Why Cautionary Tales Fail

George Orwell’s landmark dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four turned 70 this past Saturday.

I would love to report that the novel’s legacy as an effective cautionary tale has gone unblemished. I would love to report that, but I can’t.

At this point, I’ve lost track of how many times Orwell’s book has been referenced to describe our current socio-political climate, and it might not be so worrying if the comparisons being drawn between the modern Western world and Orwell’s Oceania were coming from a unified group of dissenters aligned against a clear villain. But that’s not at all the case. In perhaps the most Orwellian turn of events, it turns out that all sides of the socio-political discussion think the other is responsible for dragging us closer to a totalitarian nightmare.

But if things are fucked up, why should they be?

Orwell was among the first to warn us (Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, published in 1924, is arguably the first and I highly recommended it) what could be in store for our societies if we failed to guard our institutions against those who would corrupt them for power and personal gain, but there have been others since he sent up his clarion call in June of 1949.

Not the least of which have come from movies.

Actually, the dystopia is so popular in western culture, more than 175 films treating the subject in some way have been released since 1970. Some of them skew toward the more ridiculous end of the genre spectrum (Soylent Green, Zardoz, Escape from New York, The Hunger Games, Dredd, They Live), but many of them (THX 1138, Blade Runner, Gattaca, Equilibrium, Code 46, Sleep Dealer, Never Let Me Go, Elysium) repeat the same warnings: guard your privacy and freedom, beware of the surveillance state, be skeptical of wars and cautious of unwieldy corporations, protect the environment, and be wary of technologies that seem too good to be true.

But despite so many clear warnings, we seem to have made great progress toward reshaping our free societies into uncanny semblances of the sort of oppressive, overbearing structures Orwell and his successors specifically tried to warn us against.

So why? Why are cautionary tales so effective at selling books and movie tickets but so ineffective at being … cautionary?

Like anything else, the answer to this question is probably multi-faceted, but I think there are a few fundamental flaws embedded in the way the genre cautionary tale is most often communicated that render any hope of it acting as a social warning almost completely nil.   

In genre fiction, the dystopia is often presented within a mythological framework, complete with archetypes designed to communicate to the audience in simple terms exactly who the good guys and bad guys are. And that may be fine for communicating broad concepts like basic morality (don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t lie, etc), but simple characterizations aren’t as effective at explaining how complex systems like societies and governments become corrupt and, more importantly, the role that the individual plays in perpetuating that corruption.

(For those of you who read my Cobra Kai review, I apologize for using this example again so soon: it’s just too apt to not utilize for this subject.)

When Cypher sells Neo and the rest of his compatriots out to Agent Smith for some creature comforts in The Matrix, we aren’t meant to sympathize with him. We’re supposed to see ourselves as the hero, Neo. But the truth is, we’re all probably a little more like Cypher than Neo, even on our best days. We don’t tell ourselves that, of course, and neither do cautionary tales.

I’m not saying we are literally all Cyphers who would murder our friends for personal gain, and this actually illustrates why cautionary tales don’t work: because Cypher is a caricature of a Judas-type villain, we can’t empathize with him. The Wachowskis attempt to humanize Cypher with lines of dialogue explaining why he wants to go back into the Matrix, and most of us can probably understand his reasons, but, because murdering our friends is so far beyond what any of us could imagine doing in real life, our ability to put ourselves in Cypher’s shoes ends the moment he begins killing his crewmates.

This is great for dramatic effect, but it fails to help us understand what role we play in aiding the creation of very real totalitarian societies. It reinforces the idea that only evil, villainous people are responsible for the horrors of recent history.

And this idea is as much nonsense as it is statistically improbable.

Both the Milgram Experiment at Yale in the 1960s and the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment a decade later illustrated what historian Christopher Browning also found in his 1992 book (Ordinary Men) on World War 2 Polish death squads: There’s very little regular people will not do for power or to avoid upsetting an established hierarchy.

