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The Hunger Games

By Legal Eagle

I have just read Suzanne Collins’ series The Hunger Games. ‘Read’ is probably not the right word: ‘devoured’ is more like it. Once I’d started, I had to finish. As I’ve said before I think good writing has a “hook” which makes you want to read on, but also makes you think about people or the world in a different way. This particular set of books is not the most elegantly written series in the world — Collins is not Patrick White — but it has a killer hook (literally) and asks the question, “What if things were like this?” in a way that is distinctly disturbing, and haunts you for days afterwards. I haven’t seen the movie of the first book yet: I’m a little nervous about film adaptations of books I enjoy.

The novels are set in a post-apocalyptic society in the former United States. A central district (the Capitol) rules the other twelve districts (which only have numbers eg, District 12). Each district specialises in producing a particular kind of product. Previously there were thirteen districts, but after the districts rebelled against the Capitol, the ringleader in the rebellion, District 13, was annihilated. Since the rebellion, once every year, each district has to provide two children between the ages of 12 and 18 (a girl and a boy) to participate in an event called ‘The Hunger Games’. This is designed to remind the Districts of why rebellion against the Capitol is not advisable. The Hunger Games are a literally a fight to the death: the last surviving child wins. The children have to fight against each other, and against the different obstacles developed by the Gamemakers to keep the Games ‘interesting’. In addition, there is a survivalist aspect, as the arena has been designed to force participants to have to search for clean water or to forage for food. The Games are a reality television show which is compulsory viewing in every household. Grotesquely, each child has a design team and a stylist who designs costumes for the opening ceremony and for media appearances. People bet on who the winner will be and participants gain sponsors from watchers who take a particular liking to them. The sponsors send parcels to participants which may be food, medicine or useful implements. Previous winners of each District are required to act as coaches for the children of their District.

There is a clear class divide in this world. The Districts are successively more impoverished the further they are from the Capitol. People in District 12 do not have enough to eat, and regularly starve to death. Their primary industry is coal mining, which means that the likelihood of an industrial accident removing the primary breadwinner is high. Many people supplement their diet with illegal hunting and via the black market. By contrast, the people of the Capitol never want for anything. They are decadent and many spend all their time worrying about banquets and the latest changes in fashion, genetically engineering themselves to look ever more extraordinary. None of their children are ever called up for the Hunger Games, as they were not involved in the rebellion. Interestingly there does not appear to be a particular racial divide, nor is there a particular religion apart from the compulsory veneration of the state and the Games.

If a District produces a winner in the Hunger Games, this means that the District gains extra food and money. Consequently, some Districts (principally the central districts) train up children with a view to them winning the Games. These children are called the “Careers” by the other games participants. There are also alliances between children, but because of the nature of the game these alliances can only ever be temporary (a phenomenon which will be familiar to anyone who has watched one of those ‘winner takes all’ reality television shows). Of course the competitiveness and the isolation takes its toll. Even in our present-day more tame reality television shows, the psychological pressures are sometimes more than people can bear.

I should note that the books do not glorify violence. At the end of the first book, there is an interview with Collins, in which she explains that her father was in the Air Force, a military specialist, a historian and a political scientist. During her childhood he was in Vietnam. In the Epilogue to the entire series, one of the characters talks about explaining the upshot of the saga to the children:

We can make them [the children] understand in a way that will make them braver. But one day I’ll have to explain about my nightmares. Why they came. Why they won’t ever really go away.

I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do…

This made me wonder what Collins’ father told her when she was growing up about his experience in the Vietnam War. I suspect he might have had this very kind of conversation with his daughter. I think it’s pretty likely that any person who comes away from war comes away deeply psychologically scarred once they have seen their friends and colleagues die, and once they have killed other people (even indirectly).

