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An "Out of Focus" Utopia

sel209's picture

After our discussion ended on Tuesday, I left class still pondering the results of our utopia exercise. While some might think a perfect socio-politico-legal system is easy to construct in theory, I had (and continue to have) trouble conceptualizing a world in which “equality,” a word that implies affording all people the same status, rights, and opportunities*, does not inevitably translate into “sameness,” a word that wipes away all sense of individuality and fails to acknowledge or cherish differences. I’m reminded of Orwell’s Animal Farm, which details first the liberation of animals on a farm from oppressive humans, then the animals’ attempt to set up a utopian society in which all members of the farm are equal, and finally the emergence of a hierarchy in which (spoiler alert) the pigs take control of the farm and reduce the original seven commandments to only one: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

An interesting take on the current state of our society

(An interesting take on the current state of our society...)

In this “no-place” that is our hypothetical utopia, all citizens would be afforded the same legal rights and opportunities, which I believe is a considerably hefty but someday attainable goal. What I struggle with realizing most is the social component of this utopian equation. Society would have to be free of any and all bias whatsoever, and no person’s individual contribution could be more valuable than another’s. Is this feasible? From a gen/sex perspective, would straight couples be more valued than gay couples because of their ability to reproduce and carry on the species, or would we compensate with IVF and new reproductive technologies? Would women be more valued than men for their ability to bear children and breastfeed? Excerpts from Margaret Price’s book only serve to further complicate the process of constructing a utopia by illuminating the constraints academic society puts on students with mental disabilities. Would there be no need for medications to combat these issues in our utopia because everyone would  be guaranteed the same learning experience regardless of the way in which they chose to learn? Would egodystonic conditions even exist in utopian society, and if they did, what sort of label would they have? How could every student compete on a totally equal playing field with the existence of such conditions? I have so much difficulty envisioning a world in which no group emerges as more successful, and therefore more powerful, than another.  The world I am left with when I conjure up the image of a true utopia is a world filled with sameness, a place that guarantees the loss of diversity and depth, and it’s grey, bleak, flat, and meaningless.



jfwright's picture


It's funny your mention this, Charlie, because our discussion of utopia had be thinking about the exact same thing. (Interested parties can read Harrison Bergeron here:

The thing that strikes me about Harrison Bergeron is that society isn't really equal. In the case of the society in which the Bergerons live, the Handicapper General is the person who decides how to deal with those people whose abilities and disabilities need to be evened out. This society isn't equal, because someone is issuing top-down instructions; a horizontally organized governing body has not been established. In addition, the only way in which people see for excelling is in this power structure. Without needing to excel, how could society advance? Who could make things better? Or, would that not matter? Although I understood the point in conversations about small communities as utopias when everyone shares tasks, on a larger scale, it is wildly impractical: without a model or reason to excel, who would?

In many ways, we have a similar system today: in order to claim accomodations for your "disability," you have to go through government channels, who then may or may not provide you accomodations based on the severity and nature of your disability. If the government does not grant accomodations, no one has to be generous in how they treat you. In other cases, society may label you as disabled, even if your impairment has its own culture and society attached to it; I'm reminded of Rachel's post from last week about the deaf community, and about how deafness is not only a force that brings people together, but is also not problematic unless people who cannot hear are treated differently from others.

In addition, in the case of Harrison Bergeron, the forced accomodations do not serve to equalize: rather, it brings unwanted attention to the differences that people naturally have. For example, if someone is beautiful, that person is given a mask to cover his or her face; may serve to make the person less attractive, but it must also necessarily bring attention to the person's inherent attractiveness in a way that is no longer objective: because this person has been deemed "attractive," this person must be seen as such.

I don't think that imagining a universal utopia is possible; in my opinion, we should stick to the original definition of "no place."

charlie's picture

Equalizing Utopia.

I am really glad that you brought these questions up. I too, was struggling with the concept of "utopia". Is a utopia simply just a place where people can be themselves and be accepted for exactly that? Does money, socioseconomic status, and social standing really have a place in all of this? 

Towards the end of our discussion on Tuesday, I remembered the short story by Kurt Vonnegut Harrison Burgeron in which equality is taken to the extreme. Those who are smarter than others have loud noises in their ears constantly so that they couldn't think straight , those who were stronger than others had to carry around weights, etc. In this way, no individual was smarter, stronger, or better than any other individual. But does this lead to a better society? Part of what I think makes society as a whole, for lack of a better word, so cool, is that everyone does have a specific skill or talent or knowledge set. For example, is we pretend that our class is "society", we all have such different academic disciplines, economic backgrounds, grades, schools, athletic levels, and so much more, which make our discussions so interesting and fulfilling. If you level this in any way, where's the perfection and utopia then?