I love big cats, and I cannot lie. Nature has yet to devise a more gorgeous predator than the Panthera genus. Of course, it’s a one-way love affair.
Once upon a time I was watching a documentary about captive lions. The human (I forget if he was a researcher, zoo keeper, or simply tending a facility) was demonstrating how he earned the trust of a lioness by easing a standard push broom toward her. The moment she reacted negatively, he stopped and withdrew.
This taught her that she had control over his behavior, which boosted her confidence and calmed her down. So, each time he was able to move the broom closer to her until, finally, he was actually able to touch her.
This a great technique for creating rapport with other thinking creatures, showing them that the threat they feel from you isn’t really so bad. But it comes with pitfalls. Fortunately for this lioness, her trust was being earned for her own benefit. But, imagine if the human’s intention was not to take care of the lioness, but to poison her. Each push of the broom, each gradual boost in her trust would be another step toward her undoing.
And, this dynamic doesn’t require intention on the part of the threat. Imagine some hypothetical Neolithic wanderer finding a new type of fruit, a little spicy to the taste, and after swallowing a bite of it he worries it might make him sick. But, a few hours later, he’s fine. So, confidence boosted, he eats and survives a whole fruit, and eventually adds the fruit to his daily diet.
Only, the spicy chemical accumulates in his brain, softening the walls of his arteries until a month later he suffers a massive stroke.
Whistling Into the Graveyard
This is where dystopian fiction comes in.
Tales of the coming Apocalypse are like that push broom, edging toward us threateningly. But, in most dystopian novels, films, and television shows, the “good guys” pull it out in the end.
Think Terminator, Independence Day, World War Z. Or, more prosaically, think of all the political thrillers where the threat is human. We have seen ourselves (fictionally) fend off existential threats so often that we hardly blink when the real-world potential for such threats pops up in our newsfeed.
Never fear, Brad Pitt or Will Smith will save us! Somehow. Probably.
To think otherwise (or worse, to speak otherwise!) risks getting labeled “negative” or “pessimistic” or “alarmist,” faults equivalent to heresy in today’s obsessively positive culture of self-esteem. The long arc of history bends toward justice, after all, so cheer up!
However, in the real world, the long arc of history is bent toward justice only by the serious and vigilant. In the real world, the “good guys” don’t always win. Or, as in World War II, they win only at a terrible cost that was enabled by inexcusable inattention to rising threats when they were still rising.
Even then, one might point out, The Greatest Generation saved us. Still, those of us old enough to have met The Greatest Generation know that the generation currently taking the reins of civilization are not The Greatest Generation. Those folks lived through the Great Depression. These kids can’t even live through poor cell phone reception.
There’s no guarantee that we’ll save ourselves from the next global existential threat, particularly if we’re not vigilant against it. If we’re push-broomed into a false sense of control. If we’re over-confident in our ability to push back and triumph over all obstacles.
So, is our happy-ending “dystopian” fiction easing us toward dystopia, instilling unrealistic confidence in our ability to overcome whatever catastrophe might overtake us? Is the “everybody gets a gold star” generation of self-esteem obsessed positive thinkers, driven by the pseudoscientific principle of “Happiness Makes Competence,” inadvertently The Weakest Generation, the one that will fall to the Great Epidemic, surrender to our AI Overlords, or fail to recognize the New Totalitarianism?
We Have Met The Enemy…
But, if you think this is just a warning about Hollywoodized simplification—external enemies and happy endings—it is not.
The Mother of All Dystopias, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is not a “rip-roaring good story” (as the Sad Puppies would put it) about fighting an external foe, and it hardly has a happy ending. His warning about a political propaganda machine, spewing threat narratives and doublethink, brazenly rewriting history, and crushing dissent—all justified by the principles of “Love” and socially constructed reality—would seem to violate the trust-gaining push-broom dynamic here.
The “bad guys” win at the end of Orwell’s dystopia. Such an unhappy ending should slap us awake to the threat of Miniluv-style political conformity.
And yet, today’s politics simmers with creepy echoes of Ingsoc propaganda, often in the mouths of people familiar enough with Nineteen Eighty-Four to use it as a truncheon against their opponents. Of course, this is exactly what Orwell predicted with the Ingsoc concept of doublethink:
[T]o forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies…
Not only blind to external threats to also to internal ones, we may be our own push-broom or, reversing the dynamic, our own predator. Not as gorgeous a predator as a leaping tiger, of course … except perhaps in the narcissistic politics of partisan positivity and self-esteem.
But, let’s get back to the original point about how dystopian fiction might ironically enable real-world dystopia: Did Orwell’s explanation of doublethink help us avoid it? Or does it help us avoid confronting it by making it seem innocuous. After all, Nineteen Eighty-Four is “only a story.”
Dystopian fiction is just that, fiction. Nothing to worry about, right? Educated more in confidence than in math, I’m probably adding it all up wrong.