Welcome To “Dystopia”

My wife is British (and a recently naturalized American). As you probably also know personally-owned firearms are not at all common here in the United Kingdom. So whenever there is a mass shooting in the United States, and a school one in particular (my cousin and his family live in Newtown, Connecticut), we have essentially the same “US gun” conversation.

But comparing the US and Great Britain on firearms is really comparing apples and oranges. There is no US “2nd Amendment” here – and most British are fine with that fact. Even pre-Dunblane (a 1996 Scotland school massacre of 15 five year olds and one teacher that was carried out by a middle-aged man using pistols and revolvers – who then committed suicide at the scene), modern Great Britain never had US levels of personal gun ownership, and gun licensing laws had long been strict; for example, before Dunblane my now brother-in-law had owned a shotgun for skeet-shooting, and one day a police officer turned up unannounced at his home to make sure it was stored properly. Since Dunblane even keeping a shotgun at home in that manner has become far more legally difficult; insofar as I am aware sports guns are usually stored at a local gun club that police carefully monitor. And don’t even think you will legally keep a pistol at home.

[High Street, Welwyn, Hertfordshire. Photo by me, 2018.]

One consequence of such differences between the US and UK also reverberate separately in ANOTHER ongoing debate in the US: police shootings of Americans. Like most of the British public, most police remain without firearms. (The main exception is Northern Ireland’s police service: the PSNI. Due to the province’s history of gun violence by “paramilitary” groups, PSNI officers are armed; but any actually firing a gun is rare: the whole force discharged a firearm exactly one time between 1 April and 30 September 2017. Indeed a PSNI officer seems perhaps more likely to be shot than to shoot anyone.) The number of fatal police shooting incidents in England and Wales (about 60 million people) numbered between 0 and 6 yearly between 2004-2017. (There were zero in 2013 and in 2014.) In comparison, in the US (about five times the population) in 2017 nearly 1,000 people were shot and killed by police, and, more importantly, 68 of those were unarmed.

A widely armed populace as in the US (and a politically problematic place such as Northern Ireland) also means police invariably will be armed too. Great Britain is an exception; most police around the world are armed even if the populace tends not to possess firearms at US levels. Yet the reason an American police officer tends to be so stand-off-ish and hyper-officious at even a routine traffic stop, I have long believed, is simply because he is tense. He knows it is entirely possible someone in that stopped car could have a gun and he’d like to get home alive to his kids when his shift ends… which is perhaps a major reason, sadly, American police are also relatively “quick” to reach for their gun compared to other police worldwide.

In contrast British police are far more approachable and appear less “defensive” in dealing with the public. I was once pulled over (a tail light was out) and the officer was surprisingly relaxed. There was no deep-throated, US-style, “Sir, please, sir, now, please keep your hands where I can see them…” I knew the light was out and I admitted it nicely hoping to avoid a ticket. I did. He told me to fix it as soon as possible. Overall it is less stressful and less confrontational talking with a British police officer than it is with a US one.

All of that is unremarkable and not really new. Another US gun debate, yet again, after another appalling school massacre. But a wider, and recent, cultural issue I had never before really considered came to my mind as a writer owing to this tweet – which has gone “viral” – by a US high school English teacher:

Initially seeing it, I thought she was being sarcastic. However, based on a scan of some of her recent timeline, clearly she is not. She is being quite serious – but I believe in that praise of the kids for their anti-gun stance she also fails to see what lurks in its egregious blind spot.

Yes, on the surface I suppose it does appear “uplifting” and “empowering” that kids are in the vanguard, including teen girls, after having for years read their young adult “dystopian” fiction, such as The Hunger Games.

Then this hit me. Considering her observation, I started wondering: Is reading all of that “dystopian” literature really a positive for teenagers’ mental outlooks?

As Wikipedia accurately reminds us:

A dystopia (from the Greek δυσ- and τόπος, alternatively, cacotopia, kakotopia, or simply anti-utopia) is a community or society that is undesirable or frightening. It is translated as “not-good place” and is an antonym of utopia, a term that was coined by Sir Thomas More and figures as the title of his best known work, Utopia, published 1516, a blueprint for an ideal society with minimal crime, violence and poverty.

Known now in the Roman Catholic Church as Saint Thomas More, he had been English King Henry VIII’s close advisor. That relationship soured badly when More refused to back Henry’s effort to gain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and a separation of the English church from Rome. Finally fed up with More’s “intransigence,” Henry had More beheaded.

