Are You Not Entertained?

Is the Hunger Games Series a Caricature of Our World?

I’ve enjoyed watching the The Hunger Games film series. It includes all the usual exciting exploits and special effects that make today’s action and adventure movies entertaining and immersive. Though the package is all it promises to be, it’s the underlying theme of a society that’s lost its values and direction that I find fascinating. 

When we take a moment to consider it, the parallels between it and our current reality are, at best, unsettling.

What does the series and our world have in common?

  1. Focus is increasingly directed on outward appearances.
  2. Stricter rules are in place to maintain an ever-increasing have/have not dichotomy.
  3. Distraction is used to keep the masses from focusing on what matters.
  4. Dissatisfaction can lead to revolt once the pain of the status quo overwhelms fear’s objections.

1. Focus on Outward Appearance

With all the spending of the past few decades came a not-too-surprising by-product. Money became our identity; we became defined by what we owned, or what we dreamed of owning.
— Suzie Orman, The Money Class (2011) , p. 20.
[W]hen people are less autonomous—that is, when they are more controlled—they are more likely to engage in the behaviours that promote ill-being.
— Edward L. Deci, Why We Do What We Do (1995), p. 171.

The focus for a society in trouble shifts from internal to external drivers. We redirect our energies from being a good person to looking like one. By focusing on our external accoutrements and belongings, we spend an increasing amount of time, energy and money on looking the part—whether we fit the part or not based on our skills, abilities and internal drives and passions. And the cost to maintain appearances is disproportionately punitive for have nots as it requires a larger percentage of their income. 

For the individual, the cost is not only monetary. The shift from internal to external drivers can lead to a loss of self. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: by focusing on appearances and the accumulation of stuff, we stop investing in what matters: relationships, knowledge & personal growth, curiosity, passion, health & wellness, contentment.

We stop investing in part because we:

  • Don’t see the value anymore (how do you measure intrinsic values) and
  • No longer have the resources to invest in it.

We become shallow, a mere shell of our real selves. And, left to fester long enough, this state leaves us miserable and feeling helpless.

2. Stricter Rules Maintain the Have/Have Not Dichotomy

The growing importance of money and power reduces our ability to have regard for others. We start believing that we need to protect our status at the expense of others. And, the more we have, the less likely we are to be empathetic and the more likely to be among those who set the rules. 

The chance to identify with a powerful and wealthy entity—the company or the boss—is only the carrot. There is also a stick. What surprised and offended me the most about the low-wage workplace…was the extent to which one is required to surrender one’s basic civil rights and—what boils down to the same thing—self-respect. I learned this at the very beginning of my stint as a waitress, when I was warned that my purse could be searched by management at any time.
— Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed, p. 208.

When money and power are what’s valued most, those who have both set the rules in their favour:

  • Keep the “have” group small and their share of resources increasingly larger.
  • Make the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” as large as possible, both geographically and monetarily.
  • Restrict access to or decimate/exploit/pollute basic—often free—resources: air, water, food, energy, shared public spaces & walkways, the environment, education
  • Offer incentives—the magic promise of a better life if we work hard enough—or threaten punishment—fines, jail time, poverty—to get the masses to comply. 

3. Distraction Is Used to Keep the Masses from Focusing on What Matters

When life is difficult, distraction is key to making the days bearable. It’s the ultimate pacifier and it’s offered in various forms:

Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As we saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
— Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) by Neil Postman, p. xix.
  • Dreams of shortcuts to fame and fortune:
    • Reality TV & talent contests
    • Playing the lottery
    • Rags to riches stories
  • Unstable communities:
    • Creating conflict to promote pointless infighting
    • Relocating individuals and groups based on income (access to better schools requires greater investment in housing)
    • Greater investment in law enforcement to keep the peace
    • Greater investment in private security spending
  • Plentiful forms of escape:

 4. Dissatisfaction Ultimately Leads to Revolt

Capitalism is too strong for governments. If we want to control it we must do so ourselves. It will take the collective will of many individuals to make the market our servant rather than our master. For that to happen those individuals have to be clear about who they are, why they think that they exist and what they want from life. Not, unfortunately, as easy to do as to say, but crucial if we want to have control of our own lives and of our society.
— Charles Handy, The Hungry Spirit (1997), p. 60.

We all have a breaking point. It’s the point where we become so uncomfortable that our need for change overcomes any and all internal objections. We find our situation so unbearable that we believe that anything else would be better than what we have at present. 

When the unequal pressure within becomes too great a system seeks to regain equilibrium. There are two ways of making this happen: leaders open a relief valve or the system explodes. 

When leaders wait too long to use the relief valve that enables the status quo to exist for a while longer, an explosion is the inevitable conclusion.

Here are some historical examples:

Interested in reading up on uprisings through the ages? Here’s Wikipedia’s list of revolutions and rebellions

What Can Cure Our Hunger?

[T]o tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
— Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p. 88 -

With every decision on how we spend our resources—time, effort and money—we send a message to ourselves and to others about what matters, what we stand for. An appetite for the intrinsic costs us nothing and increases our wellbeing. It also leaves us less dependent on the need for more money to feel comfortable—and that helps us be less dependent on a system that manipulates its participants via the need for ever-increasing amounts of the green stuff. Conversely, like a tenacious drug habit, an appetite for the extrinsic tends to only make us hungry for ever greater fixes—thanks to the powers of hedonic adaptation.

Shifting to More of What Matters

We need to figure out what we think is important, regardless of the messages we’re bombarded with every day. We need to consider what we want over the long term, not what might serve as a bandaid in the moment:

  • Self-sufficiency vs stuff
  • Self-respect vs self-loathing
  • Self-confidence vs self-doubt
  • Self-fulfillment vs hedonism
  • Self-reliance vs helplessness

We all benefit when we build our appetite for more of what helps us grow. This appetite also renders us increasingly deaf to the voices of empty promise peddlers

Not only do we feel better, but we tend to want to help others grow as well because—unlike money & power—it isn’t a zero-sum game. And when that happens, there are no winners and losers. There is no game.

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