“The Definition of Dystopia” by Kayleigh Gallagher

THE DEFINITION OF DYSTOPIA

HOW THE GENRE’S RECENT POPULARITY SHOWS OUR GENERATION’S VIEWS ON THE CURRENT WORLD, AND HOW FICTION HAS COME TO REFLECT REALITY

The New Yorker magazine claimed in a 2017 article that we are living in “a golden age for dystopian fiction.” Needless to say, the dystopian genre has skyrocketed in popularity. But what is a dystopia? Merriam-Webster defines the word as “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.” This fictional society uses propaganda. The distribution of information and use of independent thought are restricted or manipulated. Citizens are under constant surveillance, live in a dehumanized state, and fear the outside world. Conformity is expected, protest is frowned upon. The natural world has been disturbed or almost destroyed. But most importantly, the society keeps up the facade of a perfect, utopian world. Obviously, a dystopian world will bear some resemblance to reality, as the genre is used as a way to point out the flaws in our society through exaggeration. However, the similarities between these fictional stories and modern American society are decidedly nightmarish.

Two plus two equals five. Anyone who has read George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, will recognize this as the message repeatedly drilled into the mind of the main character, Winston Smith. Through gaslighting, blackmail, threats, and other forms of manipulation, the government removes every aspect of Winston’s personality. Winston was, in the first place, one of the only people who recognized how twisted his country was. Meanwhile, all of Oceania lives obliviously. People live under constant surveillance and fear, an entire language is destroyed to make way for newer, shorter words. This might sound familiar— in fact, it bears unsettling similarities to modern American society. Here’s the kicker, though— the government of Oceania often rewrites history, distorts statistics in its favor, and creates new facts on a whim. No one knows how certain events in history actually went down. For a large portion of the book, Oceania is fighting a war with Eastasia. Then, suddenly, Oceania is at war with Eurasia. It has always been this way, Winston is assured. Oceania has always been fighting Eurasia, and Eastasia has always been Oceania’s ally. In the current age of alternative facts, fake news, and a government that strives to incite violence and misinformation, this 1949 novel hits surprisingly close to home.

In elementary school, we learned about Thanksgiving. We learned that, with the power of friendship and teamwork, the Native Americans and the pilgrims created a wonderful holiday about being grateful. They overcame an obstacle together. We didn’t delve too deep into what that obstacle was, or what happened afterward, but that was unimportant. Each history class showed the steady dehumanization and removal of Native Americans as an unfortunate reality. Christopher Columbus was a hero. No one really mentioned the rape, genocide, slavery, and murder until much, much later— late seventh grade to early eighth. Honestly, I understand why no one told me every horrific detail— I don’t understand why I was taught that he was a hero, at the very least, until fourth or fifth grade. I was told he was a great man, and I believed what I was told. I did not, after all, have an alternate source of information, so I didn’t really know what else to believe. There are other, countless examples of American history being glorified and the less pretty details being glossed over, but that’s the one I thought I’d share. The Trail of Tears, the Dred Scott Decision, internment camps, etc., are all things I didn’t learn about until late in my middle school career. The unfortunate reality here is that dystopian societies alter history to portray them in a more favorable manner, and America is guilty of doing such things. Rather than taking a moment to reflect on our past mistakes and how we can change moving forward, many hasten to defend the image of a golden country. This makes progress nearly impossible, and if we continue to constantly deny any current flaws, we will remain static while other countries move on.

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