The Hunger Games, pt. 3: What is Normal?
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Are Humans an Example of Intelligent Life?
When trying to determine if a common human behavior or belief system makes any sense, I find it helpful to go with the alien test. So imagine that aliens from another solar system or galaxy have come to earth looking for intelligent life. I would assume, given the fact that they were able to get here in the first place, that they had achieved a level of intelligence and technological development far beyond our own. They would likely, therefore, have a high capacity for common sense and reason. And because they were outsiders, they would be completely free of any of our ingrained, cultural biases that form the lens through which we humans view reality. In other words, they would not be conditioned to accept any of our various conceptions of “normal.”
After looking around for a while, these aliens would notice some disturbing things. Many of these humans, for instance, willingly ingest, snort, or inhale toxic, addictive substances into their bodies. In some cultures, people see it as normal or natural to destroy a female adolescent’s capacity to enjoy sex through a process of genital mutilation. And in societies that see themselves as more liberated regarding “women’s issues,” women (and sometimes males of the species) willingly subject themselves to expensive, painful, and sometimes grotesque procedures to alter their bodies in order achieve some arbitrary definition of beauty. Throughout the world, humans find a variety of ways to subdivide themselves on the basis of skin tone, tribal affiliation, or religious faction, fearing, hating, or even killing members of other groups with whom they have had very little, meaningful interaction. And in spite of achieving a certain level of philosophic and scientific development, many humans accept their cultures ancient myths as if they are literal, historical truths. Clearly, they would see this as a planet far from achieving true intelligence, and they would quickly move on to the next solar system in search of higher orders of life.
We humans have a remarkable capacity to accept some strange ideas, behaviors, and social conventions as perfectly normal. In “The Hunger Games,” the reader is presented with a future, fictional world that demonstrates this capacity. The Hunger Games, an annual battle to the death between children selected from each of this country’s twelve districts, is sort of a mixture of reality television and the Super Bowl. Like reality television, these children are engaged in a compelling drama in which the television audience picks sides and becomes personally attached to the various characters involved. And like the Super Bowl, it is a national holiday with a rich and compelling history that plays a major part in measuring the annual cycle of people’s lives. Sure, it is a gruesome battle to the death. But if this gruesome battle is played out year after year on each family’s television set, it can over time become perfectly natural and normal. And given the rampant inequality between the people of the Capitol and those in (most of) the twelve districts, residents of the Capitol could easily write off the “tributes” in the arena as somewhat lesser orders of life anyway.
If you were to ask the fictional people of Panem why this annual ritual occurred, they would repeat the generic answer ingrained in them by the state: the games were instituted after the violent rebellions that occurred decades before, and without the games, the “troubles” would return. Few, however, would likely ask themselves how the ritualized murder of children could play a vital role in maintaining social order. And if they did truly explore this question, they would probably be uncomfortable with the answer. For by demonstrating each year that it was willing to take two children from each district and send them off for slaughter, the state annually reinforced the message that it would do whatever is necessary to maintain order. So as people in the real world typically do when it comes to political and religious beliefs, the average citizens of the Capitol accepted the official state explanation without giving it much thought. If you hear something enough times, after all, is starts to make sense. And as humans have consistently displayed throughout history, we have the capacity to do or believe just about anything.
Of course, there is always the possibility that those aliens would not write us off as completely hopeless. There have always been people, after all, speaking out against all forms of human injustice and foolishness. And “The Hunger Games,” even more than it is the story of a brutal, irrational society of the future, is a story of people rising up to create a better world. Unfortunately, it took a horrific war to bring about any change. And when the third book ends, it is not clear if this fictional society’s newfound peace can be sustained, and if humanity had finally learned the lesson that war and injustice basically suck. But the fact that there are people out there who see through the foolishness and can dream of a better world indicates that our species may have some capacity for empathy and reason. So if those aliens have already dropped by and decided to move on to other planets, they may be wise to come back in a few centuries to see if we have made any progress. We humans might not, after all, be a completely lost cause.