Collins’ books leave one in no doubt that the upshot of violence, insurrection and war is extreme psychological and physical injury. Many “good” characters die unjustly and in tragic circumstances throughout the series, and those who survive are generally grievously injured in one way or another. (As an aside, I always dislike fantasy/sci-fi books where the heroes and heroines miraculously survive unscathed while cutting a swathe through the enemy — much as I loved it as a teenager, David Eddings’ Belgariad series is the epitome of this — he can’t bear to kill off any “good” main characters.) Further, Collins’ books are morally complex. If one is fighting an unjust authoritarian regime, when is it okay to resort to tactics which are as cruel as those of the regime itself? When is it just to kill innocent bystanders and children in pursuit of the greater good, if ever?

The protagonist of the books is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl from District 12, who becomes a participant in the games after her beloved younger sister is called up and she volunteers to take her sister’s place. District 12 only has one living winner, a drunkard called Haymitch Abernathy, who acts as the coach for his district. Things become difficult for Katniss when the other person picked in the ballot is Peeta Mellark, a boy who saved her life by giving her bread when she and her family were starving after her father died in a mining accident. I like the fact that the protagonist is female. I like the fact that she’s flawed as well; she makes mistakes. Of course there’s a romance aspect to the story, which adds to the allure of the books — you want to know which admirer Katniss will choose, presuming she can survive.

The books explore a post-apocalyptic dystopia; thus it’s no surprise that I liked them, as I have an obsession with human attempts to build a better world that end up in disaster. I am very cynical about any utopian vision, because I have a very cynical view of human nature. So many utopias seem to require humans to operate against the grain in order to achieve perfection; but this is always going to require some kind of authoritarian force to keep people in line, because otherwise, the true nature of people will out (and it generally does anyway, in the end, even if the people are horribly damaged in the process). I also have a fascination with the kind of pressures which may act on otherwise sane and generally decent people to force them to act in inhumane ways. Since my early teens I have been freaked out by the Milgram experiment, and later the Stanford prison experiment, in which people behaved in ways to treat others as inhuman in response to direction from authority. My constant hope would be that I would be able to resist that kind of pressure; but who knows until one is thrown into the situation?

These books had extra resonance for me because I’d recently finished reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker’s central thesis is that violence is declining in our society. This may seem a surprising thesis when the Twentieth Century saw two incredibly bloody World Wars which dragged a large proportion of the globe into conflict. Putting his argument briefly, he argues that central control (which he calls the Leviathan) helps to prevent violence from occurring, and that our history has seen a massive decline in violence as it transitions from hunter-gatherer societies (where the death rates from violent conflict can be very high) to agricultural cities to modern city states. Prosperity per se has nothing to do with it (the Romans were very prosperous and very cruel) but commerce has something to do with it (you’re better off leaving your neighbour alive so that you can sell goods to him). Another important factor is democracy. It is much harder for a democratically elected leader to engage in an unpopular war, because he or she will have to answer to the electorate, whereas an autocrat has to answer to no one but him or herself when making a declaration of war. States that are somewhere in between democracy and autocracy are less likely to go to war with other countries than autocracies, but more likely to become involved in civil wars. Furthermore there has been a massive cultural shift in the attitude to violence over the centuries — we no longer burn cats in sacks for entertainment or hang draw and quarter people as they did in medieval times. Part of it has to do with a developing idea that if we have to live with other people, we should treat them with respect, as equal human beings, and that this goes across the board (with full rights extended to women, minority groups and the like).

In any case the part of Pinker’s book which is particularly relevant to the Hunger Games series is not his thesis about the decline in violence, but the section where he outlines the ‘inner demons’ which cause us to be violent and the ‘better angels’ which cause us to refrain from being violent . Shortly, the five inner demons are as follows:

  • Predatory or instrumental violence – violence deployed as a practical means to an end;
  • Dominance – the urge for authority, prestige, glory and power;
  • Revenge – the moralistic urge towards retribution, punishment and justice;
  • Sadism – pleasure in another’s suffering; and
  • Ideology – a shared belief system usually involving a vision of utopia which justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good.

