There has never not been dystopia. This sentence is an exaggeration; more trivially, it’s a double negative. But in the wake of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, in the ongoing tumult of Ferguson’s protests and protests elsewhere in solidarity, I emphatically offer the sentence to a great many other people whom I think need to hear it. An incident demonstrating intense, grotesque racism has inspired many people— in this case, mostly white, mostly living in the US— to ask, “What’s happening to this country?” Distinct forms of systemic violence are not interchangeable, but distressed liberals ask this same question when they hear about a new abortion rights restriction, a new gay marriage ban, an uptick in police brutality, another absurd coverage situation with private health insurance companies, another food service CEO living large while workers live paycheck to paycheck. “What’s happening to this country?” is a pervasive query, and it requires an answer less elementary than what can be said to conservatives, reactionaries, so-called centrists or moderates, and many from the libertarian/anarchocapitalist sector (ye olde “if you’re not outraged then you’re not paying attention”). The answer is there has never not been dystopia. And we must stop treating dystopia like some mystical, otherworldly concept.
“What’s happening to this country?” takes several declarative forms, e.g. “It’s like we’re living in 1984/The Handmaid’s Tale/insert title here!” or “If things get any worse, soon we’ll be in dystopia.” The answer, again: there has never not been dystopia.
I certainly don’t hold anything against the dystopian genre as a basic entity. It’s quite necessary within literature, theatre, cinema, whatever other art form. As long as the world has real oppression, it’s crucial that we keep exploring dystopian conditions in fictional spheres, whether that means representing a further extreme or parallel version of non-fictional circumstances— or representing a wholly metaphorical set of circumstances. By making those explorations, we can discover new ways of looking at reality, with the emotional strength that comes from tackling something unreal. Some of the most important stories out there are dystopian, and some of the most important things said about dystopia have been related through fiction. Within the past year I have done lighting design for a dystopian play, and I have adapted and directed a dystopian reading of some George Bernard Shaw. Future literary projects of mine also have several dystopian schemes.
However, for those who do not particularly experience oppression in the real world, and even for some who do, there’s a dangerous tendency to equate the fictitiousness of a dystopia with the fictitiousness of dystopia itself. Consider nearly any hallmark of a dystopian setting, of which I have compiled a list that is by no means exhaustive but certainly representative; in Fictional Dystopia-Land, one or more groups of people may suffer from one or more of the following issues:
• severe restriction of nutritious food
• severe restriction of reproductive rights
• severe restriction of career choices
• severe restriction of where they can go, wear, say, etc.
• severe restriction of sexual expression
• sexual exploitation
• negative bias within the criminal justice system, whatever that system constitutes
• routine violence from law enforcement and/or the military (possibly the same thing)
• routine violence from civilians taught to hate these people
• general social ostracism and bullying
• being regarded as 100% physically disposable
• outright genocide
It doesn’t take an overly perceptive mind to notice that these are all constant problems for many groups of real people today, varying in extremity by demographics and geography. They have also been problems for other groups in the past, or for the same groups in different permutations. Now, if we wanted to get into a semantic debate about the conceptual definition of dystopia, we could, but going with contemporary parlance in the US and arguably most of the anglophone world, in my opinion it’s safe to say that no matter how intensely one experiences the nasty end of the dystopian beating-stick, the above list expresses societal symptoms that would be sufficient to “brand” any work of fiction as dystopian. And those symptoms not only echo but directly mirror what real people experience and have clearly always experienced as long as human beings have a presence in the archaeological record. The Holocaust is an exceptionally brutal example, one that does not exceed/warrant unnuanced comparison with other genocides, while also being one that I think warrants particular mention because of how much dystopian fiction it has blatantly inspired in the West, how quickly many people now place anti-Semitism into a fictitious mental sphere (like it only happens “in the past” and “in alternate realities where Hitler won WWII”), and how so many people forget that multiple populations were tortured and murdered by the Nazis.
I have almost glossed over one key difference between dystopian fiction and dystopian reality, but don’t worry: I know that a lot of dystopian fiction features protagonists who are white, male, straight, cis, able-bodied, and/or other privileged categories, thus rendering the novelty of the dystopia for many readers. (The oversatured YA dystopian market is particularly rife with white, straight, cis girls.) That is, dystopian fiction abounds in, “Well, this problem here is actually real, but we’re going to show it to you, the comparably cushy-living reader, with a protag you can recognize better as yourself,” or the insidious undertone, “We’re going to show it to you, the actually oppressed reader, with a protag who isn’t like you and whose imaginary struggle is more valid than your real one.” It should probably go without saying that I loathe this paradigm. I think at this point anyone who consciously constructs a dystopian tale and uses that kind of protagonist without a very unique, interesting reason… is not worth my time. But still, this difference between fiction and reality isn’t about whether reality can be dystopian. It’s just about which dystopian fiction has some really disappointing narratives. Frankly, if your standard for dystopian fiction is The Trials and Tribulations of an Oppressed White Man, and then you still say that the constant killing of young black men by police, or a state’s abortion ban, or anything else amounts to “soon we’ll be in dystopia” or “suddenly we’re in dystopia,” I’m not sure what planet you think you’re on.
But likewise, even if you have a broader understanding of dystopian fiction than that, if you look around the US— or the world, but this rhetorical trend seems like a special problem in the US— and you worry about entering a real dystopia, the fact is that you are in one. At any point in history, some place has been one, arguably even most places. You just may not be in a position to have others treat you like a dystopia is where you live. If you aren’t used to that feeling, I encourage you to try some thought experiments as you go around your daily life. Don’t think of real police as SS officers (the very suggestion makes me cringe), but imagine they’re the police analogue from some dystopian movie you watched recently. When you read a particularly gross, reactionary statement by a judge, politician, top military official, business executive, right-wing religious demagogue, or what have you, try comparing their language with older examples from history, and with fictional examples from dystopian narratives. When you listen to some acquaintance say something really bigoted about people who lead lives of daily struggle, compare that language with the bigotry written into contrived novels, plays, movies, and more. I guarantee you that the resemblances don’t really have to be forced, even when the particulars differ.
I am not saying you need to think of reality as a direct manifestation of your dystopian tale of choice, and in fact that would be a bad idea too, but I am saying again: there has never not been dystopia. And the world we live in will not get any better until more people recognize that quality. The fight to create productive social upheaval, i.e. the much-idealized but entirely desirable revolutionary movement, is often given a place center stage in the lives of written dystopia-characters; their world does often seem to differ from ours in terms of the sheer numbers of people who are initially or eventually committed to ceasing the deplorable state of affairs under which they live. Whether or not they succeed, whether or not they’d consider their society dystopian, it is as if those characters are imbued with a sense by their author that dystopia is their condition. We have no author but ourselves; let’s start imbuing more of ourselves with that sense, and let’s start committing ourselves more directly to organized change. If reality and fiction can have overlap, let’s start writing a new direction for the plot of this universe, instead of sitting on the sidelines and reading it.