Monday, May 11, 2015

Illuminations 5.11.15

Thought-Crime: Dystopian Fiction and the Mind

Man, do I love a good dystopian story. I read Fahrenheit 451 I was fifteen and that book pretty much changed my life, introducing me to a genre that’s so flexible that I don’t think I’ve ever seen two completely identical dystopian worlds. Not even in terrible dystopian novels—I’m looking at you, entire YA lit sections at bookstores and libraries. After Ray Bradbury, may he rest in peace, pulled me to the genre, I threw myself into anything else I could find; other novels like Brave New World and 1984, films like Brazil and 12 Monkeys, and onward into examining video games and anything else built on shattered utopias and broken ideals. 

Like I said, it’s an amazingly flexible genre, the tall-dark-and-handsome cousin of satire. Why do I say this? Because, like satire, the goal of any decent dystopia is to criticize. The creator of a work isolates a problem in society, a fear for the collective future—Bradbury looked at censorship and encroaching mass media influence, George Orwell basically predicted the NSA—and tries to demonstrate, basically, “Hey guys, how about we don’t do this? It’d probably really suck.” Dystopia plays with allegory, hyperbole, and pure terror. We watch characters go about their daily lives, unbothered by the elements of their society that seem abhorrently oppressive to us, and we’re forced to examine the darker elements of our own daily lives as we wonder if, perhaps, we’re overlooking something terrible too.

Examining modern dystopian narratives is so interesting because, while the traditional dystopian canon is rich for analysis and fantastic, the current stories are, well, current. They’re more relevant to us because a recent dystopia is still a possibility looming in the future, and, therefore, just a smidge more unsettling. This brings me to the most recent series I marathoned in a weekend, because what else am I supposed to do with finals just around the corner, my homework? Nah. Anime is better than homework. Said anime is, naturally, a dystopian narrative called Psycho-Pass, which blends fears of a society that’s too linked-in by technology with questions of mental health and wellness. 


The plot goes something like this: roughly a century into the future, a person’s mental state can be quantified on a numeric scale and monitored 24/7. Specifically, the goal of this monitoring is to gauge the likelihood of someone committing a crime. This is called your “psycho-pass,” as in, does your mental fitness pass the all-seeing government’s litmus test? If not, guess what, the cops are coming for you, because you might possibly become a criminal. No, seriously.

In Psycho-Pass, the population is constantly under scrutiny, and the slightest aberration in your brain can result in arrest. Even things like thinking about committing a crime or experiencing intense emotional distress sets off an alarm. This creates a caste system between “normal” people with clean psycho-passes, and so-called “latent criminals” considered past the point of rehabilitation, who are stripped of most rights and end up rotting in permanent isolation. Even better, the cops aren’t even calling the shots; their guns, linked in to the government’s AI-run, quick-thinking judicial system, independently decide the fate of the target on the spot. If your psycho-pass isn’t clean, you can either get forcibly sent to therapy, or straight-up killed. Because you’re a threat to our perfect society, obviously, it’s for the greater good. The individual is irrelevant; the health of society is priority, and people are simply happier when someone else makes decisions for them. Or so that’s the grand utopian goal. The system starts to spiral out of control as the story goes on. The plot itself becomes a grim little morality play, blurring the line between good and evil, demanding answers about the worth of the individual and one’s own choices, as the fail-safes in the system…well…start to fail. As they fail, the characters who relied on them are instead forced to think for themselves.

But what the series really made me think about was the constant stigmatization of mental illness. Sure, we’ve come a long way from the Victorian era’s cute habit of dismissing every expression of a mental health issue as “hysteria,” but there’s still so much misunderstanding in our society. People are afraid of things they can’t see and problems they can’t immediately solve, and good intent can get lost in the shuffle when we don’t stop and pay attention to those we’re trying to help. You can’t ever get into somebody’s head, read their brain patterns, and predict what they’ll do. The tragedy of mental illness lies within lost connections. If we’re trained to reject the mere notion of being mentally ill, we are simultaneously trained to reject getting help, seeing a therapist, doing anything that suggests illness in order to maintain a perfect exterior façade, and that’s when the real damage is done.

Here’s a secret: I went to therapy for a year here on campus after feeling like I was losing control of my life. I was ignoring responsibilities, I was isolating myself from people I knew, I even thought about dropping out of school entirely because the obligations looming over me looked like a wall I could never climb. My therapy group helped me recover enough to function again, taught me how to ease my stress and anxiety, listened to me when I felt invisible and alone. They—both my therapists and the others in the group—did so much for me. But I don’t talk about it. I know they helped me, but part of me is still ashamed for needing help, worried about how people will react if I mentioned it, terrified of being labeled as “crazy” or something similar. When I was going to group I always had excuses ready in case someone asked me where I was going. It’s subtle, but it’s insidious; for whatever reason I was taught to be ashamed of myself for doing therapy. I was trained to treat a sickness like a personal failure.

Earlier I said that every decent dystopia poses questions and challenges us with critique, and I find Psycho-Pass to be an exemplary dystopia, and therefore it, too, offers a challenge. So, as our society becomes more wired and linked together, as we’re able to learn everything about our world and each other faster and more immediately than ever before, will we be able to present our minds to each other, too? Or will such open access only create more barriers between us? Will we use technology as a tool to take us forward or a crutch that holds us back?

That was kinda heavy so here's a smiling baby pig to take the edge off.

No comments:

Post a Comment