Equality /= Dystopia

The_Giver_posterToday in The Atlantic, there’s a slightly strange argument that it’s going to be difficult to ever have social and economic equality because young adult literature has explored the topic thoroughly and determined that every instance of equality leads to a dystopia.

I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

The article, “What Is The Price of Perfect Equality,” explains the economic and social systems of a few YA texts (The GiverDelirium) to state:

The argument, then, is that perfect equality engineers a certain trade: guaranteed equal outcomes entail the forfeiting of art, music, literature, spontaneity, passion, even color itself. 


Commerce and trade, it turns out, are just as dependent on the passions as the passions are dependent on commerce and trade in The Giver. The true nightmare of a dystopian world is that all of these things are interconnected, and that by losing one or the other, by engineering it away socially or medically, nightmarish unintended consequences will ensue.

I doubt this article is truly arguing against a $15 minimum wage or anything like that, but it’s a bit strange to come back from a weekend watching some of the effects of racial, social, and economic inequality play out in Ferguson, for example, to read that “ah, but if we had true equality it would be a dystopia, because Lois Lowry proved it.”

So let’s prove The Atlantic wrong. We’ve got a whole comment section to argue how a more socially and economically fair world does not necessarily equal a world where passions are surgically removed or where everything turns black-and-white for some reason. Dystopian YA novels are rarely about actual economics (the “how everyone gets an equal amount of everything” section is usually deliberately fuzzy), so let’s rewrite them to show that sharing economic resources in a more equitable manner does not lead to dystopian scenarios.


25 Comments / Post A Comment

seakelps (#5,146)

I’m going to take a complete guess, but Europe probably has more artists and more art per capita in 2014 than in 1014, as well as more social equality, and the passion of humanity has not changed.

I’m embarrassingly into YA dystopian novels, and most of the ones I’ve read don’t really delve into the economics. It’s more about the government being overly controlling of the small things in every day life/hiding some “big truth” from the population. (Also about love triangles.)

Although actually, you could easily say that Hunger Games was very invested in economic inequality.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@apples and oranges 1000% the Hunger Games is about inequality!!

@apples and oranges Exactly what I was going to say. That’s pretty much the main premise.

Off the cuff remark: Star Trek.

My hypothesis: Dystopian YA novels rely on the dystopia to call the protagonist to action. Thus it’s more a literary tool than an effect of the fictional social engineering.

It’s interesting that one counter-argument you often hear when bringing up actually existing examples of prosperous but more egalitarian societies, such as Sweden, Denmark, or the Netherlands, is that policies like socialized medicine work well in these countries because they are “homogenous,” but would not work in the “diverse” United States.

At first this sounds like a non sequitur but there is some empirical support for the idea that voters tend to be more supportive of social programs and other economic equality measures when they believe the beneficiaries will be people “like them” (i.e. same race, culture, and/or religion.)

If you follow this idea to its logical conclusion, then perhaps one of the biggest things holding us back from a Danish utopia of high minimum wages, low unemployment, free universities, and paid maternity leave is in fact: racism.

Which I don’t think is what the people who make this argument are intending to say!

sheistolerable (#2,382)

@stuffisthings That is very true!

@sheistolerable It’s also interesting that opposition to safety net programs in Europe is closely tied to anti-immigrant sentiment: they don’t want to get rid of programs because they are costly, but rather because they believe that immigrants are unjustly benefiting from them! (think of the many BNP supporters who receive jobseekers allowance but are incensed that teenaged asylum seekers get £20/week in pocket money while their case is being decided)

@stuffisthings Denmark actually has no national minimum wage. It has a high NEGOTIATED wage in many specific unionized industries, but the fact that it’s still legal there to hire very unskilled people at a very low wage outside those industries helps explain why they have such low unemployment, especially youth unemployment. (the half-dozen countries in Europe that have no legislated minimum wage have MUCH lower unemployment than the rest of Europe).

@Glen Raphael@facebook yes, I think it’s also important for people, especially on the left, to acknowledge that “neoliberal” reforms can make the welfare state more effective, if they’re done in good faith and with that aim (thinking here of the Dutch labor market reforms, for example; the French resisted similar changes but mainly because they didn’t trust Sarkozy, I think.)

There’s no silver bullet but I think the wide variety of different ways that European countries are able achieve prosperity with a greater degree of equity and fairness actually makes for a better argument that it could be done in the US as well.

Oneofthejanes (#7,533)

This makes no sense at all. YA novels aren’t science experiments, they’re novels, written to maximize drama and narrative interest; utopias aren’t avoided because they’re impossible, but because they’re generally much more boring. This is like saying that smallpox can’t be prevented because historical fiction never found a solution.

