Digging Deeper – Dystopian Literature

De gustibus non est disputandum is one of my favorite latin phrases.  It means “In matters of taste, there can be no disputing”.

My husband loves to eat his cake in a bowl full of milk.  I can’t stand most cake frostings.  I’m a fan of country music.  He loves smoked oysters while the smell of them makes me want to vomit.  We tease each other about the various differences in our tastes, but they don’t really matter.  After all, De gustibus non est disputandum.  

We all have different lives, emotions, temperments, and experiences that shape our characters and preferences.  I can’t expect to other women to love the hero from These is My Words as I do, because they aren’t married to Matt and likely don’t see Matt’s mischievous smirk whenever Jack teases Sarah.  Other women will likely feel much more compassion and patience for Jane Austen’s Mr and Mrs Bennett than I do, and I can’t imagine anyone connecting with Julia Hoffman from Fire by Night as I do.  Her internal struggle to change decades of selfish and childish behavior into a life of productivity and service is one that I can relate to on a very personal level and something I still struggle with daily.

So when people don’t love the books I love and when they love books I hate… I try not to take it personally.  I don’t always succeed.  But I have recently come to understand why so many books that I think are deep and meaningful classics, other people throw away as “brain candy”.  For example, I absolutely love the Harry Potter books.  I don’t just love the series as a story or the writing style (though both are brilliant), I love each book for its symbolism and the new character lessons I learn every single time I turn its pages.  I absolutely couldn’t understand why so many people couldn’t see what I saw and how they could think that they were a waste of time.  Last night I read an article that told me exactly why.

I follow several blogs by Oliver and Rachel DeMille but I don’t always have time to read all of the articles.  I chose to read this one because it had an image of the movie poster for the new Divergent movie and since I plan on reading the series, I wanted to know their take on it.  This article talked about two different classes in the world today.  These aren’t the social or economic classes that are often talked about in the media but what I would call the “language class”.  The article begins:

There are two classes in modern America, the literal class and the metaphorical class. In the increasing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots,” this language difference is central.

Those who don’t understand the language of metaphor are falling behind in the widening gap that is the global economy. They are watching their family’s standard of living decrease over the decades.

This trend will only increase in the years ahead.

Those with a quality education learn to think, to readily see symbolism wherever it is found. But most Americans and Westerners are part of the literal class—symbolism is often lost on them.

They tend to see things without the metaphor.

I am a metaphorical thinker.  Whether the author intended this or not, I felt it leaned more towards the thought that metaphorical thinkers are “better” than literal thinkers… or at the very least they have an edge on them.  As someone who is married to a self-proclaimed “literal thinker” I can tell you they have amazing abilities and value.  Like most things our gifts are individual, but I think we can all benefit from trying to expand them.  My search for symbolism in everything has gotten me into trouble sometimes and occasionally it would be helpful for me NOT to try and find the “hidden agenda” in every movie, book, or conversation.

That being said, I now understand why I can love books that other people don’t.  I recently joined a Facebook “book group” of sorts.  This month we are discussing dystopian literature.  In the past few years I have fallen in love with the genre and all they mean for freedom loving people everywhere.  Knowing that the other women in this group were like minded, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t like the same books that I learned SO much from.  Some of the women couldn’t get past the sexual immorality in Atlas Shrugged, whereas I had no problem skipping the offending pages and moving on (forgiving the inclusion of them because the author was an atheist who couldn’t understand chastity outside of religion).  Other women couldn’t finish 1984 for the same reasons, while I saw that same immorality as a warning and a testament to what invariably happens when we allow the government to take too much control over our individual lives.

There are stories written for entertainment, stories written to teach, and stories written to warn.  These women saw glorification and encouragement where I saw a warning.  This is not to suggest I condone immorality or profanity in general (I have gotten no small amount of flack for calling a spade a spade in some instances), but I DO try to take things in context.  Is it necessary for the story?  Is it realistic that it would happen?  Has it been included for a reason other than titillation and “edginess”?  I found the circumstances of Atlas Shrugged and 1984, with their sexual impurity and occasional profanity, far more realistic and profound as a warning to our day than The Giver, in which all societal members were celibate and natural sexual urges are repressed with drugs.  Historically sexual immorality, promiscuity, and violence are extremely prevalent in societies where the nanny state replaces a person’s inner compass.