On the other hand, Pinker says that there are four motives which lead humans towards cooperation and altruism. Again briefly, these are:

  • Empathy – particularly the sense of sympathetic concern leads us to feel the pain of others and align our interests with theirs;
  • Self-control – this allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses and to moderate them;
  • Moral sense – a set of norms and taboos which may decrease violence (although sometimes they increase it too);
  • Reason – this allows us to extricate ourselves from parochial vantage points and to deduce ways in which we could be better off.

The thing I like about Collins’ books is that you can see the full range of these conflicting motives in operation in her characters. One of the interesting aspects of the depiction of the characters is that a sense of empathy is not enough by itself to render characters non-violent. Katniss’ friend Gale hunts for his family, and part of the way in which he manages to be such a successful hunter is because he is able to get into the head of the animal and understand its motivation: he feels empathy for it in the sense that he can understand what it is thinking, but this does not stop him from killing the animal, as he is driven primarily by predatory violence — his family’s need for food overrides any sympathy he might have for the animal. In the same way, those in the book who hunt other human beings have the same empathy which allows them to put themselves enough in the other person’s shoes to understand how they might behave, but a variety of other motivators override this empathy which allow them to try and kill the other person (including predatory violence, dominance, revenge and ideology).

The motivator for violence which always freaks me out the most is ideology, as it can turn a good intention into a terribly bad outcome. Pinker says at pg 556:

Like predatory or instrumental violence, ideological violence is a means to an end. But with an ideology, the end is idealistic: a conception of the greater good.

Yet for all that idealism, it’s ideology that drove many of the worst things that people have ever done to each other. They include the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the genocides of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. An ideology can be dangerous for several reasons. The infinite good it promises prevents its true believers from cutting a deal. It allows any number of eggs to be broken to make the utopian omelet. And it renders opponents of the ideology infinitely evil and hence deserving of infinite punishment.

Pinker goes on to explain at pg 557:

…the puzzle in understanding ideological violence is not so much psychological as epidemiological: how a toxic ideology can spread from a small number of narcissistic zealots to an entire population willing to carry out its designs. Many ideological beliefs, in addition to being evil, are patently ludicrous — ideas that no sane person would ever countenance on his or her own. Examples include the burning of witches because they sank ships and turned men into cats, the extermination of every last Jew in Europe because their blood would pollute the Aryan race, and the execution of Cambodians who wore eyeglasses because it proved they were intellectuals and hence class enemies. How can we explain extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds?

Groups can breed a number of pathologies of thought. One of them is polarization. Throw a bunch of people with roughly similar opinions into a group to has them out, and the opinions will become more similar to one another, and more extreme as well. The liberal groups become more liberal; the conservative groups more conservative. Another group pathology is obtuseness, a dynamic that the psychologist Irving Janis called groupthink. Groups are apt to tell their leaders what they want to hear, to suppress dissent, to censor private doubts, and to filter out evidence that contradicts an emerging consensus. A third is animosity between groups. Imagine being locked in a room for a few hours with a person whose opinions you dislike — say, you’re a liberal and he’s a conservative or vice versa, or you sympathize with Israel and the other person sympathizes with the Palestinians or vice versa. Chances are the conversation between the two of you would be civil, and it might even be warm. But now imagine that there are six on your side and six on the other. There would probably be a lot of hollering and red faces and perhaps a small riot. The overall problem is that groups take on an identity of their own in people’s minds, and individuals’ desire to be accepted within a group, and to promote its standing in comparison to other groups, can override their better judgment.

Incidentally, I think this is why I deeply distrust groups, and why I follow my very own wing. I’d hate to be caught up in groupthink. I just don’t do groups well. Unsurprisingly, I’ve never been able to be a member of a religion or a political party either. It is also why I really value blogging with people whose views are different to mine: it keeps me honest and hopefully unpolarized. And my co-bloggers are people with whom I feel very comfortable airing a contrary opinion. I suspect that this was a reason why I identified with the Katniss Everdeen character the Hunger Games series – she was not someone who liked groups, and who followed her own path.

