Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Source of book: Audiobook from the library   

This is another in our Newbery Award winning series of books. A law school classmate assigned one of his kids the entire list (which is impressive). I haven’t gone that far, but we are always looking for good audiobooks to pass the time when driving.

This book was also recommended by my classmate’s wife. Since she comes from the same cultic background as me, I think she should have given me a trigger warning. (I’m mostly kidding.) Because seriously, there are some elements of this book which were hard for me to withstand, because they were so similar to what I went through. 

The Giver is, as far as I can figure, one of the very first dystopian works directed toward children. It is particularly powerful because it starts off as a utopia - kind of in the pattern of Thomas More’s classic, which gave birth to the name, which means “nowhere.” The society seems so perfect in many ways - and it has some distinctly admirable qualities. For example, it is egalitarian as to gender. Both men and women serve in all capacities, and the intent is that each serves according to his gift. Children are selected for specific careers at age 12, based on their aptitude as determined by observation and their own choices as to how to spend their volunteer hours. Alas, as we find out later, once you have your career selected, you can’t change - so you had better hope the Elders get it right the first time. This is indeed a better system than one where birth and genitalia are destiny.

Likewise, the society does appear to take seriously the idea that everyone should start off with the same advantages. One (in theory) rises or falls in status as one’s gifts and effort dictate. This is a definite improvement on our current (and indeed the vast majority of historical) societies, which most certainly do not give everyone the same starting line. (I can’t believe I actually have to say that, but a certain political philosophy loves to pretend we start in the same place.)

Also utopian is the idea that compassion and kindness are emphasized. There is a format for apologies and forgiveness. But more on that later, because that was one of my trigger points.

I might also mention the emphasis on precision of language - because that part might be my utopia. No more use of “literally” when “figuratively” is intended. And Alanis would get a slap on the wrist...

Perhaps most in the utopian tradition is the idea that there is no want. Everyone has enough to eat, to wear. A place to live, a supportive family. There is no warfare, and death is mostly predictable and from old age. An accident is such an unusual tragedy that it is remembered for years afterward.

But there is a dark side, as the protagonist, Jonas, learns. He is selected to have a very special job, one that comes with “great honor.” He will be the next “Receiver of Memories,” and be trained by the previous holder of that job.

As it turns out, memories, emotions, and every unpredictability have been eradicated in favor of “Sameness.” Only the Receiver of Memories can remember weather, sunshine, and other commonplaces - and also the negative counterparts: war, death, hate, pain. And Jonas must receive all of these from the previous Receiver, who is now The Giver.

And then, he also learns of the terrible truth of the community. People are “released,” which means that they are killed. After the elderly reach a certain age, they are “released.” If twins are born, one is “released” so that the population remains steady. (As far as that goes, babies are genetically engineered and birthed by designated birth mothers, then assigned to family units. Sexual desire is chemically repressed so that there are no pregnancies outside the system.) And those who fail to conform to the rules of the community must change or they too are released.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, because the way it unfolds is interesting. But I do have some observations. My second daughter pointed out the similarities between this “sameness” and the one in A Wrinkle in Time. There certainly are similarities. Everyone does things on a schedule, and love has been essentially eradicated. So definitely some influence from the earlier book, I would wager.

The theme has some similarity too. All utopias require control in some way or another. (Even the libertarian utopia would require a police state to keep the lower classes from revolting.) There is simply no other way to force the messiness and diversity of humanity into a single mold.

One of the interesting twists in this book, though, is that it makes you consider just how far you would be willing to go to end war. I guess this is always the question that has no easy answer. Safety versus freedom? We see this in our discussion of gun and immigration laws, for example. And incarceration laws. There are more, to be sure, and it isn’t always easy to draw the line. If this was the only question posed by the book, it would be a doozy.

But the Community makes an additional choice, which is to eliminate conflict by “sameness,” which goes considerably beyond a sacrifice of some options. Instead, it forces individuals to become alike. Races have been eliminated, for example. (It’s a Steve “I'd like to see an America that is just so homogenous that we look a lot the same” King utopia…) This is much different from the idea of tolerating (or embracing) diversity and difference. It is enforcing conformity.

It is in this that I strongly recognize my own past. The ideal to which one must conform is obviously different - the center of Bill Gothard’s teaching was the subordination of women and rigid gender roles - but the point is the same. Conformity must be rigid, differences must be eradicated, and failure to conform must be ruthlessly punished.

Another parallel: the apologies. I may have mentioned this somewhere in one of the blog posts I did in the past, but I want to state it outright here: apology is used as a weapon to enforce conformity in the Gothard system. It is one where subordinates apologize, not leaders. It is one where failing to follow the rules exactly requires an apology. And it was rather ritualized and used to control. Someone who learned to use the system could - and usually did - bully others by using the language against them.

Maybe the most triggering, though, were the evening “emotion” sessions. The family unit would gather, and each would tell the emotions they felt throughout the day. These would then be processed in an “appropriate” way, so they would be defused. It is a bit like therapy turned on its head. Some of it sounds good - and most of us parents have probably done some of the same things to talk through emotions with our kids. But this was more. Negative emotions were either explained away, or rejected. There was not really the space to express negative emotions - particularly if they were directed toward the “authority” of parents or others. I had flashbacks to the concept of “yielding rights” (which really only was something subordinates did, not leaders) which was very much used as a weapon against feelings that one was being abused or hurt. “You are angry because you haven’t yielded your right to [perfectly normal desire].” It was a way of conditioning one to accept toxic behavior and demands without pushing back. (Some of us did indeed push back big time - particularly after we left home.) Then you throw in the insistence on “confessing sin” - basically a chance to inflict guilt for “rebellious” thoughts. So yes, this was a highly triggering bit in this book.