Would I want my 9 year old to read Atlas Shrugged or The Giver?  The Giver!  It is highly inappropriate for a 9 year old to have even the opportunity to read so many sex scenes and there is no way I could guarantee that she would have the foresight to skip them as I did.  But by the time she is 16 I want her to know and recognize the real-life trends and cycles of societal decline.

A few years ago we bought the Hunger Games Trilogy.  We had already enjoyed Harry Potter, Fablehaven, Inheritance, and even Twilight ;)  The movie was coming out and we always try to read the book first, so I didn’t think twice about adding the trilogy to our collection.  Shortly after they made themselves at home on our bookshelves, on the recommendation of a friend I read a review condemning them.  I didn’t like what I read in that review and didn’t want to teach my kids the things she claimed these books taught.  I brought my concerns about the books to Matt and wondered if we should get rid of them.  “Well, let’s read them first before we decide if they are inappropriate for the kids.”  He started reading the first chapter out loud to me but (out of boredom) that is about as far as we got.

Fast forward four years and the books were still sitting unread on our bookshelves.  Since that first review I had read a few more articles from trusted and beloved sources saying, in so many words, that Hunger Games is “is a great freedom classic like Utopia or 1984and as a movement is an essential tool for those of us who want to combat several of the evils we find ourselves immersed in in this day and age (which is why I held on to them for so many years).  Then one day, on a whim, Matt and I decided to watch the movie.  Our reasoning was simple: if we wanted to have any chance of liking the movie we had to watch it before we read the books.

Source: http://thehungergames.wikia.com

Source: http://thehungergames.wikia.com

We were blown away.  Absolutely and totally blown away.  As soon as the second movie came out on video we watched it and again were on the edge of our seats.  The entire time I just amazed at the symbolism and parallels to today’s society.  The next day we started reading the trilogy to our children.

I should take a break here to warn you that there are several Hunger Games Trilogy and other book spoilers ahead.

This is the difference between my metaphorical mind and the literal mind of the negative reviewers.  While I didn’t love the idea of nudity and violence in children, I knew the message of Hunger Games was important for them to hear for the same reason I knew they needed to go to the Holocaust Museum even though there is nudity and violence depicted there.

There are certainly mature themes and a few things that wouldn’t be appropriate for little ears, but Matt has a well trained eye and can edit such content seamlessly (and has done while reading to me on several occasions… how else would I ever experience Nelson Demille?).  As I tried to prepare Matt for the editing that I was sure would need to happen I told him a little bit from what I could remember in the original review and what the reviewer found so objectionable.

Those scenes never came.

I’m not going to suggest that there weren’t several scenes depicting nudity but it was in no way, shape, or form the graphic, immoral or self-aggrandizing nature that was alluded to in the review.   In context the scenes she specifically referenced were no more “graphic” or inappropriate than the scene in The Giver when Jonas helps the elderly men and women bathe, or the pictures of women beings stripped as they entered the concentration camps.  The specific circumstances elicit very different emotions (baffled vs peace vs horror) but ALL instances amount to the same thing: Someone being prepared for certain death at the hand of a tyrannical government.

Source: http://thehungergames.wikia.com

Source: http://thehungergames.wikia.com

That being said, I know my audience and I knew I had impressionable 11 and 9 year old girls listening very closely to the story (the boys usually fall asleep within a minute or two).  Context appropriate or not, I was uncomfortable with the prevalence of the word “naked” (I mean, come on… if she taking a bath, it’s implied and doesn’t need to be stated).  Some of it IS, however, necessary and vital to the symbolism of the story!  I remember sitting with the kids as Matt read Katniss’s description of the previous “costumes” that district 12 were forced to wear for the Hunger Games parade.