To wrap up this post, I think I’ll finish with a quote from Pinker, and relate it back to fiction in general and dystopias in particular. Pinker explains that one of reasons why there may have been an expansion in the sympathy we feel towards other human beings from the Enlightenment onwards may be linked back to the expansion in literacy and the growth of the novel (at pg 175-6):

Realistic fiction, for its part, may expand readers’ circle of empathy by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from themselves. Literature students are taught that the 18th century was a turning point in the history of the novel. It became a form of mass entertainment, and by the end of the century almost a hundred new novels were published in England and France every year. And unlike earlier epics which recounted the exploits of heroes, aristocrats, or saints, the novels brought to life the aspirations and losses of ordinary people.

Lynn Hunt points out that the heyday of the Humanitarian Revolution, the late 18th century, was also the heyday of the epistolary novel. In this genre, the story unfold in a character’s own words, exposing the character’s thought sand feelings in real time rather than describing them from the distancing perspective of a disembodied narrator. In the middle of the century three melodramatic novels named after female protagonists became unlikely bestsellers: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), and Rousseau’s Julie or the New Hélöise (1761). Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with whom they had nothing in common. A retired military officer, writing to Rousseau, gushed:

You have driven me crazy about her. Imagine then the tears that her death must have wrung from me. …Never have I wept such delicious tears. That reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died during that supreme moment

Hunt suggests a causal chain: reading epistolary novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights.

I think that ultimately, this is why dystopias are important, and why I find them fascinating. If, in popular fiction, we explore with the ideas of how various utopian designs of society can go wrong, and feel sympathy for the victims, hopefully we can guard against being swayed by such visions. Of course the inner demons and the better angels will always be in battle within us, but if we can be aware of this, with an eye on the terrible consequences of violence, then I hope that none of these dystopias will come to be.

40 Comments

  1. Posted March 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Three issues:

    Number one

    I know how I’d behave in the Milgram experiment, I’ve been in an analogous situation. It didn’t end well. It was Reality not an experiment, and challenging authority under those circumstances rarely leads to happy endings. Right does not always triumph.

    In the Dystopian world of the Hunger Games – I’d fare just as poorly as Sophie Scholl of the Whire Rose. I could not tolerate mistreatment of children like that, not to save my life.

    Literally.

    Second:

    OK, now that we’ve established I’m a Fanatic in certain areas, the kind who’d suicide-bomb or Kamikaze to rid the world of such a system – how do I retain rationality? In fighting monsters, how does anyone prevent themselves from becoming monsters in turn, mere mirror-images of their enemies? Stare too long into the Abyss, the Abyss stares into you.

    You make that less likely by remembering these words:

    I am persuaded that divers of you, who lead the People, have laboured to build yourselves in these things; wherein you have censured others, and established yourselves “upon the Word of God.” Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

    Third

    Re: Group-Think and consensus: please see http://aebrain.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/todays-battles-theory-behind-them.html

    First of all, let’s look at social and ideological monocultures, where everyone in on the same wavelength, everyone agrees, there is an established consensus. Such things can easily become pathological, moving towards fanaticism. One member pushes the boundary a little, presents a slightly more extreme view than most, but still within acceptable bounds. Emboldened, another goes even further, and though the majority may have qualms, no criticism is forthcoming. Then an even more extreme view is presented, as everyone thinks that the rest of “their group” must be thinking that way. Soon what was once an extreme view becomes accepted, and anyone deviating from orthodoxy is attacked as an outsider, a RINO (Republican In Name Only), a DINO (Democrat In Name Only), a traitor, an infiltrator for the Opposition…

    Dissent is silenced – sometimes literally, by censorship and banning. And the move towards an ever less sane, unreasonable and extreme position is inexorable. Soon the group becomes unrecognisable, a caricature of itself.

    …and rather more.