But the important thing we miss when we look at these exaggerated or dramatized examples of torture and murder is that most people can be convinced (indeed, will convince themselves) to set aside their principles for even small personal gain. The smaller the graft, the likelier a principled person will convince themselves it’s ok to take it. Especially when we think no one is looking. Or when we think no one will be directly affected by our actions. Or when the victims of our actions are just letters arranged on a screen.

But what about the hero of dystopian cautionary tales? Shouldn’t we have some ideal to aim up at?

The answer is yes: We do need virtuous examples to try and live up to. That’s what mythology is all about, but there are a couple problems with the hero character in these types of stories in terms of their ability to communicate social warnings.

The most glaring issue with most hero figures in this type of fiction is that the protagonist is often convinced that his cause is right and just. The problem with this may not seem obvious, which explains why we all think the other side is responsible for whatever social ills we currently face. What side of right and wrong we’re on seems to factor less in our decisions to stake out sides and argue for them than simply getting a win for our team, according to psychologist and writer Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind).

“Morality (…) binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

If you don’t believe this is the case, you haven’t spent much time in comment sections on the internet (And if you haven’t, I don’t recommend that you start now.)

It’s not that heroes always start out with the true and just path before them–they usually have to be motivated to action. The problem is that the motivating factors almost always revolve around self-interest. Rarely is the hero in these kinds of stories initially moved by realizing that things need to change–or, more importantly, how his own actions (or inaction) perpetuate a status quo.

Sticking with The Matrix as an example, Neo doesn’t take Morpheus’s red pill because he wants to free humanity or because he is suddenly aware that he can make a difference rather than simply maintaining a relatively comfortable life. He takes the red pill because he’s bored. He seeks adventure and maybe even enlightenment, but even enlightenment starts with self-interest.

Of course, there are exceptions.

Christian Bale’s character, Preston, in the 2002 dystopian sci-fi film Equilibrium makes a choice to stop dosing himself with Prozium, the emotion-blocking drug that keeps the population docile and easily oppressed, after accidentally breaking a vial and missing a dose. If anything, Preston has every reason to ignore his emerging conscience and continue taking the drug; as a member of the elite police unit tasked with meting out justice to those who fail to keep themselves anesthetized, Preston enjoys a level of power and privilege that should keep him firmly tethered to the current power hierarchy. But, despite potentially great personal cost to himself (including death), Preston chooses to sacrifice his position in the hierarchy and fight for something that runs contrary to everything he’s believed his entire life.

The problems, in this case, are the very genre trappings that make the story more appealing to wider audiences.

It might not be obvious to a group of people huddled in a dark auditorium with the expectation of being entertained by a hyper-violent sci-fi movie that Preston’s arc after choosing to skip his dose of Prozium represents the first heroic act and, possibly, the most necessary. That this single, willful act represents his first attempt at empathizing with those upon whom his role in society has a direct and explicitly negative impact.

Because of this one decision to try and see the world from a different perspective, Preston begins to see that there may be another way, a different way of life, that would benefit all–not just those at the top. But this requires a huge sacrifice on his part. We can’t get to the gratifying final battle where Preston shows off his gunkata, mowing down dozens of bad guys, and finally dispatching the big boss, and thereby freeing the people of Libria, if he never makes the choice to try and see things from this altered perspective. To put himself in the shoes of the regular citizens, the people who suffer as a consequence of his own actions.

And if we fail to understand this one critical facet of Preston’s arc; if the film fails to make us ask if we’re also capable of setting aside our own dogmatic thinking (better still, if the movie fails to clearly present these questions); if we fail to understand why Cypher betrays his friends to get plugged back into the Matrix or how this dramatized example relates to the smaller, individual actions ordinary people take to allow evil to exist and thrive, we miss the most critical message films and stories like these have to offer: Tyrannies cannot stand without the aid of the individual people who enable them both through action and inaction.

And if we miss this, these stories, as cautionary tales, have utterly failed.

Author: Billy Dhalgren

“A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts.” -Andrei Tarkovsky