For the opening ceremonies, you’re supposed to wear something that suggests your district’s principal industry…this means that coming from District 12, Peeta and I will be in some kind of coal miner’s getup.  Since the baggy miner’s jumpsuits are not particularly becoming, our tributes usually end up in skimpy outfits and hats with headlamps.  One year, our tributes were stark naked and covered in black powder to represent coal dust.

At this point I was overcome with the need to speak… not to “protect” my kids, but to teach them.  There was a very important lesson here and I only had a vague sense of what it would be… but I was compelled to speak.  “Girls,” I said, “Why do you think they always made the people wear immodest clothes or no clothes at all?”  After a few questioning looks and shrugs I asked another question.  “What does the Capital care about?”  After some prodding we talked about food, money, entertainment, excitement, etc.  “What does the Capital not care about?”

“The people,” Lucy answered.

“More than that, they don’t care about the INDIVIDUAL!  What would happen if the tributes refused to wear what they were told?”

“They would be killed.”

“Or worse [in the books we find out the other things the Capital did to punish those who stood against them in any way... death is the most desirable among the victims].  In every instance in history when you start to think of the collective (society as a whole) as more important than the many individuals, society deteriorates and dehumanizes itself.  We aren’t people anymore, we are animals.  We aren’t husbands, wives, and daughters – we are citizens and worker bees… disposable things that can easily be replaced.  What does that have to do with immodesty, pornography, and violence?”

Wide eyes and eager questioning looks…

“When we don’t think of individual people as important, if we only think of other people as animals and objects, we become selfish and hungry for our own impulsive desires and animalistic instincts.  She’s not Katniss (a hunter, a daughter, and a beloved sister), she is a coal miner from district 12; good for nothing but mining the coal to heat MY home and MY entertainment in the Hunger Games.  When we don’t see other people as children of God and worthy of their own lives and missions, we can no longer see value in virtue because virtue comes from knowing there is something bigger than we are… from God.  When we replace God (or Nature or the Universe for those who don’t believe in Him) with a man-made institutions, virtue is cast aside in favor of impulsivity and mob mentality.  When we can’t find fulfillment in virtuous pursuits (either by purposeful self-desensitization or societal constructs), we rely on shock and awe.  And it always takes more and more to “fulfill” the selfish part of us.  You can’t “feel” from good things anymore.  You can’t “feel” anything that isn’t extreme.  It’s not enough to experience something you have enjoyed in the past.  It has to be new and exciting.  Then next time it has to be even MORE new and MORE exciting.  Immodesty, pornography, and violence is exactly the kind of thing that makes those who dehumanize people “feel”.  That is what The Capital wants because the people in it are blind to their own depravity and don’t think they or anyone else are children of God.  They are selfish and only think about THEIR own desires.

“That’s why it’s so important for us to remember that we are all children of God and refuse to ever accept being one of the masses.  We must always fight against collectivism.”

In what other circumstance would I ever have had this conversation with my kids?  In what other circumstance would I have even made that connection at all?  I opened my mouth and the words came – they were not my own, yet I knew they were true.

I would not hand these books over to my 11 year old to read on her own (Matt has edited out the word “naked” several times and also omitted unnecessary descriptions–though still not “graphic”–of characters’ bodies) … but as a family the series has been quite educational.

But if we are being perfectly honest, MOST books are far more beneficial when you can read them as a family rather than on your own.

Since then we have seen time and time again how this ability to personalize and individualize others was a defining characteristic in the heroes of the series.  While a defining characteristic of the villains (as well as the “useful idiots”) is their inclination to group people into nameless and faceless demographics.  They aren’t children being lined up for slaughter, they are “tributes” from the rebellious districts… and they deserve to be punished for the “crimes” of their ancestors.  They aren’t Katniss and Peeta, they’re “threats” from District 12.  Without fail, the closer the district is to the Capital (and consequently the more affluent the district is) the more and more limited their ability to see a person for who they really are.

That tiny nugget reminds me of Elder Anderson’s talk in this last General Conference.

