Personal Dystopias

21 June 2010


In some earlier posts I have mentioned Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius’ lectures on Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century from The Teaching Company (specifically in The Threshold of Atrocity). One of Liulevicius’ themes is that the attempt to realize ideologically-inspired utopias has more often than not issued in actual dystopias. This is not a theme unique to Liulevicius, but has been a matter of some comment once the trends of the twentieth century became clear. Ideologically motivated terrorist organizations as ruthless and bloodthirsty as the Khmer Rouge, Sendero Luminoso, and Al Qaeda, in their pursuit of utopian political communities, have been the source of death, destruction, and immiserization.

Plato begins the utopian tradition in Western political thought, and therefore also unintentially initiates the dystopian tradition as well.

Such “efforts” — if such we may call them — constitute utopian thinking on a grand scale — visionary utopianism — and therefore issue in dystopian circumstances on a grand scale — if you will, visionary dystopia. While this is the most familiar species of the genus (i.e., the genus of dystopias), it is not the only species of the genus. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates begins with the inquiry as to what constitutes a just man, and then asserts that, since it is easier to see justice in the large than justice in the small, that he will first inquire into what constitutes a just state. This inquiry constitutes the bulk of the Republic — another utopia which, if realized, would have been a genuinely philosophical dystopia — and so we think of the Republic as a work of political philosophy. But Plato’s Socrates does eventually come around and apply his theory of a just state, mutatis mutandis, to the question of what constitutes a just man. So too it is with dystopia: it is seen more easily in the large than in the small.

Today it occurred to me that small scale dystopias — dystopias decidedly less gruesome than the “visionary” dystopias of the likes of the Khmer Rouge — are not at all uncommon in life, and that they follow from similar motives; namely, the desire to have things be perfect. I am sure that almost anyone reading this who has some life experience has known someone (if not several persons) who are so obsessed with getting things right and making things perfect that these efforts ultimately make the other people around them miserable and unhappy because of their demands for perfection. This is especially the case in regard to the planning of events that are especially valued and which the planners and at least many if not most of the participants would like to have come off as a wonderful event that leaves everyone concerned with wonderful memories. I am thinking about events like weddings and graduations and maybe even birthday parties.

This obsession with perfection and getting everything right, quite explicitly undertaken with the idea that it is in the selfless service of the happiness of others, often takes on a dark and sinister edge. This is one reason I have always instinctively hated and avoided events and parties and social occasions of all kinds. And I have no doubt that many who plan and participate in such events are so deluded that they truly believe that a good time was had by all and that everyone took home wonderful memories. Probably many people did. But by now we all know that utopias come at a cost, and they always come at the greatest cost for those who are least valued. One of the slogans of the Khmer Rouge was, “To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss.” In other words, if you weren’t with the Khmer Rouge, you were against them, and if you were against them they would rather you were dead. And this was a slogan upon which they acted vigorously and decisively.

It might seem a little bit overly-dramatic for me to compare a wedding or a party gone sour to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, but I believe that both follow from the same source, and as long as we are not aware of how utopian thinking goes horribly wrong, we are vulnerable to its depredations on the ordinary — and imperfect — business of life. The overly-eager party planner who wants to regiment the lives of others for an evening is a terrorist in miniature who creates a personal dystopia, and we should be as proportionately intolerant with this kind of for-your-own-good meddling as we are (or should be) proportionately intolerant of terrorism. It is imperfection that makes us human and teaches us humility, and in this spirit we ought to celebrate our imperfections, if not as what is best in us, at least as part of what is best in us.

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