We Live in the Dystopia Young Adult Fiction Warns Us About
The past few decades have seen a profusion of "young adult" fiction—books written for a teenage audience—which seem to have a peculiar obsession with future dystopias.
There's the one where everything is controlled by the Capitol and teenagers are forced to fight to the death for a televised audience. There's the one where teens are locked into a narrow career path for life based on their apparent aptitudes, which seems like a perfect way to capitalize on the anxieties of college-bound kids in the later stages of the higher education bubble. There's the one where emotions have been outlawed, the one where teenagers are force to run through a giant maze for some reason, and so on.
But here's the irony. If you want to look around for a real-life dystopia, an oppressive system in which capricious rules are enforced by faceless mobs, you need look no further than the world of young adult fiction itself. A recent Slate headline says it all: "YA Novel About 'Mob Mentalities' Punished After Online Backlash."
Here's the short version. An author in the young adult genre, Laura Moriarty, wrote a dystopian novel—what an original idea!—with an impeccably Politically Correct premise: "a future America in which Muslims are...corralled into detention centers." She jumped through every hoop you could expect, passing the book by her Iranian immigrant friends while the publisher subjected it to "sensitivity reads" by "a member of a minority group." So what could go wrong? If you've been paying attention, you have some idea what happens next.
None of this, as it turns out, was enough to protect American Heart from becoming the subject of the latest skirmish in the increasingly contentious battle over representation and diversity in the world of YA literature. American Heart won't be published until January, but it has already attracted the ire of the fierce group of online YA readers that journalist Kat Rosenfield has referred to as "culture cops." To them, it was an irredeemable problem that Moriarty's novel, which was inspired in part by Huckleberry Finn, centers on a white teenager who gradually—too gradually—comes to terms with the racism around her. On Goodreads, the book's top "community review," posted in September, begins, "f--- your white savior narratives"; other early commenters on Goodreads accused Moriarty of "profiting off people's pain" and said "a white writer should not have tackled this story, and neither should a white character be the center of it."
I suppose it's part of the problem here that the top comment on a site for book lovers is illiterate.
The point of all this is not just that mean people said mean things on the Internet. The point is that big cultural institutions cave in to them. In this case Kirkus Reviews, which carries a lot of influence with libraries and bookstores, originally gave Moriarty's book a positive and specially highlighted, "starred" review. But in response to the online mobs, Kirkus took down the review, then put up a new one without the star.
This is not the first time this has happened, and online mobs attacking books for being insufficiently Politically Correct has become a common feature of the young adult genre.
Sure, losing your starred review at Kirkus isn't exactly like being thrown into the gulag. But the point of dystopian young adult fiction—if it is not merely to cash in on the gullibility of a young and under-educated audience—is to warn us about the ideas and attitudes that will lead to dictatorship if they go unchecked. Yet there are many respects in which today's young people are already living in the kind of dystopia their favorite novels keep warning them against.
1. Speech codes.
Any good dystopia will have strict codes—written or unwritten—dictating what can be said and what can't be said. So kids who grow up on these young adult novels will be perfectly prepared for college, where for decades there have been widely adopted speech codes restricting speech that is considered offensive or that creates a "hostile environment," as judged by the feelings of people who don't like what you have to say. In recent years, these formal codes have been challenged in courts and frequently struck down, so they have been replaced by "Bias Response Teams"—what FIRE calls "speech police in a quite literal sense." Two professors writing in The New Republic worry that BRTs will "degrade education by encouraging silence instead of dialogue, the fragmentation of campuses into groups of like-minded people, and the deliberate avoidance of many of the most important—and controversial—topics across all academic disciplines."
