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Why Is The Generation Of Dystopian Literature Okay With Authoritarian Rule?

By Regan Monnin··  7 min read
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Why Is The Generation Of Dystopian Literature Okay With Authoritarian Rule? hunger games
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If you were born between the years 1995-2005, chances are you grew up being bombarded by books from the genre of dystopian literature.

From The Hunger Games to Divergent, the world was obsessed with these strange tales of futuristic societies.

These books depict the horrors of authoritarian governments. Genocide, mass murder, mass surveillance, and much more plague the fictional societies.

You would think that with such exposure to the dangers of totalitarianism this generation would be opposed to bigger government and more government control. But that could not be further from the case.  

So why is the generation of dystopian literature okay with authoritarian control when we were warned about it again and again during our childhood? 

What Is Dystopian Literature?

It all starts with “utopia,” a word common to our vocabulary but not to the world 700 years ago, that is until Sir Thomas More coined the word in 1516 with his book Utopia. The book tells the story of an ideal society situated on a fictional island. Dystopia is the direct opposite of utopia. Dystopian literature refers to a book depicting a despotic society that disguises itself as a utopia. 

Many scholars attribute the beginning of the genre to Jonathan Swift and his satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels, published in the 1780s. Other famous novels of the genre include Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, and the ever quintessential 1984 by George Orwell. 

But, while the genre has been around for centuries, it experienced popularity like never before in the 2010s. 

The Hunger Games trilogy jump-started it. Everyone and their mother seemed to be reading the books. Girls braided their hair like Katniss. The lunch table discussion centered around who would survive the Hunger Games. The trilogy would go on to sell more than 65 million copies in the U.S. alone. 

katniss everdeen the hunger games imdb

Then came Divergent, a little less of a craze than the Hunger Games but still popular nonetheless. While people liked the book, the more common discussion centered around how bad the movie was. Despite the animosity toward the film adaptation, that trilogy would also sell millions of copies, 32 million to be exact. 

shailene woodley divergent imdb

While Divergent and The Hunger Games were universally popular books, it seemed like every young adult book that came out had some dystopian component to it, like Maze Runner by James Dashner, The Selection by Kiera Cass, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, and The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. 

Authoritarianism + Horny Teenagers

These books all depict the dangers of authoritarian governments. In The Hunger Games, the authoritarian government sends two of each district's children to the slaughter every year. In Divergent, the leaders control their citizen’s minds.

No matter the actions of the fictional evil regime, dystopian books strongly argue against the use of authoritarian government. 

But, that’s not what young readers latched onto. 

Instead of discussing the horrors of the books, readers gravitated toward the romance between the characters and the sensationalized violence (especially after the films came out). They talked about things like Team Peeta or Team Gale – with the obvious answer being Peeta. 

Instead of discussing the horrors, readers gravitated toward the romance and the sensationalized violence.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. These are books after all. They’re fictionalized and sensationalized stories that make it hard to take what’s happening in the book seriously. 

Despicable acts like sending children to fight to the death or relegating people to caste systems based on their appearance seems impossible and unthinkable. And in a way, they are. These are fictional stories. It's hard to believe abuses of this magnitude could actually happen, especially if you're not taught the history necessary to understand that totalitarian regimes are not just the figment of an author’s imagination.

The Education System, or Lack Thereof

Students in American schools are not being taught the basic history of the United States, or any part of the world for that matter. Standards for what should be taught in school have dramatically declined in recent years, with information being dumbed down and the quality of history education being dropped in favor of a more intense focus on reading and writing

According to a 2020 NAEP report, only 15% of U.S. 8th graders scored proficient or above in U.S. history. But you don’t need numbers or scholarly articles to know the U.S. has a real history education problem. 

Video after video from late-night television hosts and think tanks show how little Americans really know about their history. In one video from 2014, Texas Tech students are asked who won the Civil War. The answers range from “the South” to “I don’t know” to “Who even fought in that?”

This history illiteracy causes two problems:

  1. If you don’t know the history of your own country, then you’re not going to know the history of authoritarian regimes from around the globe.

  2. As a democratic republic, American ideals have always run counter to authoritarian rule. If you don’t understand the basic principles of the democratic process and the liberty associated with them, then how do you begin to identify the issues with totalitarian rule?

Add to this that only 1 in 3 adults could pass a U.S. citizenship test. According to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, only 13% of adults even knew the date the constitution was ratified. If parents can’t teach history to their children and the schools aren’t doing it either, then who will?

If parents can’t teach history to their children and the schools aren’t doing it either, then who will?

People also like to make the argument that these books speak about democracy, not authoritarian regimes. And while that is obviously false to anyone who knows their history, it wouldn’t be hard for someone with little historical knowledge to project their lack of knowledge onto these stories. Lack of historical knowledge contributes to a lack of understanding about the reality of the world.

Covid-19 and Authoritarianism

Another reason the generation of dystopian literature is so okay with authoritarianism is the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Consider what 16-27 year olds have gone through in the last year. Many have lost years of experiences and opportunities in what has been billed to them as “the time of their lives.” They’re desperate to go back to normal and have the future that was promised to them. 

You can argue all day about the correct response to Covid. But it’s a fact that governments have employed illegal tactics like vaccination mandates and forced lockdowns in the name of public safety. 

You can react to these illegal tactics in one of two ways:

  1. You can fight against them.

  2. You can support them. 

Fighting against them means you have to recognize the tyranny and then make a conscious decision to go against it. To support them, you put your head down and comply. To comply is by far the easier option. Complying also promises a return to normal. If you comply, the pandemic goes away. 

Again, it’s the easiest option.

Closing Thoughts

The generation of dystopian literature had a real opportunity to understand just how despicable totalitarian governments are. Dystopian books exposed them to a world of despicable abuses that they would not otherwise consider when living in 21st century America. 

But a lack of education and a lack of understanding of real-world governments has caused these individuals to not be able to recognize authoritarianism. They can’t differentiate between liberty and tyranny. And so they choose the easiest option, which, at the moment, is siding with those who see government overreach as society’s solution.

It’s not their fault. Society failed them. 

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