  2. Posted March 28, 2012 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    Excellent post. I’m 49, devoured all three books in January, went with my 18 year old daughter to see the film on Sunday. We both loved it ( she read the book in a day) – a few changes from the book but overall a very strong adaptation.

  3. paul walter
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Sounds like speculative fiction for our time.
    Maybe a good follow up to my last read, Handmaid’s Tale.

  4. Posted March 28, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    LE;

    I’m reminded of strange attractors and catastrophe (in a mathematical sense). Many systems have “bowl shapes” (attractors) or sudden sharp changes in the contours of their possible states (catastrophes).

    I think social systems are the same. Polarisation is a natural process governed by at least two feedback loops. The first is tacit agreement with the moving median opinion; the second is the self-selection of less extreme persons out of the group.

    In some groups this shift is a “catastrophe” in the sense that once a particular threshold is reached, the polarisation occurs nigh-instantly (but if it hadn’t reached that precipice, it might not have done so).

    I’d also note that ideologies, like genes, have choke points. As people self-select out of more extreme groups, the pool of ideas in the group shrinks, forming a memetic choke point in the evolution of the ideology.

    Two classic examples: the Nazi party, which had a period of obscurity which caused its focus to successively narrow to crazy conspiracy theories. And Austrian economics, which from its origins in the hands of very few men has retained an enduring hard on for pointless fights about epistemology.

    When a movement has few founders, their particular bêtes noires can twist the subsequent ideology into a strange shape indeed.

  5. Posted March 28, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I went to see the film with may daughter on Saturday and I thought that it was a very strong story and great performances from all of the cast. My daughter’s only compliant was that it was not precisely like the book. That said I did try to look at some of the themes and issues that you bought up in your post but number one child does not want to know. For her the strength of Kattniss and her emotional journey through the games and her eventual triumph was what it was all about.

    Take the time to go and see the film on the big screen because you won’t be disappointed.

  6. Posted March 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    PW@4 I tried to read A Handmaiden’s Tale but I had read Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 years earlier, so rapidly found I could not be bothered with its far more portentous successor.

  7. paul walter
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Psychosis, “wtf??”.. Chrysalids was also a good sci fi yarn from that era also, altho the ending was a bit one dimensional.
    I like Jacques’ idea that control freaks, the barking mad and the un self reflexive eventually are hoist on their own solipsism. Trouble is, what harm is done in the meantime, given the new techno revolution?
    As Jacques has mentioned the Austrian School, will not Godwin him despite an egregious infringement.
    No, no more…. the black dog mauls, this day..

  8. Posted March 28, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    I preferred the Atwood version (the stories, I agree, are similar) because it focusses specifically on the misogyny of monotheistic theocracy. Heinlein doesn’t really do that (and probably couldn’t be expected to do so from the perspective of the 50s). Atwood is also a better writer (a general flaw in much science fiction, even that I enjoy, is bad writing).

  9. paul walter
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Yes,the trick with Handmaid’s Tale is that the sci fi yarn is only a shopfront for a woman’s musing on her experiences and attempt to understand through context. Strip way the devices of the narrative and it’s the here and now, but it doesn’t look so pretty.
    The women at the birthing could as easily be the maiden aunts in the fading country town where she grew up in Canada, described in Robber Bride (I think).
    A bit like wondering how different how our age is to the sixteenth century- we think ourselves and our time to be normal, yet someone in two hundred years might rofl at our peasant notions we are habituated to, that we consider sensible.

  10. Posted March 29, 2012 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    On social polarisation, Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent and Russell Hardin’s article The Crippled Epistemology of Extremism (both of which I discuss here) examine the mechanisms and the social science with admirable clarity and insight.

  11. Posted March 29, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    On Austrian economics, getting the Great Depression wrong meant it got abandoned by mainstream economists and ended up in the hands of devotees who had to invent stories about why its “obvious truth” was not accepted. Their egregious certainty is something of a pain in the comment sections of quite a few economic blogs.

