“Quite out of character for you to post this”, my friend wrote after I had shared a meme on Instagram. It’s true: I usually stick to photos and the occasional video[^ likely because of some hopeless nostalgia for the photo platform it once was], and yet something about this particular meme felt acute. It read: “Why read dystopian fiction when you can just pay attention”; and in my cynical mood, I added it to my story.
Minutes earlier I had read a transcript of the Argentinian president’s speech at Davos. In it, he praised libertarianism and called all state action an act of “collectivism” that’s “opening the doors to socialism”. Elon Musk promptly and tastelessly reshared that speech, as if to underline that the culture wars are in full swing.
It was really my sentiment that was out of character, but I couldn’t help it: The city had just been blanketed by election posters from Germany’s far-right AfD when they were exposed to plot the mass deportation of citizens they don’t deem sufficiently German. “It feels like it gets worse every day,” I told Rocío.
I’m trying my best to avoid being chrono-centrist but man—there’s a palpable sense that things are heading the wrong way, that the culture wars are becoming all-consuming.
In conversation I’ve been finding it refreshing to acknowledge how bleak everything seems. Not because I’m looking for comfort but because making that diagnosis seems important: I don’t want to just be cynical, I want things to turn around. I don’t want to have someone redefine any sort of collective action as socialism, and I sure as hell don’t want to relive the fascism of the 20th century.
But all that requires reflection: Reflection on how to stop feeling powerless, how to break through the constant barrage of populist distractions, and how to escape the mood that makes people receptive makes me share memes in bed.
The mind, I learned a few years ago, tends to work well when you’re busy doing something else: When I was cycling to work the next day, it occurred to me that the meme I so enthusiastically doesn’t actually say anything concrete. In fact, you can fill it with meaning entirely according to your political leanings or daily mood.
While I was thinking about the right wing and narrative black holes, others might consider things dystopian that I find normal, or even commendable: In Naomi Klein’s Doppelganger, she touched upon many things that worry the (alt-)right, who consider things like vaccine passports just as dystopian as I find the speeches of the self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist”.
In truth, the term dystopia has been thrown around so much that it’s become hollow. Dystopias are no longer just the domain of literature and sci-fi but of the overall ”territory of ideas”: People use it to talk about Gilead, VR Goggles, and deportation schemes all at once. That’s more weight than any term can practically bear.
Orwell’s 1984 is arguably the standout work of the genre and I’ve seen it invoked countless times—not just when talking about (post-)truth but also when it comes to language. “Newspeak” is pure pop culture, but anyone disagreeing with a new term (let alone gender-neutral language) wields it like an axe: Change is equivalent to Newspeak is equivalent to 1984 and thereby proof that we’re living in a dystopia.
Just as I was having this thought, I cycled past a school building. The kids were out playing in the snow, the sun was shining, and suddenly you heard a loud gong playing from a wall-mounted megaphone. The break was over and the kids reluctantly shuffled back to class.
If you are so inclined, you can see a dystopia even in this, the most innocuous of everyday occurrences: “They are interrupting child play to enforce order by sound! They are subjugating them to a system!”
Nobody is seriously making that claim (at least not for now), but it’s not too far off when you put yourself into a mindset that we’re all being controlled, coerced, and enslaved. That the dystopia of 1984 is already here.
So for starters, let’s stop wielding this term as an easy way to end debate, to discredit ideas. Let’s stop pretending that “dystopia” ever meant anything concrete and not just an imagined society that can never be reached—for if it was, it would be called reality (sadly) and not dystopia.
Let’s stop pretending that 1984—the imagined future—would be anything like 1984 and not much more real, made up of real-world decisions that are being shaped right now by those who shout the loudest and weaponize the terms devoid of any meaning.