In nature, trees that grow up in a windy environment become stronger. As winds whip around a young sapling, forces inside the tree do two things. First, they stimulate the roots to grow faster and spread farther. Second, the forces in the tree start creating cell structures that actually make the trunk and branches thicker and more flexible to the pressure of the wind. These stronger roots and branches protect the tree from winds that are sure to return.4

You are infinitely more precious to God than a tree. You are His son or His daughter. He made your spirit strong and capable of being resilient to the whirlwinds of life. The whirlwinds in your youth, like the wind against a young tree, can increase your spiritual strength, preparing you for the years ahead.

Districts 11 and 12 are the farthest away from the Capital and (as miners and farmers) are the poorest of the districts.  The citizens are starving, beaten, and oppressed in ways no one in the Capital can even imagine.  The hellish conditions they live in have forced the district citizens to band together to create a sense unity that is non-existent in the Capital.  A sense of community (which is worlds apart from collectivism) that has never been seen in the circles of the elites who call the shots.  When Katniss looks into Rue’s face she sees her sister’s eyes staring back at her… the same eyes she gave herself to protect.  Is it any surprise that Katniss takes tiny Rue under her wing?  Is it any wonder that when Thresh learns of Rue’s murder that he protects Katniss in Rue’s memory and honor?  Community binds these strangers together.

At the same time the Career Tributes from the affluent districts (those groomed and trained from birth to volunteer as tribute at prime age and as such, they usually win) think nothing of literally stabbing their closest “friends” in the back the second they outlive their usefulness.  Their natural feelings of compassion and empathy have been trained out of them.  They are unable to see people as anything other than vehicles to serve their own selfish ends, which go far beyond the natural survival instinct born of fear.

The only character completely free from the shackles of fear is Peeta.  What is this powerful antidote to the fear that captivates the other 23 tributes?  Love.  The love he has had for Katniss since childhood is the only thing that allows him to keep his eye single to the aim of protecting her.  While Katniss (understandably confused and defensive at his attentions, and worried what her defenseless family would do if she were killed) tries not to get too close to him because she hates the idea that she might need to kill him when he turns on her.  Before the Games she knew of Peeta as only a face in the crowd.  Her primary concern was protecting her mother and sister… winning the games so they wouldn’t have to watch her die and end up starving again.  As she gets to know him her actions, born of self-preservation, evolve into a deep love.  This love is what ultimately saves them both.

The awakened and aware know that love is what makes people tick and allows them to think outside of themselves.  Haymitch and Cinna use their knowledge of human nature to do their job (which is to keep their charges alive… both of them).  Haymitch (a District 12 victor and Peeta and Katniss’s mentor/trainer) does all he can to put a story with their faces so the Capital citizens will sponsor them in the games (by sending medicine, food, etc. to the tributes).  He knows that he needs to create an emotional attachment to his charges in order to keep them alive.  Cinna (Katniss’s stylist) is another who knows how the human heart and mind work, and uses this knowledge to not only draw attention and make the Capital notice District 12, but after the games he does all he can to create an image of innocence in order to keep both victors alive.

Source: http://thehungergames.wikia.com/wiki/The_Hunger_Games_Wiki

Source: http://thehungergames.wikia.com

Cinna is one of my favorite characters.  He is the kind of person I want to be.  A Capital citizen who quietly did what he could to stand up for truth and justice.  An island of strength in a sea of depravity.  His inner-compass never falters and when it comes down to protecting himself or his beliefs, he defiantly and proudly stands against the Capital knowing full well he will pay for that rebellion with his life.  His life, work, and his legacy lives on long after his death.  His short life had meaning because he knew who he was and what he stood for.

As you can see, this is just one of the continuing themes in this and many other dystopian novels.  When we cast aside the lives of the few in the name of the “needs of the many”; when we think it’s ok to “crack a few eggs to make an omelet”; when we lump people into demographics and assume they should believe or act a certain way because they are a certain religion, race, or income level, we are dehumanizing them.  Assuming that someone’s christianity, progressivism, sexual orientation or anything else is their defining characteristic denies the infinite complex layers that make up the human experience.  Doing so is only a few short steps from tattooing numbers on arms.

