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?

1984

1984

I read this in 11th grade for school, and it was, at that time, quite different a type of literature than I was used to. It isn’t the typical heroic novel—it’s more like the opposite: the story of a man’s hopeless rebellion against a totalitarian government.

George Orwell’s novel serves as a warning and a message, of what totalitarian society can be, and of what means it can use to sustain itself. Besides physical torment, two devices stand out very strongly: Newspeak and doublethink.

Newspeak is the new form of English. English is a language that, as we know it, gains words as time passes. The totalitarian government in 1984 instead reduces the number of words in English as time passes (p. 50-51):

“The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,” he said. “We’re getting the language into its final shape–the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words–scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting down the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.”

The whole point of reducing the verbosity of the language is to destroy its ability to express dissent. Rather than having many words that have more or less the denotation but different connotations, i.e. “dinner,” “supper,” “meal,” and “feast,” Newspeak prefers just having one word for each such case. Words that express degrees are also gone, and are replaced by prefixes: “good,” “superb,” and “excellent” are translated respectively to “good,” “plusgood,” and “doubleplusgood.”

This contrast between English and Newspeak is developed by the showing of slip of paper that Winston receives for his work in the Ministry of Truth: the statement “times 14.2.84 miniplenty malquoted chocolate rectify” (38) actually means something along the lines of “the February 14, 1984 Times issue originally promised no reduction in chocolate rationing; however, it was reduced in the last week, so the article must be rewritten to give the impression that the Party had warned of a reduction in chocolate rationing and that it had never promised that the chocolate rations would stay.” This aspect of Newspeak allows for a highly compressed but emotionless language, the opposite of English, a language full of elaboration and sentiment.

Doublethink is too an interesting idea. It is the simultaneous belief in contradictory facts, often including saying things that are not true, even though the speaker knows it is not true but thinks it is. This allows the Party to stay homogeneous and not incite rebellion. It is very similar to the idea of censorship above, in which history is changed. Pages 34-45:

The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed–if all records told the same tale–then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it; in Newspeak, “doublethink.”

“Stand easy!” barked the instructress, a little more genially.

Winston sank his arms to his sides and slowly refilled his lungs with air. His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word “doublethink” involved the use of doublethink.

This is quite silly because you have to use doublethink in order to understand it–something logically doesn’t make sense. Or rather, it does.