What’s wrong with The Giver: Sameness and communism don’t work

I’ve recently had a conversation with a couple of high schoolers about The Giver (a popular middle school reading assignment and a 2014 movie). The story is a dystopia set in an apparently post-apocalyptic world. The key feature of this world is Sameness: there are no seasons and no weather, all people live in identical housing and so on. Population of this world doesn’t have memories of the past, and their present is free of any strong emotions. They lack color perception and don’t know love, but there is no warfare, strife or hunger.

The world is supposed to come off unsympathetically dystopian, but it’s not all that cut and dry. Upon reading the book and seeing the movie I wondered how many people would be willing to take such a deal. And lo, the high schoolers I talked to expressed an opinion that the world of The Giver may be a nice place, especially for the older people who no longer care for romance and just want to live out the rest of their lives in peace and comfort.

Of course, it wouldn’t work this way. Seniors would be the worst off, actually, because in The Giver’s world, the authorities simply kill off (“release”) seniors.

For the others, the deal in The Giver is also not as good as it seems. We learn about the world through the eyes of Jonas, a teenager (12 years old in the book, but 16 years old in the movie). He is young and naive and doesn’t yet know much about his own world. He is shocked to learn that a routine act of “release” from community applied to elders, unexpected babies and sometimes adults is not a benign exile, but an execution. So it’s not as nice as it seemed at first: powers that be won’t send you to a war, but they will still kill you. If you’re lucky, you will live to advanced age, but what happens if you become unproductive due to an accident? This is hardly a utopia.

In addition, we learn from Jonas’ mother, who is a judge, that their community applies a whole specter of punishments, “release” naturally being the ultimate penalty. She relates that she sentenced someone to release. This fact alone breaks the beautiful picture of a harmonious society. The way their small community (a hamlet, really), “releases” people left and right, it might as well be called a death camp. And the world doesn’t look as perfect once you realize that people still routinely break rules and are punished for that. Is there really no strife in that world or any miscreants are swiftly executed before situation gets out of hand?

OK, so the society was totalitarian, but did they at least live comfortable lives with all their basic material needs taken care of? No way! History tells us that humans need incentives. Imposing Sameness removes material rewards as incentives. With punishment being the only incentive, a society can’t survive. The largest scale experiment of this kind, the USSR, collapsed much sooner than it reached anywhere near the level of control and uniformity depicted in the book. It was beset by deficits throughout entirety of its existence.

People tried to create utopia many times. Not a single one succeeded. Ask Governor Bradford of Plymouth Plantation how well communism worked even with seemingly highly motivated group of people who had no one to rely one rather than themselves. Answer: not well at all. Once individual incentives are removed and the fruit of labor is split between all members of the community, people start finding excuses to avoid work. In his writing, Governor Bradford relates how pilgrims, who arrived to settle a colony in the New World, attempted to do all agricultural work together and share the crops fairly and evenly. The result was a disaster that nearly wiped out the colony: people were unwilling to put much effort into tough farming work, even though their collective survival depended on it. Seeing this, next year they decided to parcel out land and let each family work its own lot. The quick end to the communist experiment saved the colony. Governor Bradford describes the improvement in these words:

The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

Sameness may be superficially attractive and communist ideal will probably always resonate, but it is a false calling, doomed to leave an impressive body count and ultimately fail every time it is tried. This is one of the most important lessons we could learn from all of human history.

 

References:

Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. The University of Chicago Press. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s1.html

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