This is exactly why sexual immorality goes hand in hand with totalitarianism.  I am either an individual with my own dreams, talents, thoughts, and story; or I am disposable and easily replaced.  I either have value and am worthy of love and affection, or I am an object you can use then cast aside.  I can either make up my own mind and choose my own path, or I should be compelled to use my utility to serve the collective.  A casual yet obsessive attitude towards sex as a cultural norm invariably leads to a loss of respect for human life.  Don’t believe me?  How else can we explain our current society’s increasingly accepting attitude towards pornography and sexualization of young children directly paralleling the increase in our culture’s obsession with the “rights” of animals, nature and the environment over those of unborn humans?  How else can we explain the unconscionable burning of aborted and miscarried children to power our homes in the name of “green energy”?  How else can we explain the seemingly unstoppable under-age sex trade?  These things do not happen in a healthy society.  These things do not happen when we look at each other as fellow children of God.

Protecting my family from the destructive influence of our over sexualized culture is more than an uphill battle.  Most days I feel like I’m scaling a cliff as we are constantly bombarded with images of pornography in the name of “marketing”.  We can’t even drive down the street or walk down the isle of Target without women using their bodies to sell things.  I can’t turn on the radio without listening to a new song objectifying women.  We even have our country’s leading abortion mills writing the “curriculum” to sexualize our young boys and girls and pretend it’s “education”.

I’m not going to pretend I know what is best for your family.  You should, as a parent, always use your own discernment and beliefs to guide you in what your family is exposed to.  I’m just trying to give a perspective that perhaps you haven’t thought of before: The idea that these books do not justify and encourage violence and depravity, they are a warning against it.  Hunger Games is not a glorification of immorality, violence, and collectivism, it is a call to arms for us to defend our children and our world.

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Comments

  1. It is wonderful that you are finding books that inspire you and your family to choose the best in life. It is also wonderful how many different books there are and how many ways there are to learn how to choose the best in life.

  2. I don’t know how to add a link on here, but I recommend you read the following post.

    http://www.jandmranch.com/2012/03/31/babylon-and-visas-and-the-hunger-games/

    • Thanks for the link. I read the article and I understand what she is saying, however as I mentioned in my post, these books serve as a warning, rather than a glorification. It’s not to get us to be like the characters and to get our society to emulate theirs, but to warn us what will invariably happen if we don’t turn back from our current societal habit if disrespecting human life and individuality.

      I read another great article that shows how this series is an allegory for abortion. As a society we have normalized the idea that we can sacrifice our own children for so we can have careers, entertainment, or other selfish pursuits. I certainly saw that theme as well. http://www.tjed.org/2013/08/freedom-classic-born/

  3. So My Gospel Standards says “I will only read and watch things that are pleasing to my Heavenly Father.” I am just curious how this relates to your family in regards to these things that in my opinion would not be pleasing. But perhaps these are My Gospel Standards and not yours. This is said with a light hearted curiosity not a judgement.

    • No worries :)

      Over the last several years of prayer and education I have learned that part of my life’s mission is to help spread the message of liberty and freedom. I believe that learning about the historical trends and patterns of liberty and freedom lost is part of that mission and as such, IS pleasing to Heavenly Father. He wants me to be educated and aware so that I can do my part to help the cause of liberty.

      Historical books are excellent in helping us understand the trends and cycles but literature and stories are the things that help us understand human nature and the natural man. Understanding that liberty is always lost when certain things happen is one thing, understand WHY is also extremely important and helps us see things before the rest of the world does. This is how He prepares me to teach the lessons my children need in order to fulfill their missions (like the lesson I mentioned in the post, that sexual immorality and other depravities accompany and often are the first step in the mass loss of individual freedoms lost by the collectivist mindset. When they see a billboard on the highway that shows a woman selling herself to sell a car, they can connect that marketing strategy as yet another attempt to undermine agency by appealing to the natural man.)

      As someone with a completely different life’s mission it makes total sense that you wouldn’t be drawn to the same types of things that I am, but that doesn’t mean that because we are different, either one of us is wrong. We are all needed to help fulfill Heavenly Father’s plan.

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