How Do We Know if We Live in a Dystopia?

A dystopia is a society characterized by extreme corruption of human rights, freedoms, and honor. Works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and perspectives through a Hobbesian lens illustrate that dystopias can result from repressive governments and/or environmental emergencies.

Atwood portrays a futuristic environment where infertility has taken over the country, leading to severe limitations on women regarding their bodily autonomy. This society is set within a theocratic totalitarian state. Similarly, Orwell depicts how the cynical nature and the power of a select few can lead to total damnation for a community. In Animal Farm, Orwell illustrates the recurring pattern associated with greedy power. The animals successfully overthrow their human leaders only to struggle with a new dictatorship that emerges from among their ranks.

In both stories, the fragility of democracy and the risks of unregulated authority are apparent. Not only do these narratives highlight the consequences of humanity’s struggle with greed, but they also illuminate the need for a powerful central authority to preserve order. From a Hobbesian perspective, a strong, impartial centralized government is necessary to prevent the formation of a dystopia and maintain order.

These stories serve as cautionary tales that underscore the importance of balancing authority equally with individual rights and freedoms. This balance is crucial to preventing the descent into the dystopias depicted by Atwood and Orwell. Furthermore, the role of environmental catastrophes in the emergence of dystopian societies should also be considered. For example, in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the people become color-blind, a change directly tied to their environment. As a society, we must confront unsettling questions: How can uncovering the dark underbelly of an apparent utopia help us prevent the formation of a dystopia? How is the well-being of the people addressed? What lessons can we draw from new dystopian works of entertainment?

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