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Fri Oct 12, 2018, 12:35 PM

Our Favorite Cliche: A World Filled With Idiots

This article crossed my mind today.

Here, David Brin examines the popular appeal of dystopia and how they increase cynicism and paralyze our ability to imagine a brighter future. Perhaps one of the reasons dystopian narratives are so appealing is they tap into our mammalian response of fear/flight/fight in times of despair. Since there will always be chaos in our lives, worry and despair are inevitable, and the most convenient narrative, when faced with despair, is to imagine doom. Storytelling is a powerful communal force, and it is rare to find an imagined future that that isn't a barren wasteland. This negative framing of the future, Brin argues, is fatalistic and distract us from the now, and what we can do to change our trajectory in the present.

"It can be hard to notice things you take for granted assumptions that are never questioned, because everyone shares them. One of these nearly ubiquitous themes is a tendency for most authors and/or film-makers to disdain the intelligence and wisdom of society as a whole, portraying a majority of their fellow citizens as sheep or fools.

Should this be surprising? The Euro-American fable has always featured an individualistic style. When the public pays for a fantasy experience, riding the shoulder of some bold hero or heroine, each customer wants to identify with a protagonist who is special, unique, or at least interesting in some way that departs from run-of-the-mill, batch-processed humanity. Even when the character seems unremarkable, he or she is marked as singular and fascinating by virtue of being the one whose thoughts and experiences we share.

That's the magic of "point of view."

While individuals get our empathy and sympathy, institutions seldom do. The "we're in this together" spirit of films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s later gave way to a reflex shared by left and right, that villainy is associated with organization. Even when they aren't portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted. Only the clever bravado of a solitary hero (or at most a small team) will make a difference in resolving the grand crisis at hand.

This rule of contemporary storytelling is so nearly universal that it has escaped much comment because you never notice propaganda that you already agree with. In other words, the reflex is self-reinforcing. A left-leaning director may portray villainous oligarchs or corporations while another film-maker rails against government cabals. But while screaming at each other over which direction Big Brother may be coming from, they never seem to notice their common heritage and instinct Suspicion of Authority (SOA) much in the way fish seldom comment on the existence of water.


Today's dominant storytelling [..] nearly always portrays one or two individuals in dire scenarios, without useful support from the societies that made them. There is no help or authority that can be effectively appealed to, because those leaders are at best distracted or foolish. More often than not society itself is the chief malignity that must be combated.

Of course these storyline scenarios mesh well with the intimate, thought-following style of Point of View storytelling. Modern fictional heroes often talented to a degree that seems larger than life are shown dealing with some problem or conspiracy that no one else noticed, or confronting the dire consequences of some massive cultural error, or uncovering malfeasance on the part of society's corrupt leaders. When in doubt, it seems, a writer seems best served by assuming the worst.

In its crudest form, this phenomenon has been called the Idiot Plot.

Why do film and fiction routinely depict society and its citizens as fools?.

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Reply Our Favorite Cliche: A World Filled With Idiots (Original post)
JHan Oct 2018 OP
BeckyDem Oct 2018 #1
Me. Oct 2018 #2

Response to JHan (Original post)

Fri Oct 12, 2018, 01:14 PM

1. Author makes very sound points, thanks for a thoughtful article.

I like this excerpt and agree, I think we'd be much worse off without these literary contributions.

Now don't get me wrong: I am a big fan of cautionary tales! Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, On the Beach, Silent Spring, Fahrenheit 451, Soylent Green, Parable of the Sower... these all served up chilling warnings that helped to stave off the very scenarios they portrayed, by girding millions of viewers or readers to think hard about the depicted failure mode, and to devote at least some effort, throughout their lives, to helping ensure that it never comes to pass.

In fact the self-preventing prophecy is arguably the most important type of literature, since it gives us a stick to wield, poking into the ground before us as we charge into a murky future, exploring with our minds what quicksand dangers may lurk just ahead. This kind of thought experiment that Einstein called gedankenexperiment is the fruit of our prefrontal lobes, humanity's most unique and recent organ, the font of our greatest gifts: curiosity, empathy, anticipation and resilience. Indeed, forward-peering storytelling is one of the major ways that we turn fear into something profoundly practical. Avoidance of failure. The early detection and revelation of Big Mistakes, before we even get a chance to make them. While hardly in the same league as Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Carson, and Butler, I'm proud to be part of that tradition an endeavor best performed by science fiction.

Well said here:

But this doesn't explain the dreary ubiquity of contempt that seems to fill the vast majority of contemporary novels and films, depicting the writer's fellow citizens as barely smarter than tree frogs, in a civilization unworthy of the name.

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Response to JHan (Original post)

Fri Oct 12, 2018, 03:21 PM

2. That's the magic of "point of view."

or eye of the beholder which is one of Rod Serling's favorite thmeses

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