Dystopia • noun • (dis-toh-pee-uh)
Definition: an unsustainable, bad place
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In 1868, British philosopher John Stuart Mill coined the word dystopia meaning “bad place” and ever since, dystopian fiction has been a significant genre in English literature. Yet despite the popularity of dystopian fiction today, our society struggles to recognize what constitutes a dystopian reality.
As climate change causes unprecedented fires, floods of biblical proportions, and massive storms, “dystopian” should be a word that we feel empowered to use to describe the present. Likewise, the countless deaths from COVID-19 that are caused by Americans choosing to not get vaccinated are also dystopian. These are occurrences that happen in bad places.
Mill did not coin dystopia to describe life in England in the 1800s, but in order to create an opposite of the utopian fiction that had steadily grown in Europe following the publication of Utopia by Thomas More in 1516. Yet as we all know, “utopia” does not mean “good place.”
Utopia means “nonexistent good place” and this is why SCL says Eǔtopia instead. In 1516, More coined “utopia” by combining the Greek prefixes “eu-” meaning “good” and “ou-” meaning “nonexistent” by dropping the “e” and “o” and attaching the remaining “u” to “topia” which means “place.”
For over 500 years, the word that most English speakers believe to mean “good place” actually means “nonexistent good place.” The misinformation has been so ingrained that English speakers now believe that dystopia is utopia’s antonym. Yet if a society does not have a word for “good place,” it should be easy to understand how this linguistic void increases the likelihood of becoming a bad place and creating a bad culture.
Dystopia and The Bad
One of the main problems within English concerning our understanding of “bad” is that the meaning of the word far too often derives from moral or ethical interpretations of existence. This is not to say that morals or ethics are wrong, but the ramifications of a moral or ethical wrong are far too often expressed as punishments that will be inflicted upon us in the afterlife.
This discourse strangely tries to incline us to create a positive reality or existence under the premise that we shall be punished or rewarded for our actions once we no longer exist. Since these punishments will allegedly occur once we no longer exist, it then becomes impossible to prove if the punishments, or rewards, even exist. These moral or ethical parameters make it nearly impossible to prove what is “good” or “bad” because we supposedly will only obtain answers to these questions upon our death, and at that point, the question no longer matters.
Therefore, the task must be to determine what constitutes “good” and “bad” based entirely in existence and reality, and not in fiction. The distinction between a good and a bad friend is a healthy place to start and at SCL, we use the same methodology for Eǔtopia.
A good friend is not necessarily “good” because they are smart, attractive, or wealthy—all things that are normally considered “good”—but because you can rely on them. They will drive you to the airport, pick up the phone when you need them, and they’ll give you good advice even when you don’t want to hear it. When you think about the future, it is easy to imagine that they will be a part of it because their friendship helps sustain you.
When our concept of good is grounded in existence, it becomes obvious that “good” essentially means “sustainable” or “nurturing.” Something that can last for a long time is something that is good, and good friendships are vitally important because they help keep us alive. In Okinawa, Japan, residents have some of the longest life expectancies in the world and they attribute their longevity to their culture of cultivating sustainable friend groups that they call a moai.
Therefore, if good means sustainable or nurturing then bad must mean unsustainable and sickening. Climate change is unsustainable and so is attempting to survive the COVID-19 pandemic without vaccination. Thousands of unvaccinated Americans are falling sick and dying of COVID-19. This is sickening.
When our definitions of “good” and “bad” are rooted in existence, it becomes obvious that we all engage in good and bad actions, and that our actions determine how sustainable or unsustainable we are. Our unsustainable actions can be little things such as how we choose to talk to one another. We might feel morally or ethically justified in yelling at another person, while never asking ourselves if this chosen tone of voice cultivates the sustainable environment you’d like to exist within.
When you believe that punishments will occur upon your death, it becomes incredibly easy to believe that a bad place or a bad act is a good place or a good act because you have not been punished for your bad actions. This dynamic also makes it incredibly difficult for people to learn from their mistakes because their beliefs have empowered them to believe that their mistakes are not mistakes.
Dystopia and Knowledge
When I think about real and not fictional dystopias, I think about the Antebellum South and the culture it has birthed.
Prior to the Civil War, many southern states’ enslaved population was around 40 percent of the total population. Just think about how hellacious it must have been to live within a society where one half of the population lived to oppress the other. This society could never have peace and was defined by conflict. Half of the population constantly worked to become free and the other half existed to deny them freedom.
Apart from the dystopian nature of this authoritarian, ethnocidal society, the white ethnocidal oppressors in this society often invoked moral and ethical justifications for creating this bad place. Slavery, oppression, and terror became moral imperatives in this world; and when people believe they have moral justifications for engaging in bad actions, it can be almost impossible to teach them how to engage in good actions with an attachment to existence.
Instead of educating people about how oppressing other people is unsustainable because the oppressed will always aspire to become free, oppressors felt empowered to believe absurd logic such as: the enslaved enjoying their enslavement and that they are also incapable of living with freedom or without oppression.
These absurd beliefs, which today we would probably describe as “misinformation” or “disinformation,” created a dynamic where ethnocidal oppressors became almost incapable of learning or obtaining knowledge.
When enslaved people rebelled, many slave owners articulated shock. During the Civil War, enslaved people attacked white oppressors as they fought for their freedom, and once the oppressor’s life was in jeopardy, it was at that moment when some of them realized the dystopian nature of the reality they had created.
However, if you are only capable of learning about the error of your ways upon being confronted with your imminent death, then you have created a status quo where you are essentially incapable of learning.
Tragically, the American South has committed itself to rewriting history to erase their dystopian society and instead, depict it as an idyllic utopia. The South has spent centuries cultivating a society nearly incapable of learning in order to sustain a bad environment.
Today, we can see the tragic ramifications of a society that shuns knowledge in order to try to sustain a bad place, as countless unvaccinated Americans in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida die from COVID-19. Tragically, they request for the vaccine only after they are hospitalized and it has become too late.
Ignorance is not sustainable, and a society or culture cannot survive when its inhabitants believe that embracing the potential of a premature death equates to engaging in what they would define as “good.”
A dystopia is not fiction, but instead a place whose inhabitants make life unsustainable. Destroying the environment, neglecting human life, and shunning knowledge and wisdom are hallmarks of a bad place.
As American life becomes increasingly dystopian, we must have a clear understanding of how we define “bad,” so that we can create a sustainable, nurturing, Eǔtopian, good place.