  12. kvd
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    So LE, this proposed novel of yours…

    Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it…”
    President Obama, on signing: “… you know the feeling of signing your name to pages of barely understandable fine print”
    U.S. Supreme Court Justices: “Are we supposed to go through the whole 2700 pages”

    Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Kagan to Paul Clement “Wow. Wow….I’m offering you $10 million a year to come work for me, and you are saying that this is anything but a great choice?”

    Paul Clement (attorney for States opposing) in reply: “Sure, if I told you, actually, it came from my own bank account.”

    LE – from your very good post I thought you were more into fiction?

  13. Ripples
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I am going to have to take the recommendation and read these books and watch the movie. I am a lover of the zombie apocalypse, developing civilisation tales.
    This one should fit in nicely with my intrigue as to whether we could build a better world from a destructive ending of civilisation or whether we would just reinvent past mistakes.
    My expectations are now high but since the last non-fiction series I read was Twilight my last level of reading should be simple to surpass.

  14. paul walter
    Posted March 29, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed Lorenzo’s take on narcissism from May last year. Another one of these issues that would be amusing if not so incredibly sad at the same time.
    It a person lacks an effective bullshit detector they swallow their own nonsenses till they walk out into traffic and get hit by a truck, say, because they believed that because they said other to what others were telling them, that the truck wouldn’t be there.
    Unfortunately having an on off switch is not palatable either.
    A saner parson’s mind will nag them until till they wake up to whatever mistake they’re making; whatever short cut they’re taking to self gratification, which isn’t or working or won’t work.
    It’s almost hardly worth the grief some times, to fess up and take the harder, less comfortable way that was indicated in the first place.
    If you do have the capacity to “pick” reality and cant find the resolve to act on the unpleasant aspects of its ongoing emergence, then the end is going to be at least as bad as if you were pathologically mad.

  15. Posted March 30, 2012 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    LE@18

    One day I want to write a dystopian novel. It will include a revolution where idealistic people overthrow an authoritarian government in an effort to set up a utopian society, but where a series of purges render the new government increasingly fanatical and just as authoritarian as the one it ousted.

    I believe it is called Egypt.

    And yes, Hardin is good value.

  16. Posted March 30, 2012 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    I’ve been looking for someone who read Hunger Games in light of Pinker’s book. Very interesting analysis.

    What interests me the most is this: we are clearly the same people who watched eagles tear out livers in the Coliseum, who tortured heretics by balancing them on a sharp blade and watching them slice themselves in two as they tired, who gassed trainloads in Poland. And yet, to anyone who read the book or saw the movie, it’s clear that the point is how horrid, how unthinkably evil, such a society as described in Panem would be.

    So are we really changed? Is our revulsion at this society a part of us now, or is this, too, a temporary phase in the history of our species?

  17. Patrick
    Posted March 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m pretty much with LE, just less reservations about hunting.

  18. kvd
    Posted March 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    LE your friend (I hope still?) should see me casually rip out a carrot or two, and strip peas from the vine. I haven’t killed a cow, but I’ve birthed a calf (bloody, hard work) and think I probably would if pushed – if there was a handy McDonalds to process same.

    Bloodlust aside, I think I’ll read the series on your obvious recommend, but two things occur: It sounds like both ‘Reds’ and that Marsden? story – ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ – no? And secondly, what’s with this living ‘life’ through teenagers/kids?

    Lastly, that cute pic of the platypusseses/ii; I sent that to my sister in law and her comment was that they would probably go well with a nice dip, and broccoli on the side.

  19. Posted March 31, 2012 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    LE, I agree with you that the inner devils are still there. What interests me, though, is this. If our society had not changed from, say, Roman or even medieval sensibilities, then a movie and book like The Hunger Games, premised on the idea that the audience will be horrified by the customs of Panem, could not work. The author and screenwriters know that we’ll see the injustice and react against it.

    On the other hand, one might have said the same of Germany in the 1930s, and yet the dissenters there remained silent. A strange beast, this human.