Like Jonas, though, I too held back. I have never, with anyone, shared everything about me. Some emotions and experiences are not public. (And anyone who knows me knows I actually wear my heart on my sleeve - but even I have my inner life that nobody sees entirely.) And no, my wife and I do not make an exception for each other. We see more of each other than anyone else - but we have our private parts of our minds too. And that is a very good thing.

And then there is the issue of sex. It is easy to see parallels with classics such as 1984 and Brave New World. But I think Lowry really nails this issue. Perhaps it is because she has to dance around sex in a book for children, but the idea that at puberty all humans are put on pills to eliminate sexuality is brilliant. This would be the killer app for a fundamentalist utopia. Seriously. As it is, Gothardism and other fundamentalist movements attempt to use psychologically abusive techniques to suppress sexuality. They insist women’s bodies are the source of sin, and preach that the worst sins are all sexual. They try to eliminate contact between the sexes prior to marriage through “courtship” and “betrothal.” They systematically attempt to repress sex in favor of what is essentially a return to the values of arranged marriage. Sexuality and marriage are about alliances between “likeminded” families, not about love.

This is why the pill would be a killer app. If sexuallity could be repressed - turned on and off a will - then you could avoid all the messiness. No out of wedlock pregnancies. No people falling in love without parental sanction. It’s utopia, right? So much easier to control people. And honestly, since the age at which it makes financial sense to start a family gets older and older (due to political decisions, I should add), the only hope to ensure sexual purity until that time seems to be to invent such a pill. Otherwise, you keep setting basic nature against societal expectations - something is going to give. Not everyone will willingly give up the peak of their sexual and reproductive years for the good of “society.” Unless you can reprogram biology itself.

This book has been one of the most challenged books - meaning that parents (or others) have objected to its presence in school reading lists or libraries. One reason why is undoubtedly that it talks of suicide and infanticide. These are heavy themes, and how your children react might be different than mine, who did fine. But the other reason, I strongly suspect, is that the book is disconcerting. It makes one question. Question authority. Question the status quo. It makes you wonder about who in our society is being quietly left to expire. (Do not get me started on the GOP “health care” plan.)

I found it interesting that at least one critic believed the book was a cautionary tale against Progressivism. I believe that conclusion is only possible if you use a strawman version of “Progressivism.” You know the one, that we have regulated things so much that people cannot hurt themselves anymore and this has deadend life. This is the libertarian fantasy writ large. A more accurate description of the Progressive goal (see, for example, Theodore Roosevelt) is that it is a movement to prevent the oppression of the weak by the strong, a check on the unrestrained power of the wealthy. I would hardly imagine, for example, that Canadians are somehow emotionally dead and repressed because they are more Progressive in some sense.

Rather, the caution here transcends Right and Left. The core value of dystopia is the elimination of differences through control. The right wing of the Nazis resembles the left wing of the Stalinists more than either resembles modern Belgium. Bill Gothard resembles Kim Jong Un more than either resembles Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher. It is a utopian ideal, the elimination of conflict not through the cultivation of empathy and balancing of the needs of different people and groups, but through the forced conformity to the goals of the leadership, no matter what the human cost.

The cure in this book (and in A Wrinkle in Time as well) isn’t laissez faire economics or some other abstract ideal, but a return to true humanity, an embrace of the value of all, not just those of economic worth, and a celebration of human connection. It is an embrace of all the messiness and risk that humanity entails, not just those who fit in perfectly. In that sense, it is an embrace of the teachings of Christ, not the teachings a utopian, whether Ayn Rand or Karl Marx.

In an interesting twist, a later book by Lowry, using some of the same characters, envisions another village that becomes actively xenophobic, refusing to accept and embrace the unwanted and displaced from other villages. Because this is always the other half of the picture. Forced conformity goes hand in hand with fear and hatred of the “other.”

It’s an interesting book, not the most pleasant read for me, given my history, but one which does provoke thought. 


Late addition to this post. A friend commenting on my Facebook post triggered a memory of a quote from Steven Pinker's outstanding book, The Better Angels of our Nature - which should be required reading. It concerns the way that utopian ideology of all kinds leads to mass murder of citizens:

"Utopian ideologies invite genocide for two reasons. One is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite. Most of us agree that it is ethically permissible to divert a runaway trolley that threatens to kill five people onto a side track where it would only kill one. But suppose it were a hundred million lives one could save by diverting the trolley, or a billion, or - projecting into the indefinite future - infinitely many. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain. Not only that, but consider the people who learn about the promise of a perfect world yet nonetheless oppose it. They are the only things standing in the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. How evil are they? You do the math."

1 comment:

  1. I read this book when I was in grade school, I think. Perhaps junior high. And it upset me, on a very visceral level. I had to come back to it later as an adult, re-read it, and process it more thoughtfully. The sheer level of control exerted over the community was deeply frightening to me, especially the practice of "releasing" people. It still deeply bothers me. I mostly don't do well with dystopian fiction. My anxiety disorder tends to just make everything worse with those kinds of stories, so while I have read a few (there was that deeply depressing afternoon in my teens when I read 1984), I typically avoid books in that genre for my own mental health.