Are we living in a dystopia?
If only we knew how bad things are
You’re a time travelling visitor from 40 years ago, or you’ve been frozen in ice like Captain America. You turn on the television, to see an advert by a trendy fashion house, and a woman’s voice says: ‘When I imagine my final days I see bubbles, I see the ocean, I see music…’ This looks familiar, you think, we have pretentious fashion adverts where I come from. And then you realise that the woman in question ended her life a few weeks earlier and the advert is promoting government-backed assisted suicide.
I often think about whether we’re living in a dystopia, and the latest horror from Canada rather confirms the suspicion. What makes this all the more dystopian is that it turned out the 37-year-old woman wanted to live, but couldn’t find treatment for the condition which gave her painful skin: ‘I feel like I’m falling through the cracks so if I’m not able to access health care am I then able to access death care?’ Jennyfer Hatch said before she became the star of the most bizarre ad of 2022.
It’s incredibly dystopian, but then Canada’s euthanasia story is one big horror story, the phrase ‘barely believable’ being one that springs to mind. As British-based Canadian academic Yuan Yi Zhu describes it, a parliamentary committee was recently told how ‘sick children between the ages of 14 and 17…. should be allowed to choose to commit suicide with medical assistance. Parents of babies who are born with severe disabilities should be allowed to kill them. Elderly people for whom “life no longer makes any sense” should also be able to end theirs. And so should the mentally ill, and so on and on.
‘Ever since it burst into the public consciousness almost a year ago, details of Canada’s assisted suicide scheme, known euphemistically as MAiD — medical assistance in dying — have shocked and astonished people around the world in equal measure. Harrowing tales of disabled poor people choosing to end their lives because they could not survive on paltry benefits have since proliferated, as have horror stories of doctors and bureaucrats trying to pressure patients into ending their lives….
‘Fast-forward a few years, and the Canadian parliament is now calmly discussing whether disabled children could be euthanised by doctors. In other words, infanticide. Nor will euthanasia be limited to physical illness: from next year, mental illness will become a qualifying condition. Already, depressed teenagers on social media are speaking about applying to die once they turn 18.’
It’s true that euthanasia has also turned out to be quite horrific in the low countries, but something about Canada’s experiment seems especially disturbing, perhaps because the speed of change is faster than anything we’re used to. Dystopias are not just futures gone wrong, but futures where what we regard as shocking is normalised — a disregard for human life, or for human freedom or agency.
Humans can grow used to anything if it becomes normalised, and if they’re told by those in positions of authority that what’s happening is not outside familiar boundaries. Our age is no different: if the frog is boiled slowly enough it won’t become alarmed about its surroundings, but in the case of Canada’s euthanasia experiment the temperature has been set too high. Our moral perceptions, which even for the most irreligious are influenced by centuries of Christian thinking about the sanctity of human life, are jolted.
Ross Douthat wrote of the Canadian tragedy that ‘True dystopias are distinguished, in part, by the fact that many people inside them don’t realise that they’re living in one, because human beings are adaptable enough to take even absurd and inhuman premises for granted. There’s a reason that Aldous Huxley’s Savage, raised fully outside the World State, can articulate a full critique; the other characters in Brave New World achieve at most an unsettlement, an allergy, a personal resistance.’
If you’re ever wondering if you are living in a dystopia, perhaps try to picture how your parents or grandparents at the same age would imagine travelling around our world.
If they got on a Tube in London, for instance, they would see constant messages from the authorities telling them to behave in a way they might find uncomfortable. On a train, they’d be repeatedly reminded by a voice telling them ‘See it. Say it. Sorted’, advising them to actively be suspicious of people around them. When they asked why, you’d explain that there are several thousand people in the country who might wish to blow up the train, but to be careful expressing your opinion about how this absurd situation came about in any sort of written text as it might get them arrested.
Of course, a lot of what I describe as ‘dystopia’ might just be conservative disquiet about modernity, and our visitor from another time would certainly also marvel at the technological progress, including its medical breakthroughs. He or she might be impressed at the opportunities now afforded to women, and the way that the racial hatred that scarred the first half of the 20th century was now deeply stigmatised; a surprising number might even be impressed at the greater humanity shown towards gay people. Seeing our long healthy lives, our welfare state and tolerance, some might regard the 21st century as a utopia.
But they would also see that many things have clearly got far worse, and not within normal boundaries, either. They’re worse in a wildly abnormal way, although this is more true of the United States than Britain.
Perhaps the most popular film dystopia of my childhood was Robocop, Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent story of a cyborg in crime-ridden Detroit. Robocop was in part a satire of Reaganomics while also being that most conservative of tales, the good king/bad counsellor; the central story itself has obvious New Testament analogies, the hero returning from the dead and even having his side speared (although Jesus admittedly never shot a rapist in the testicles). The dystopian feature of this world was that, not only was crime rampant and public services like the police controlled by corporations, but that people just seemed to accept this, mollified in their homes by airhead television shows.
But in many ways the true scale of violence and criminality in US cities is worse than the dystopia. Homicide in Detroit increased four-fold from the mid-60s to early 1970s, and still remains around 40 per 100,000, Central American levels. Robocop’s Detroit at least had some vim; in many ways the reality was worse, where symbols of civic life like theatres and libraries were just left to crumble as huge swathes of the population fled the rising violence. Some of Detroit became so emptied that it returned to farmland.
Across the United States the extent of violence is genuinely dystopian, after two decades of progress in its urban centres; it’s even more shocking when we consider the age profile of the country today, and the extent of medical advances.
Instead of a population which has come to accept this through distractive entertainment, we have the dystopian situation of high-profile journalists at prestigious journals making fun of people who feel worried about crime, and suggesting that this level of violence and disorder is totally normal; indeed, worrying about it suggests extremism or moral deviance. ‘Ok, Karen,’ they chuckle as nervous citizens recount the appalling crime and disorder in the country’s cities. The acceptance and mockery of those who find the situation odd is what makes it truly dystopian.
If you lived in 1960s America, and you saw the country today, would you not find it dystopian? If you walked around parts of San Francisco or Philadelphia or even New York? Or witnessed this scene, a vision from outside civilisation? What about if you read the headline ‘San Francisco supervisors vote to allow police to deploy robots that kill’? It all feels pretty dystopian to me.