    I shared your pessimism about humanity until I recently read two books. Pinker’s was the second. The first was The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. I think both make the point that our present era, sparked by the English Enlightenment, really is different from any other time in history and that for the first time we humans really do have the opportunity for unlimited progress – scientific, technological, and even moral. You’re right that it’s easily reversed, and that it’s our responsibility to use that knowledge to keep it from happening.

  20. paul walter
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    Now that I remember,
    I reckon SL’s comment at 12 is a bit too broad-brush and not just because much of the book describes ferocious, protracted, intimate and intricate conflicts within the sorority or matriarchy, as a sort of empire within an empire of appearance.
    In the first instance she’s right.
    It’s an ugly description of an ugly phenomena, reactionary theocratic patriarchy during a time of decline, something the US is getting too close to in our time, making some thing of a prophet of Atwood.
    But while it’s true that the Talibanisngdrones who set up the mess described in Handmaid, a bit like the Rick Perry’s Murdochs, Pat Robertson’s and Koch brothers types of our era, it seems the males are actually even more clueless as well as at least as psychologically damaged as, the women, because through lack of self reflexivity, they’ve actually chosen not only to fight the women, but on their terms.
    This is dumb for two reasons: women are not their enemies, they don’t need to fight them. Woman have exponential potential as collaborators, companions and allies. The imagination the zealots show, in terms of imagination,on the level of using the Mona Lisa for barbecue kindling. Secondly, you are doomed if you fight on your unnecessarily acquired and provoked adversaries terms. Women are better organised and better at the close-in combat of a domestic regime.
    The males have show their absolute ignorance of how both society and people, most of all women, “work” and interact, in attempting reactionary modernist solutions to problems they haven’t properly examined or understood- no consciousness; no critique. No doubt its to do with their individuation, as with more than a few of the women.
    The thing is actually a working case history of social reproduction.
    Give me a quick bullet to the eternal damnation and slow death of withdrawal of intimacy, that these idiots and some of the authoritarian women also, impose on themselves.
    The Atwood society looks like a runaway train, a bit like our own is (becoming as)dumbing down, secrecy, and fear, hot headedness and ignorance gain critical mass.
    Just a small quibble- I just think patriarchy is too emotive and simple a term to describe the complexity of what’s happening.

  21. John H.
    Posted March 31, 2012 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Paul, one of Pinker’s arguments as to why human society has improved is because of increased rights and participation of women in society.

    Ironic, on another forum myself and others have been tearing Pinker’s argument to bits. It doesn’t hold up. There is plenty of violence in the world. It is easy to be kind etc when you are adequately clothed, fed, and housed. There is no short term change in our nature that causes reduction in violence, it is the change our material circumstances. If you think we are less violent then go to Somalia and tell them that. Go on, see what happens.

  22. Posted March 31, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Stephen Witt:

    On the other hand, one might have said the same of Germany in the 1930s, and yet the dissenters there remained silent.

    Or were silenced by having their heads cut off.

    I said in a previous comment that I’d probably end up like Sophie Scholl of the White Rose.

    You may not be aware of her history.

    Please read The Line.

  23. Posted March 31, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    LE, I think I’ll answer your (and Stephen’s) questions in a short separate post.

  24. Posted March 31, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for that story, Zoe. One never knows, of course, but I’d like to believe I’d be one of the dissenters, too. It’s good to know that we can find such people through history.

  25. Posted April 1, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    JH@33 Nothing you say contradicts Pinker’s thesis. Have you read the book? The claim is not an absolute, but a relative one and one about rates, not levels. His claim that the rate of violence has been in long-term decline is well supported.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Skepticlawyer » Panem et circenses on March 31, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    [...] however, was a Stoic, and Stoics were different (as Legal Eagle and Stephen point out in the Hunger Games thread). We have records of Stoic parents refusing to allow their children on such excursions, of Stoics [...]

  2. [...] — got around to reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Legal Eagle has already reviewed the books, while I provided some context for the obvious Roman elements in the film based on the first one. [...]

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