According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word dystopia originally meant “displacement of an organ.” But the word, based on our current understanding as an “imaginary bad place”, was first used in a speech by J.S. Mill in 1868.
That this word is so young surprises me a great deal, because human beings have always been rather good at imagining the worst. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a dystopia as “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.” We’ve been either living such lives, or imagining them, for many centuries, it seems.
Thanks to our current pandemic, we are all definitely living fearful lives, and for those who are unable to work, life is becoming increasingly wretched. But have we become dehumanized? We have if you’re craving dried beans, toilet paper, or Purell, I suppose.
But I’m encouraged by the many ways we’ve come up with to remain connected to one another. I’m impressed that so many people are making some noise, every night, to thank health care workers. I love the number of people who are behaving responsibly by staying home and by wearing masks in public. I think, if anything, we’re more human than ever before.
I’ve always enjoyed reading dystopian novels. I like to be reminded about how good I have it, relatively speaking. It’s gratifying to see how resourceful people can be when they have to struggle to survive. I must admit, though, that I haven’t been able to appreciate this genre quite as much lately. Things are getting a little too real.
But I have to believe, for my own sanity if for nothing else, that we’re not in a dystopia yet. Our infrastructures are relatively intact. We have access to good information if we employ a bit of critical thinking. We may not always be able to eat exactly what we would like, but we definitely have access to food. Sane people haven’t felt the need to board up their windows and spend all their waking hours clutching shotguns. We still have Netflix.
We may be forever changed when we come out the other side of this, but I truly believe the majority of us will, indeed, come out the other side of this. Hopefully we’ll have learned how to better cope with the next crisis as a result.