More spent a lot of his life in this area where we live currently, and a church near us is named for him:

[Saint Thomas More Roman Catholic Church, Knebworth, England. Photo by me, 2017.]

Have we forgotten a “dystopia” is a “not-good place“? While I respect several current “dystopian”-lit authors I know who write well, I do wonder also if that sort of literature is far better suited for adults who are probably more life-experienced and therefore better equipped to understand the context(s) and even lesson(s) perhaps to be drawn from the tales? For as that same English teacher also tweeted:

“Six or seven” years ago was 2011-2012, during the Obama administration’s first term, after Obama’s huge 2008 presidential election victory that we were told had fired up most young people with hope for the future. Yet that student still felt that way even then? In any case, hearing such an opinion from a student, as a lecturer I would have asked this question in reply: “Could you give me three examples of how this world is ‘dystopian’ and explain why?”

Unfortunately I do not see that teacher anywhere note how she answered that statement. Was the student allowed the “final word” on that by she, a teacher? The closest she comes (thus far) to addressing that seems to be in reply to this tweet:

So students are not made to confront such a casually voiced belief and defend it? If so, that’s educationally wanting and, indeed, shocking. This is a serious question: Are impressionable teens being “fed” “dystopian” fiction in huge amounts without having it taught to them properly, thus warping their worldview and therefore causing them to perceive the world as “dystopian”?

The most “dystopian” novels I recall reading as a teen were Fahrenheit 451 and Lord of The Flies (if Lord may be termed that). The former portrays an America in which books are burned by a powerful state. In the latter, the boys on the island, free from “adult oppression,” did not exactly create a Garden of Eden.

Such books were part of our reading, but were not the bulk of it. I remember teachers spending a great deal of time discussing them with us. I also well-knew they were stories (albeit perhaps warnings), and not real life.

The teachers must have insisted they were great; but I recall that I HATED such books. I thought they were asinine. I was also probably desperate to get back to The Last of the Mohicans, or to read a new George Washington biography (and incidentally, today is his actual birthday).

Interestingly, another teacher – to whom she did not reply – responded to her in this way:

And that is an often neglected and worthwhile point. How many kids find “dystopian” fiction disturbing, scary and a major downer (although they might never really admit that to an adult for fear of looking “babyish”)? Has reading too much of it, even being coerced to in class, possibly fostered a dangerous pessimism in some kids – particularly in boys?

I recall as well as a teen reading lots of optimistic fiction, too. Sometimes it was even a “utopia” of sorts. It wasn’t mostly about imagining our country had imploded and we were driving over each other in battered century old cars battling for water droplets to survive.

Understand I am NOT arguing a “steady diet” of “dystopian” fiction is a direct cause for US school shootings. What I am asserting is a social outlook has its roots somewhere, and for kids what they read and learn in school is a major socializing influence after their family; indeed it may even be more important in some ways than their family at times. By “fourteen,” I considered it far more important what a pretty girl in a study hall thought of me than what my parents did.

We fret over teen exposure to violence and sex in video games, music and films, and even to Mark Twain and Harper Lee. So should we be far more cautious as adults and writers in declaring “dystopian”-lit as being “liberating” to teenage readers? For it does appear it also may lead some kids to wonder, “What future is there for me really in this messed up world?” And how many of those kids may well also be motivated to steal Grandpa’s gun and take it to school to kill classmates and teachers?

Because something has definitely changed – and that is not the availability of guns. Mass school shootings in the US by students, or recent students, seem to occur now with depressing and terrifying regularity. In my youth guns were similarly all over the place and were probably even EASIER to get hold of than now; and yet I don’t recall mass shootings as “a norm” in US schools while I was growing up in New York City and on Long Island in the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t remember at school any of us ever even discussing the possibility of being victims of a mass school shooting.

Ironically the “dystopian” literature that teacher feels has supposedly spurred these kids into their anti-gun “uprising” has done so only as the twisted result of such shootings having led to a “dystopia” of sorts: kids in US schools now do have to be concerned about being shot by some deranged classmate who suddenly turns up armed to the teeth and angry over… what exactly? In an unfortunately all too real sense, US school kids are actually now inhabiting a real life “dystopia” – a “not-good place.”

I know that was a long and complicated and unsettling post. If only there were some dystopian “magic wand.” If you are still here, thanks for reading it.