to save humanity, but the smartest and most rational of them finds, to most people’s shock, that the only way to save humanity from nuclear destruction is to initiate a massive attack on the whole world, in order to unify the United States and the USSR. While this character is considered to be the main antagonist as he killed millions of people, he is, if viewed from a purely rational perspective, the hero of humanity. And from this perspective, he took steps in creating a Utopia, not a Dystopia.

Since these moral issues are so subjective, the line between a Utopia and a Dystopia and the definition of perfect are subjective as well, as shown in all of the examples above. Then is the distinction between a Utopia and a Dystopia any more than a matter a semantics? What are your thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Utopia vs Dystopia: A Matter of Semantics?”

  1. I think that the common theme that makes a Dystopia is the intrusion on the ability of individuals to express themselves and live freely – either (as you say) by a totalitarian force (Nineteen Eighty-four), frivolous distraction (Brave New World) or both (in The Hunger Games it is totalitarian force in the Districts and frivolous distraction in the Capitol). In terms of it’s relationship with Utopia, this is interesting because it is often in the pursuit of Utopia that Dystopia is created. As you say, Nineteen Eighty-four could be considered perfect if you were the ruler of that society and you wanted everyone to do your bidding, but it is quite a different matter if you are the one that is forced to do the bidding of another – that is not perfect for you, that is the opposite of perfect and not ideal at all. It was Keith M Booker who cleverly said that one person’s Utopia is another’s Dystopia (he used the example of Disneyland). In the end, the attempt to achieve perfection is Dystopian because the aim of a good life is not to be perfect but to be oneself and to be human – which inevitably involves imperfection: the strive for Utopia and for perfection is what creates Dystopia.

    Interesting ideas. Thanks for bringing them up 🙂

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    1. Thanks for commenting. I like your point that a Dystopia is often created out of an attempt to create Utopia, and that Utopia can’t really be achieved for everyone. However, in the Brave New World case where everyone is happy, isn’t that more or less as close as you can get to a Utopia? (This is under the assumption that Epsilons are treated as sub-human.)

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      1. Hey Sean. I think that in Brave New World the happiness is not that of an adult human but that of a thoughtless and unengaged and unthinking being. Are we really happy if we’re high on soma and being fed entertainment? It’s a bit like the Disney example. Some people want to be distracted in it but would you, for example, be happy if you couldn’t ask the kind of questions or raise the kind of issues that you do in this post? Because I don’t think people in Brave New World, drugged and disconnected from any sense of heart or passion would be able to write a thoughtful post like this. At the core of Brave New World is happiness at the expense of thinking and Huxley’s thesis is that this is Dystopia not Utopia. By the by, have you seen this letter from Huxley to Orwell? He talks about the similarity between the two books being the “total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology” (which is what constitutes Dystopia) but argues that this will most likely come about through distraction (Brave New World) rather than domination (Nineteen Eighty-four). Worth a read: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/03/1984-v-brave-new-world.html

        And thanks for writing the post – this stuff is fascinating to me!

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      2. But, you know, I think your main thesis – that there is a fine line between Utopia and Dystopia – is right. I think that’s Huxley’s point too and I think that these areas of grey is one of the things that any good Dystopia tries to shed light on.

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