Are Utopias Dead?

Randy Thompson (Winston) Taylor Jackson Ross (Parsons) Bill Salyers, Derek Manson (guards)  Photo by Darrett Sanders

Randy Thompson (Winston) Taylor Jackson Ross (Parsons) Bill Salyers, Derek Manson (guards)  Photo by Darrett Sanders

When I was offered to direct 1984, I was very excited. I love sci-fi. I love taking a fragment of our society and plucking it out for examination.  Then, during the first week of rehearsal, I had insomnia. I couldn’t get my brain to shut down. Rehearsals were actually fun. It is a very light-hearted cast. But something under the play disturbed me. Yes, Orwell’s world where hate is proscribed like exercise and truth is a plaything of those in power is too close for comfort. However, there was something else… the feeling that the hate and doublethink were just symptoms of a deeper societal ill. The fear that maybe humans cannot live together. The fear that our cultures may change, the wrapping, but does what’s inside change? Do humans change?

Fundamental to Western philosophy is the idea that humanity progresses. We get closer to our potential as a species as history moves forward getting exponentially closer to perfection, to Utopia. But do we as a culture still hold this to be true? Inundated day by day, moment by moment with alerts of all the awful things people are doing, have we just accepted that the world is shit and humans are inherently cruel? If we have, then why try to overcome problems like racism and sexism? Why not succumb to short term pleasures and personal gain? Or are we driven any to make peace with each other because we want to save our own skins, not to bring ourselves ever-closer to an ideal vision of mankind? Perhaps fear drives us more than hope?

Many people call the World Wars the birth of dystopias. With the incomparable loss of life and morals sacrificed in the fires of Aushwitz and Hiroshima.  We brought our species to the brink of extinction. What hope, what progress can one find in that?

While my generation was not raised hiding under desks, we have grown up under a new terror. Random violence. I was eight for Oklahoma City, twelve for Columbine, fourteen for 9/11. My first month in high school was marked by the towers falling again and again and again on screens in every classroom. The plane crashing again and again. Cameras zooming into bodies falling. Then I watched the horror get branded into a neat catchphrase and bite-sized sentences, cementing a youthful distrust of what I was told.

Boyfriends and cousins went to war. I learned Arabic and studied in the Middle East.   

I didn’t realize it then, but I was searching for my utopia: a world where a shared humanity can be found in any situation. I found my utopia and I didn’t find it. I learned that everything is more complex than the tidy packaged stories of heroes and villains I devoured as a child.

In the US, more than in the Middle East, I learned that misunderstanding breeds fear and fear breeds hate. I try not to judge that, I understand that. It is easier for us to guard against the darker aspects of humanity than trust our noble impulses. After all, I find dystopias believable and utopias sentimental or dangerously idealistic.

Even though now, materialistically, our society is far better off than when Thomas Moore penned “Utopia” in 1516. We live longer; the infant mortality rate is lower; I can get food delivered with the click of a button; I never worry about famine; I can access entertainment anytime of the day or night; I can travel almost anywhere in the world in a day; I have seen images of the surface of the moon and Mars. I have witnessed beautiful, inspiring things that are a direct result of human-kind’s “progress.”

And yet I find A Brave New World and 1984 more plausible than Utopia.

Because I wonder…our physical bodies are better off, but is our humanity?

I have seen bodies dragged into my old university in Cairo, a dictator fall, another rise. I have seen some of the most beautiful artifacts from the cradle of civilization smashed, wiped from history. I have had a friend injured in a mass shooting. I have seen children mowed down in a school. I have seen a young man kill himself because of a webcam and a tweet.  I have seen unarmed black men shot and suffocated and mistreated without end and officers shot in retaliation and white terrorists set free.

So I ask, have we progressed?

Utopias are not about living better, they are about being better.

There is no hiding from society. People have tried. I grew up in a rural town of 700 people, many of them seeking to get away from one aspect of bullshit or another in our world. But tragedy and pain is everywhere, the only difference there is know the person behind the headline. Maybe that is a fundamental difference. The difference.

In my hometown I knew a rapist, a murderer, and a molester. They are easy fodder for hate. After all, they have done things that are hateful. But I knew them. They went to school with me since preschool, they took my friend to prom, they were my teachers. I cannot hate them. I am forced to separate evil actions and evil people. I do believe there are evil people in the world. But evil actions are not always done by evil people. I can hate the act and not the person. Nor because those people were from my hometown should we conclude that everyone in my hometown is a rapist, a murderer or a molester. Or go further and assume that all rural people are rapists, murderers and molesters.

Maybe my hope for humanity is not a Utopia—a place where no evil occurs and harmony reigns (I would hope it is possible, but I don’t believe it)—but a place where people try to see the individual before the stereotype. Is that possible? Will we perpetually seek scape goats?

Hope is a worn word now, a faded banner from my youth. But without it what do we have? Fear. And if I had learned one things from my travels, life, and George Orwell—fear destroys humanity.