The remit of these teams is broad and vague:
A bias incident can occur "whether the act is intentional or unintentional," meaning that "microaggressions" (subtle, often unintended slights) are squarely within bias incident territory. All "verbal, written, or physical" conduct is fair game, whether it transpires in actual spaces such as cafeterias and classrooms or in the endless virtual world of social media. Examples include "symbols, language, and imagery objectifying women" (University of Utah); "name calling," "avoiding or excluding others" and "making comments on social media about someone's political affiliations/beliefs," (Syracuse); "I don't see skin color," "I was joking. Don't take things so seriously," and "Thanks, Sweetie." (University of Oregon). Given the expansive definitions of bias incidents, it is no surprise that some dubious complaints are filed: Last month, at the University of Michigan, a hall director reported a "phallic snow object." "It is the height of privilege and entitlement to be obsessively concerned with utterly inconsequential events such as this," a member of the university's residential staff said.
This is the best kind of dystopian speech police: the kind that operates without any written code and can decide to target you arbitrarily for imaginary infractions.
2. Mobs enforcing vague and arbitrary offences.
What's more dystopian than offenses being punished by speech police? Having them be punished by spontaneous, leaderless mobs. So kids raised on these stories will be totally prepared for social media, or for things like this happening on college campuses.
It doesn't matter if you can show a lifetime of loyalty to the system, or if your comments were misconstrued or have a different explanation. Nobody is listening, because the mob has already drawn its conclusions and is not open to reason.
3. Punishment without due process.
We know that in an oppressive dystopia, punishments are meted out without a full trial, without the presumption of innocence, and without the ability to cross-examine witnesses. In other words, just like a rape accusation on a college campus, up until a few months ago.
And of course people in positions of authority would vigorously defend that system because we can't allow legal technicalities to prevent us from rooting out evil, can we? I just picture the big villain's speech denouncing due process as a "reckless campaign to destroy the laws and processes in place to protect" us.
4. Masked and black-clad gangs who beat dissenters.
The dystopian future has already arrived for the young adults at the University of California at Berkeley—and elsewhere—where those with unapproved views can expect to be beaten by gangs dressed all in black and wearing masks to cover their faces. Here's some reference footage for the upcoming movie:
— Nick Short 🇺🇸 (@PoliticalShort) August 27, 2017
In my version of the movie, this scene would culminate with a deliciously Orwellian touch, as the black-clad heavies attack our protagonists in the "Empathy Tent." But you couldn't write that in fiction because it's just too outlandish and over the top, even for a teenage audience.
And here's the really dystopian part: all the adults in positions of authority support these gangs and praise them as heroes. Which leads us to the next ingredient of a dystopia.
5. Requiring people to accept obvious falsehoods as true.
A muscle-bound former male Olympic athlete gets breast implants and dresses in a skirt, and you have to call him a woman? You'd better. Somebody comes up with weird invented pronouns and insists on being called by them? It's the law. Giant bruisers of men dressed as women insist on competing in women's sports—and contact sports at that—and everyone is required to smile and call it "equality." And God help you if you don't go along or if you breathe the slightest word of skepticism.
6. Dividing people into groups by race.
In a dystopian novel, I bet that the moment young people arrive at some big moment of transition—like, say, their first day on a college campus—they would be separated by race and indoctrinated with the idea that their racial identity completely defines who they are. Because nothing could go wrong with telling white kids to identify with their race.
Or maybe it would begin in high school, where they would be taught the central importance of being "race conscious" and be told "to embrace ancestry, genetic code, and melanin" (for those who have it). This would be instilled in teenagers to the exclusion of actual education, for kids of all races. And young people would definitely be told that they shouldn't participate in activities aimed at or involving people of other races.
Restrictions on culture and tastes, on personal growth and discovery, are a special interest for young adult readers. So our protagonists would be warned not to ever share in or try to learn from the culture of one of the other racial groups, and this would be treated as a very grave offense. This restriction could be given a weird, made-up name, like "cultural appropriation."
7. Getting news from entertainment shows run by comedians.
I don't know if this is a big staple of current young adult novels, but it has long been a staple of dystopian fiction in general: that news about the world would be dumbed down into superficial entertainment. The only source of information in our dystopian world would be elaborately staged competition shows, or lame jokes all conveying the same party line without critical thinking or dissent. In other words, it would be exactly like the late night TV shows predominantly aimed at a young audience, and often drawn upon in the post-Jon Stewart era as their primary source of political news.