Aunt Scar (#5,377)

@Oneofthejanes Exactly! You can’t prove reality with fiction, no matter how well written!

crenb (#6,486)

Okay but here’s the thing. Doesn’t every YA dystopian novel argue that what the rules have put in place isn’t equality? That the capital or what have you is operating on this skewed idea that equality is a one or sameness of all people in EVERY ASPECT. Not that peaceful existence of our differences but an all out black and white square boxed hell? To argue that this novels are actually portraying the negative of a socially equal world is ludicrous because their sole purpose is to prove the opposite: that you can’t squeeze everything into a box dictated by one idea and call it equality. That people have to accept differences in order to have a truly equal society. YA books aren’t saying ‘living wage and universal healthcare is bad’, they’re saying ‘stripping away our social and cultural differences is’.

(or did I just miss the point of this entire article?)

@crenb Thank you that’s what I thought when I read this.

callmeprufrock (#5,158)

Dystopian stories are fascinating to writers and readers for a number of reasons, but I think dystopian YA in particular ends up arguing for our right to make our own mistakes. In dystopian or utopian societies, choice is often taken away from people. The justification is that too much freedom leads to destruction and suffering, so smart people should unilaterally decide what’s best for all of us and thereby minimize chance and pain and damage. The Giver (and later Jonas) believe that people have a right to feel pain. The wife of the household in which the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale lives suffers jealousy even though her society is engineered to eliminate it. In Brave New World, the Savage and even that one quasi-rogue propagandist (forgetting his name) realize that art and pleasure depend on loss and pain and suffering to give them meaning. That’s why dystopian novels used to and continue to resonate so deeply with me: they justify the pain that normal human lives include.

So this is why I think the author misses the point of dystopian YA. Tracing economics through the books is interesting, but they don’t collectively prove or disprove the efficacy of socio-economic engineering. Currently our problem is not that people’s daily lives are so stable they don’t have the opportunity to fail, but rather that–as the author mentions early in the article–too many people never have a chance to achieve stability in the first place. Dystopian stories trace current trends to exaggerated conclusions in order to give modern readers a new perspective on the society in which they live. They aren’t intended as instruction manuals.

@callmeprufrock …and this is exactly why actual egalitarian policies in the real world aim not to eliminate choice, risk, and difference, but to make failures, mistakes, and bad luck *less costly*. Which actually ends up encouraging people to take MORE of the kinds of chances that these gray YA dystopias discourage!

My first thought was “Harrison Bergeron,” but I’m old.

sheistolerable (#2,382)

AND WHAT OF DISTRICT 13, Shannon Chamberlain? Which I pictured as basically modern Germany.

marcmagus (#7,536)

Star Trek. Q.E.D.

Seriously, if the argument is that in a cherry-picked set of literature equality always leads to dystopia, therefore equality must lead to dystopia, what more need I say then here’s a well-known fictional world in which equality leads not only to plenty but to a boom in the arts, etc.

Another example: Iain M. Banks “Culture” novels.

@marcmagus Nice. I was gonna mention Banks as well but got sidetracked with a bit about knife-missiles and just thought better of it.

Why do people always conflate equality with sameness. People don’t want to be the same, we want to embrace and enjoy our different cultures. What we don’t want is to be discriminated against due to those differences. Argh why don’t people get that?

Elsajeni (#1,763)

@TheDoctorsCompanion Yes! I think what’s really happening in a lot of these dystopias is a conflict of “sameness” vs. “fairness” as definitions of equality — the authorities legislate sameness and think they’re creating equality, but the protagonists see the enforced sameness as an enemy of fairness and rebel against it.

I’m still a proponent of “too cheap to meter”. As technology progresses, more and more goods and services stop being worth charging money for in their simplest form. Like napkins and ketchup packets and water fountains and food samples at Costco and free restrooms at Starbucks and free peanuts at the bar. Eventually basic food and clothing and shelter and medical care could all join that list. The trick is to find a way to ALLOW costs to continue to come down, which often involves getting rid of laws that enshrined earlier ways of doing business. (like the zoning laws and building codes that effectively make cheap housing illegal, or the cab regulations being fought by Uber, or the FDA’s restrictions on new drugs and treatment methods)

Equality of outcome is a silly goal but improvements in basic living standards at the low end seem inevitable.

No, the real problem with “utopia” is that are brains are wired to EXPECT problems that need fighting. No matter how great things get, we’ll collectively immediately stop noticing the good stuff (like aren’t refrigerators AWESOME?) and focus on the bad. Our lives today would already be considered a utopia for most people in most of history. Even kings of europe would have killed for access to modern dentistry, modern obstetrics and a good hot shower in the morning. Thus, I predict that no matter how utopic things get, most people still won’t be happy about it.

I didn’t read the Atlantic article but I want to say “Equality” does not equal “Sameness”. You don’t need people to be the same in order for them to be treated equally. Which is why in a world with equality, arts,diversity, color, literature, passion, etc etc will be there.

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