Dystopia is not imposed—it is self-inflicted. Cultural fascination with dystopian themes is not due to a proper awareness of its cause. On the contrary, it is utter ignorance of the origins of cultural undoing that prompt our desire to create universes more dystopian than our own. There is a certain comfort in knowing that our world is not yet as dysfunctional as it could be. This knowledge gives us leave to simultaneously entertain ourselves with the desperate courage of the characters we imagine, and find an excuse for us to refrain from exercising courage in our own lives. Granted, we feel inspired, even courageous, when watching an imaginary hero or heroine in a life and death struggle. This world we create, dystopian though it may be, is what we dream of—an opportunity to be a hero, an opportunity to prove ourselves to the world, an opportunity to lead boldly and fearlessly. We exit our dystopian fantasy comforted by the knowledge that it is extraordinary, other-worldly circumstances that make heroes out of ordinary people.
If we fancy ourselves particularly intellectual, we may spend a few moments at the conclusion of our dystopian adventure pondering whether we would be a hero if confronted by the same circumstances as our fictional hero or heroine. We may even have a moment of self-reflection during which we question our abilities, and perhaps acknowledge the doubt we rightly feel about our ability to imitate the heroes we admire.
It is in those moments of pseudo-profundity that we make the error that we have just convinced ourselves that we would never make. The heroes of a fantasy dystopia help us believe that we would do the same were we in their position. The heroes convince us that if we were confronted with the struggle they face, whether totalitarianism, anarchy, or another form of tyranny, we would be as courageous as they are. Until we are faced with a momentous challenge, or a dystopian society, we feel that our need for courage is diminished. Our courage, both personal and collective, is sadly unused. We have been inoculated against courage, by imbibing the belief that courage is not for the ordinary person, until they are confronted with an extra-ordinary challenge. It is this mindset that paves the way for the dystopia we perversely admire. Courage must be exercised every day, in small ways and in minor decisions. Our admiration of courage in our own fantasies has given us an excuse to neglect its application in our personal lives, and collectively in our society.
The roots of dystopia are already visible. Entertaining ourselves with fantasies of courage in worlds even more dysfunctional than our own should not be an excuse to ignore the opportunities for courage that face each of us every day.