8. A long period of dependency and infantilization.
Why would anyone accept a dystopian system? Well, one possibility is that young people have gotten used to being infantilized and distracted with games and other trivialities, which delays them from taking on adult decisions and responsibilities. This is a great topic for young adult fiction, because there is nothing young people hate more than being prevented from gaining autonomy and independence. Except for the generation raised on dystopian young adult fiction, apparently.
[P]utting off the responsibilities of adulthood is not an iGen innovation. Gen Xers, in the 1990s, were the first to postpone the traditional markers of adulthood. Young Gen Xers were just about as likely to drive, drink alcohol, and date as young Boomers had been, and more likely to have sex and get pregnant as teens. But as they left their teenage years behind, Gen Xers married and started careers later than their Boomer predecessors had.
Gen X managed to stretch adolescence beyond all previous limits: Its members started becoming adults earlier and finished becoming adults later. Beginning with Millennials and continuing with iGen, adolescence is contracting again—but only because its onset is being delayed. Across a range of behaviors—drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised—18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Childhood now stretches well into high school.
If they do finally move into adulthood, they sure won't be in Kansas any more.
9. Strange, artificial systems for dating, relationships, and sex.
Young adult novels have a natural fascination, as do young adults, with the process of forming relationships and finding a mate. But in a dystopia, this is usually done in very strange, artificial, and ridiculous inappropriate ways. Like, say, viewing people's profiles on a tiny little screen and swiping right or left. And this would lead our protagonists to complain about their inability to form serious, lasting relationships.
Yet despite the encouragement of a "hookup" culture, there will still be all sorts of restrictions and rules for intimacy—sex codes to go with the speech codes.
10. Employment blacklists for dissenters.
Complain about any of this, and where will it get you? Anyone who expresses dissent from the system has to be ejected from the system, have his or her work permit revoked, or be denied any possibility of advancing within the system. How else do you think a dystopia enforces itself?
So there has to be an employment blacklist where someone who expressed wrongthink will never be allowed to work again. In other words, just like today's Silicon Valley.
11. Having our culture and politics dominated by a corrupt and predatory Capitol.
This is a central idea of the Hunger Games franchise: all power and wealth is concentrated in a distant and hideously corrupt Capitol. The morals and manners of the people there are twisted and distorted, but everybody goes along with it and nobody rocks the boat. And the Capitol controls the entire culture.
As today's young people become old enough to vote, this will totally prepare them to complain that the Electoral College gives too much representation to those toothless knuckle-draggers in Montana and Ohio, and to insist that the president should be chosen according to preferences of people in New York City and Los Angeles.
It will prepare them to watch television show about the lives of people who live in New York and LA, made by people who live in those cities. They will get their news and commentary almost exclusively from people in New York and DC.
As for the morals of our real-life Capitols—well, let's just say that Harvey Weinstein definitely belongs in a dystopian young adult novel. Preferably a fantasy novel, the kind with trolls or ogres.
So how is it that the young adult market is awash in these projections of a dystopian future, yet we're still sliding into that kind of future, and the young adults are mostly going along with it? Well, part of the reason is that the authors, publishers, and critics of these novels are themselves in thrall to the prevailing dogmas of our dystopian culture—and they don't dare cross the "culture cops" of the far left. So instead of warning young people against dystopia, these authors are blinding them to the one being built all around them. They want to warn against oppression, but they direct their readers' attention to everything except Political Correctness.
The lesson from that, though, is that our dystopia is not primarily enforced by the state or by any large-scale instrument of coercion. It only holds you in its grip if you allow it to. Judging from the news report we began with, a lot of people are allowing it to. It rules through the hold it has on your own mind, through your inability to conceive or imagine any other way of thinking and living. But once you imagine it, it's the easiest thing in the world to escape.
And when you do escape, do you know what it feels like? It feels like liberation—which is, after all, how any good dystopian story is supposed to end.