Dissecting dystopia

This unusual election season has many writers falling back on philosophers and philosophy to describe what’s happening. Two words thrown around a lot are “dystopia” and “existential.”

Let’s muse about those. 

“Dystopia,” the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says, is “an imaginary place which is depressingly wretched and whose people lead a fearful existence.”

The adjectival form of the word was first used by John Stuart Mill, who was, among other things, a philosopher and economist, whose main ideas were tied to liberalism and utilitarianism. He was a strong believer that people should have more power than government, unless, as he wrote in On Liberty, the people were “barbarians,” in which case despotism was excusable.

In 1868, Mill spoke before the British Parliament on the “Irish question,” whether Ireland should be granted home rule or, at the least, a measure of independence or self-government. He excoriated the plan before Parliament as weak and unworkable:

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I may be permitted, as one who, in common with many of my betters, have been subjected to the charge of being Utopian, to congratulate the Government on having joined that goodly company. It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or cacotopians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.

The noun “dystopia” first appeared in 1951, and since then has been applied to dark, apocalyptic places and situations.

(“Cacotopian” has all but dropped from sight.)

Before August 2015, “dystopia” appeared almost exclusively in the context of apocalyptic movies, imaginary scenarios, or the literary genre that bears its name. But since then, “dystopia” and “Donald J. Trump” have appeared in the same article hundreds of times. Among the earliest we could find was a piece by The Washington Post political columnist Michael Gerson after the first Republican debate, when Trump did not join with others in promising to support the GOP nominee, whomever it was. “At that moment, Republicans saw a likely dystopia,” Gerson wrote. (Most of the column discussed all the reasons Trump would “flame out.” He wasn’t the only one who got it wrong—so far.)

Since then, “dystopia” in its various forms has appeared over 50 times in The Washington Post alone, mostly to describe what a writer sees as Trump’s image of different parts of the world or the United States. (“Dystopia” has appeared about as often in The New York Times, but a large share of those are in the arts pages.)

We can find no example of Trump himself using the word, nor can we find his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, using it. It’s become a meme, and risks being imaginary no longer. If you say it often enough, it becomes true.

As Mill implied, “dystopian” is the opposite of “utopian.” With a capital letter, “Utopia” was the imaginary island in Sir Thomas More’s novel of the same name. It was written in Latin (where “utopia” means “nowhere”) and published in 1516, it widely viewed to be a philosophical and political tome more than a potboiler. Utopia discussed a place where all property was held in common, where there was no poverty, capital punishment, or war, and where the nation itself was governed on rational thought more than laws. For 500 years, “utopia” has been held up to be the political ideal, and also recognized as an impossibility.

That brings us to “existential.” While not as common as “dystopia,” it still gets quite a few mentions in articles mentioning either Trump or Clinton. A Boston Globe editorial columnist recently said Trump’s comment that Hillary Clinton would “destroy the country from within” “suggests a Clinton victory would represent an existential threat to the United States,” and could lead to violence. A writer at Vox.com said that several political commentators believe “there are Americans to whom Trump poses an existential threat.” Another columnist said that “Tea Party Americans have recognized the existential threat to our lives posed by a socialist agenda that would destroy our free market society.” And the chief executive of The New York Times wrote that whether Donald Trump would change his style was “an existential question.”

The root of “existential” is, of course “exist.” The philosophy of “existentialism” is based less on existence itself and more on humanity, of individuals finding their true selves through free will, through underlying themes like anxiety, knowledge that death is inevitable, and dread. In “existentialism,” society itself is unnatural, political rules are arbitrary, and even science is not necessarily a good thing. Individual responsibility is paramount.

The 20th-century view of “existentialism” grew out of the “dystopian” ruins of World War II. Jean-Paul Sartre is its acknowledged leader, but other philosophers, including Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Friedrich Nietzsche, weighed in. As Sartre wrote, man is “condemned to be free” because, once in the world, “he is responsible for everything he does.” 

Because “dystopia” and “existential” are easy to figure out, they rarely need to be defined for an audience. It’s difficult, though, to separate “existentialism” the philosophy from “existential” the adjectival form of “existence.” A writer wanting to use either one should be careful to be sure the context is clear. We’re not sure the examples quoted above are clear.

Even better, since both words are being overused, come up with something more original, or ordinary.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.

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